Melville on the Plains or Shakespeare with spurs and six-shooters.
I am going to depart from my usual commentary on writers as they are portrayed on film to bear witness to the 60th anniversary of perhaps the greatest ‘western’ ever made, The Searchers. I have watched this film over 60 times. It has become an obsession of mine. Not for the first time am I admitting that I am one of those people who must watch certain movies over and over and over and over again. The genre doesn’t matter: e.g. Aliens, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Anatomy of a Murder, Niagara… the list goes on. As far as cowboy movies go, The Searchers is at the top of my list. I have the DVD right by my computer, and I will be watching it again, once I finish writing, which will make the fifth time this year.
There are so many things I love about this film. There are so many memorable lines like: “We be Texicans,” “I ain’t cut out to be no old maid,” and “Put an ‘Amen’ to it,” courtesy of Alan LeMay’s novel from which Frank S. Nugent crafted a tight, suspenseful, nuanced script that tackles everything from the aftermath of the Civil War to racism to the genocide of the American Indian, as well as miscegenation and rape. In fact, the most fearsome element of the film is the racism of the main character Ethan Edwards, who thinks “…the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
John Wayne, as Ethan Edwards, gives one of the best performances of a lifetime, especially during the scene where he has witnessed something so horrible he falls off his horse, stumbles into the sand and starts stabbing the ground with his knife. We, the audience, can feel tears welling up in him; tears that will never be spilled. When asked what happened to his coat he can just choke out the words indicating he’s left it back in the canyon, and nothing or no one can ever make him go back there again — ever. Not only Wayne’s role, but each role is rendered with such authenticity and naturalness (with the possible exception of Chief Scar) that at moments it seems like a documentary and not a big budget Hollywood movie. Each time I watch this I am grateful that authentic Native Americans were cast as extras.
But this is the kind of realism director John Ford is famous for, having cut his teeth during the silent film era as well as having directed a slew of documentaries during WWII.
The Searchers is peopled with Ford’s stock company; actors and actresses he used in a multiplicity of films such as, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Hank Worden and Harry Carey, Jr. (whose real-life mother, Olive portrays his mother in The Searchers). The Careys are not the only family connection in the film. Natalie Wood plays the kidnapped Debbie Edwards (the focus of her Uncle Ethan’s search). Her sister Lana Wood portrays Debbie as a little girl. John Wayne’s son, Patrick has a small role as newbie frontier soldier Lt. Greenhill. These brilliant casting touches make the film even more memorable, but it’s the character that doesn’t get any real billing that is the real star: Monument Valley.
Situated on the Arizona/Utah Border near the Four Corners where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet, Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Nation’s Tribal Park. It’s the landscape we, the audience, think of when we think of American Westerns. This is due in large part to John Ford’s repeated utilization of Monument Valley, which he really needed for The Searchers, because this narrative is like Melville on the Plains or Shakespeare with spurs and six-shooters, and only this landscape could contain such an epic, sweeping story populated with these large iconic characters. Why The Searchers was not even nominated for one Academy Award, I’ll never know. Well, I’m going to have to wrap this up so I can watch it again. Happy Anniversary you wonderful film!