monday, february 04, 2008

The Searchers

Few films carry as much symbolic baggage as The Searchers. Its reputation as one of the greatest films of its genre stands in an uneasy juxtaposition with the fact it’s effect is to undermine the most treasured tenets of the classic Western.

It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of director John Ford that he could create a film with all the requisite mythos and, at the same time, make a movie that addressed issues much deeper and darker. While the story travels long the lines of the typical tale from the American west The Searchers twists the narrative for its own ends.

The tale of Ethan Edwards unrelenting odyssey of vengeance stands as one of the most influential in American film. The man’s five-year search for Indian tribe that kidnapped his niece and his possible intentions to slay the girl for becoming part of their society has resonated far beyond the popularity of the genre that created it.

By the time Ford made The Searchers he had almost 40 years of filmmaking experience under his belt and more than 120 movies to his directing credit. He was a master craftsman but he knew well how to turn a well made product into something much more.

The director, perhaps, reached the pinnacle of the Western genre in 1939 with Stagecoach – a film that defined the career of the actor now most closely associated with Ford’s work, John Wayne. The two films form an intricate web of parallels that bolster the power of the latter tremendously (not the least being the Monument Valley setting) but it’s important to remember they differ dramatically in terms of their standing to the genre.

In Stagecoach the story is told from inside the Western using the conventions of the genre to a masterful degree. The Searchers, in contrast, steps outside the genre and subverts it by telling a story where the usual conventions are twisted and barely recognizable.

It’s revisionist by virtue of the fact it is revisiting the symbols of the genre in a new way but it certainly isn’t a “realistic” version. Both The Searchers and Stagecoach tell their true story as a moral allegory with little regard to the factual standing of the history of the old West.

Ethan Edwards isn’t a heroic or dashing protagonist. He’s a surly irksome bastard and completely unapologetic about it. There is little to like about him except for his authority and powerful self-possession (and the not insignificant charisma Wayne brings to the table).

There is no real moral ambiguity to the Ringo Kid while Ethan Edwards is almost nothing but. He’s not above shooting three men in the back when the opportunity arises and, when he gets his money declares “We did alright.”

The passion of the man is buried with the destruction of his family, allowing his hatred to rampage freely just beneath the stoic surface. The anger in his eyes is barely held in control by his jutted jaw. Every word he speaks is filled with spite and enmity.

Ethan’s true motivations are purposefully left vague but Ford places some clues throughout The Searchers. The tombstone in the graveyard where the young girl is abducted from offers a clue. It marks where Ethan’s mother is buried and reveals she was killed in by Comanche Indians sixteen years before.

To survive in the relentless chaos of the frontier he lives by a Hammerabiesque moral code that harks back to the Old Testament. Despite that, he has little use of religion. He abandons the ceremony of his own faith to pick up the path of vengeance but, shortly after, ruthlessly violates the beliefs of his foe.

In the end he is unrelenting. His sense of justice and vengeance are absolute. As his explanation of his relentless devotion to his quest attests:

“Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth.”

Yet Ford does not forget to add a distinctive human element to the man. There is an almost completely unspoken passion between Ethan and Martha, his brother’s wife. Ford never says it overtly. He shows it through glances, unfinished lines and subtle hints. But the weight of it clearly holds the big man to the ground.

In later interviews, Wayne clamed Ford was hinting that Ethan had actually had an affair with his brother’s wife. It’s an interesting idea since it shades his intent to kill Debbie with a disturbing aspect of filicide.

Yet, for the moral weight of the story the fact that his love for his sister-in-law was requited or not doesn’t change much.It is clear he is devastated by her loss and it is the catalyst of his odyssey for vengeance.

Ethan knows this and it’s clear in the expression on his face when he realizes his brother’s farm is likely the target of the Comanche attack. It’s a powerful but subtle bit of acting on Wayne’s part but he captures the pain and resolve in the single shot. It’s the beginning of a long and painful quest and he knows it.

The Searchers, according to the original tagline follows Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley ( Jeffery Hunter) “from the great southwest to the Canadian border.” But there is only one geographic title “Texas 1868” and almost all of the movie’s outdoor shots are in one place – Monument Valley, Arizona.

