On the recommendation of Caitlin (because, spoiler alert, this may well show up in a podcast later), I picked up the John Ford-directed The Searchers, which is only my 3rd or 4th John Wayne movie. I’m still working out how I feel about it, so this will be one of the more rambly, unsure posts. Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a hardened Confederate veteran who’s mysteriously been away for years since the war ended.
He comes home to his brother’s family on an isolated farm and almost immediately they’re attacked by a vengeful tribe of Comanche Indians, with the brother and his wife killed and their two daughters kidnapped. Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), the family’s adopted orphan son, gather several townspeople together to search for the missing girls, but these men all either die or give up. The two remaining men’s quest turns into a multi-year struggle that takes them across the American West, with Martin trying to somehow control Ethan’s often cruel actions.
This is a very harsh film. Wayne’s character is downright mean and unlikable, but annoyingly he’s usually right so you sort of have to side with him. There’s a rawness to the interactions between most of the characters that makes it difficult to really get a grip on the film when coupled with several moments of levity and tenderness. I’m also not crazy about the pacing- the story spans several years but there is little indication of time passing and it seems so unlikely that these men have been trekking around for that amount of time. It feels long, and it can be a little boring at times.
However, The Searchers still manages to be a really interesting movie about the consequences of obsession and revenge. The script subtly works complexities into its characters and tries to honestly explore the relationship between white settlers and Native Americans during the period of western expansion following the Civil War. There are definitely some racist/ignorant themes, but for a movie from the 50’s it could have been much worse. The film does show them as humans- just weird ones- and often focuses more on the brutality of white men: there are several shots of slaughtered Indian villages but few reminders of white people dying at Indian hands, and Wayne’s violent outbursts stand in contrast against most of the Indian characters’ calmness.
I guess I’m still unsure how I feel about this movie. Dang. It’s certainly smart, with a multi-layered story and some great performances from Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, and Vera Miles (who is awesome in her sadly limited role). But as a whole it’s slightly unsettling, with a mean, alienating undercurrent and general Native American stereotyping. For now I remain in the middle, but we’ll see if I’m able to formulate a stronger opinion during the podcast discussion!