This is a touchy movie to talk about in today’s world.
Old westerns are particularly notorious for some overtly racist views, maybe the most infamous example being D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – the first real feature film, the most influential cinematic achievement of its time, and a capsule containing some dangerously unabashed depictions of the Ku Klux Klan.
Now, I haven’t seen it, so I’m in no position to judge how distastefully it holds up, but that movie came out 40 years before John Ford’s The Searchers.
I think Roger Ebert brings up a good point in his own review of the movie:
While Griffith seemed to be operating under an instinctive, oblivious racism, Ford and Wayne are purposefully exploring the hatred some people, maybe the entire country, felt towards certain others.
Because Wayne as Ethan Edwards is truly a hateful man.
He is on a path for murder, not only of the Comanche tribe that killed and burned his brother’s family, but the youngest daughter who has grown up in their midst.
He considers her defiled by her captors and that her death would be for her benefit.
So: this is the first Ford picture I’ve seen and I believe it definitively captures the American landscape; I don’t just mean the sun-blazed cliffs and harsh potential buried beneath the ground –
What I mean are its morals, its trailblazing mindset, its larger-than-life heroes and villains with clear cut codes that each live by and die for.
The western is an interesting genre because it very obviously changes over time.
You can see how shifting ideals are reflected onto that same rocky terrain, and John Ford is the face of that change.
Him and Wayne made 14 movies together, each exploring a different facet of the American western.
I’m sure those who had grown up watching the noble John Wayne defeat the bad guys were surprised to see him now consumed with loathing.
But for me, watching this movie 60 something years later, and being familiar with these lonely obsessive protagonists (think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, which was actually inspired by The Searchers), I’m able to understand the moral blindness that Wayne’s character is experiencing.
His awful goal is questioned the whole time by his younger sidekick Martin as he constantly begs for the girl’s life to be spared.
So it’s not as one-note as it could have been.
Most importantly, the whole film is building to one moment:
And the choice Edwards makes in that moment encapsulates everything Ford is trying to say.
At least that’s what I believe …
Which is why I consider it a perfect movie.
From a technical view, it’s masterfully done.
The blocking, pacing, mirroring of the beginning and end – all are simply the best.
Just like the story, there’s no added fluff.
You see exactly what needs to be seen.
I lied, maybe there are some goofy moments that detract from the main storyline, but they do add to the movie’s character.
This is a looming statement in cinema history, and its base simplicity makes it hard for one not to keep looking on in awe.