I watched The Searchers on the tv last weekend. Or to be more precise, I watched it on DVD having missed the daytime television showing. It is now generally recognised as one of the Best Westerns, if not the best American films ever made. Number 10 in a list of the 100 Best Films ever according to the Cahiers du Cinéma in 2008. Although it was a commercial success when it came out in 1956, I don’t remember it gaining such recognition. But I was only 12 at the time !
I think I first saw the film at school, at CH, one Saturday evening in the late 1950s. Films were shown in Big School, a big barn of a building otherwise used for concerts, school plays, Speech Day etc. There was no heating as I recall. And we were encouraged to take blankets with us. There were four film nights in the autumn and spring terms; but no films in the summer. Probably because there was no way of blacking out the light. I don’t know who chose the films. Or what the criteria were. There certainly wasn’t any Brigitte Bardot stuff. I remember seeng a 1949 Marx Brothers film called Love Happy. [Wikipedia tells me that there was a walk-on part by the unknown Marilyn Monroe. Which I don’t recall.] And a rather unfunny 1959 Boulting Brothers film called Carleton-Browne of the FO, starring Ian Carmichael. And I think we saw Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys. And a 1954 film called Knock on Wood, memorable only because Danny Kaye played a ventriloquist with a dummy called Clarence. Which happened to be the name of the Headmaster – Clarence Milton Edwards Seaman. Known to his family and friends, but not to us, as George.
For those who don’t know The Searchers is a an epic technicolour Western directed by the great John Ford. Based on a book of the same name by Alan Le May. The setting is western Texas in the 1860s. The film opens with the return of Ethan Edwards, returning after eight years away fighting with the Confederates in the Civil War and in the Mexican Wars. He returns to the isolated homestead of his brother, Aaron, and his sister-in-law, Martha, and their three children. Soon afterwards Ethan is recruited by the Revd Samuel Clayton, part-time preacher, and Captain in the Texas Rangers, to go in pursuit of an Comanche raiding party. In their absence the Comanches raid the homestead. The adults and their son Ben are killed and scalped, the buildings are burnt down, and the two girls, Debbie and Lucy, aged 8 and 12, are abducted.
For the greater part of the film Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, goes in search of the girls, assisted only by Martin Pawley, their part-Indian adopted brother. Ethan Edwards is laconic, a loner, a misfit, good with a gun. Marty is younger, and vulnerable. As the years go by the search becomes a desperate obsession. They find the body of the older girl, Lucy, brutally murdered and presumably raped, but her younger sister is reported as being still alive living among the Indians.
After five years they trace Debbie, now an adolescent, to New Mexico, where she is living as a Comanche, as one of the wives of a chief called Scar. There is now a powerful tension between Ethan and Marty. Ethan believes that Lucy has been defiled, contaminated, by her living as an Indian squaw. He would rather see her dead than living as an Indian, and his plan is to kill her. But Marty wants only to rescue her and to take her home. The two men come to blows. Marty shields Lucy with his body, Ethan is wounded by an Indian arrow, and the Comanches make their escape.
Meanwhile back at home, at the Jorgensen ranch, Laurie Jorgensen, Marty’s long-standing and long-suffering girl-friend starts to lose hope. Finally a letter arrives telling how Marty has [inadvertently] bought and married a young Indian squaw. Which pushes Laurie into the arms of Charlie McCorry.
After years away Ethan and Marty return in the midst of Laurie’s and Charlie’s wedding celebrations. Marty and Laurie are reunited. At which point Ethan’s half-crazy friend, Mose Harper, reports that Scar and his band of Comanches have been located. Captain Clayton leads his men on a direct attack on the Comanche camp. Martin is allowed to sneak in ahead of the assault to find Debbie. Martin kills Scar, and Ethan scalps him.
The ending is powerful. Lucy is brought home to the homestead of the Jorgensens, the Swedish-American couple. Marty and Laurie are finally together again. But as the door of the homestead closes, Ethan is left on the outside. A man on his own. With a gun. But with an uncertain future.
Not everyone liked the film. Some critics thought that the romantic sub-plot, Laurie and Marty and Charlie, and the almost comic accent of the Jorgensens, detracted from the main story line. More importantly, there is something profoundly unattractive about the racism of Ethan; for whom native Americans are simply an inferior species. He is seemingly less interested in rescuing Debbie than he is in wreaking vengeance on the Comanches for the slaughter of his brother’s family. [One of the unclear sub-themes is the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law, Martha. Could it be, as some have suggested, that Debbie is not his niece but his own daughter ?]
And miscegenation is another theme that runs through the film. Near the beginning Martin gets a very disapproving look from Ethan when he admits that he is one-eighth Cherokee. Even the gentle Laurie tells Martin: “Ethan will put a bullet in her brain.I tell you Martha would want him to”.
When I was a bit younger John Wayne was extremely unfashionable. We thought he was a simple, right-wing, gun-toting Republican. Good only for playing cowboys and Green Berets. But this is one of his great roles. “Wayne is plainly Ahab“, wrote one critic. “He is the good American hero driving himself past all known limits and into madness, his commitment to honour and decency burned down to a core of vengeance.” And the character, and his performance, undoubtedly influenced a later generation of American cinematic loners.
The other great star of the film is Monument Valley, on the edge of Utah and Arizona. Which I was thrilled to see on our one-and-only trip across the States in 2016. When we had lunch an a Navajo restaurant. And the opportunity to see the trailer in which John Wayne slept during the making of his movie. [Unfortunately I can’t at the moment find the photos; so instead here is a photo of the nearby Gooseneck Canyon, Utah.] I was so impressed by the film that I nearly bought a biography of Wayne in an excellent bookshop in Denver. But then I thought – there are limits.
For those who like to know these things, it was after the film was shown in Lubbock, Texas, that John Wayne’s repeated line ‘That’ll be the day’ became the inspiration for the Buddy Holly track That’ll be the day that I die.