(Having been to Monument Valley it is a bit odd watching the film now for me. Having experienced it as a real place somehow pulls it out of the mythological realm it inhabits on the screen. It also happens to be a rather small location which plays against the impression of a vast journey these men must take.)

The Searchers stands in the land of mythos partly due to its particular setting. The monoliths of Monument Valley stand magnificently above the action like tombstones to the era passing. Five years pass on the quest and Ethan’s resolve is as stanch as the giant rocks but the world has inevitably passed him by.

The geographic backdrop sets the visual tone of the film but it’s what Ford does with it from there that makes The Searchers truly transcendent. The most famous scene of the film is the final shot of a solemn Ethan walking away from the Jorgensen home where he has brought his niece to at long last.

As the rest of the characters enter the house to take part in the community his actions have made possible he must remain outside. To make that world possible has been at the price of his own. His rigid ethical code has been broken and he must remain in the wilder environment of the frontier where it remains but the door closes firmly on it.

Mrs. Jorgenson understands this dilemma intuitively and tells Ethan as much when she explains their plight at Texicans (settlers in the contested territory between Texas and Mexico that became part of the state after the Mexican-American war).

“Texican is nothin' but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Some day, this country's gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”

The time had come and the fine good place to be was a land where the ethical code of the man way out on a limb is no longer relevant.

That final powerful shot packs an even greater punch when you see how Ford uses it throughout the entire film. The interior point of view with a darkened border looking out onto the world through an opening occurs at least four times in the movie and each one is a critical crossroad for Ethan.

The device, once again, echoes Ford’s filmmaking efforts in Stagecoach. In that film all of the sets were all made with ceilings (an uncommon practice at the time) in order to emphasize the feeling of being closed-in. It gave a vivid contrast to the wide-open expanse of the Monument Valley setting.

In The Searchers the blacking out of the sides of the camera’s view heightens that sense of claustrophobia even further and, interestingly, pushes the viewer away from the protagonist. You are inside watching him outside. Everywhere else the film invites you to sympathize more closely with the character.

The device begins The Searchers. After the title card the door opens to reveal the daylight and Martha walks onto the porch alone in a vast desert.

Ethan then rides up to the house out of the monoliths of the landscape to meet her. It is repeated when Ethan finds his family’s remains in the burnt-out woodshed. He holds the dress of his sister-in-law and must face the horror of his loss unprotected.

The third time it occurs is when he meets the object of his quest. He has finally found his niece and holds the power to either kill her or save her.

To this point there is a strange progression of decay or regression to the primitive in each scene. The first scene is from inside a rough home hewn of unfinished wood, the second from a rough shed destroyed by fire and the third a cave. It might be a parallel for the moral journey Ethan takes as his ethical code is stripped to its most basic elements by his fury.

All of which makes the refined porch of the Jorgenson’s home at the end contrast more dramatically when it is shown. Although the reason Ethan must walk away isn’t overtly explained, innately Ford makes it clear that it is the only possible outcome to the tale.

What is amazing about The Searchers is that the entire film is composed of such complex contrasting images. Another interesting juxtaposition of images Ford uses quite deftly are shots of women reacting to violence.

In the first, Lucy Edwards reacts in horror when she realizes the Indians are about to attack the home. The violence, particularly with it’s overtones of sexual assault, are wrapped up in this response.

In the second, Laurie Jorgensen reacts to the battle between her two suitors. She has pleaded with Ethan to stop the battle but he will not saying “You started it.” Her reaction, clearly, is delight. And, again, it is violence with sexual overtones in regards to her.

The first is a response to wild untamed violence where no control is possible. It represents a type of destruction. In the second, the violence is rigidly controlled by the community (all the men watching make sure they fight “fair”) and it is a source of catharsis for all involved.

But Ford shows that these are merely different perspectives on the same thing. It’s not a tough jump then to see the villain of the film, the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), in a different light as well. He claims his violence is just given the white men have slaughtered his own children. His moral code is as inflexible as Ethan’s and both know it.

But Martin’s isn’t and it is his growing awareness that takes The Searchers from the routine morality tale to something transcendent.

Martin’s own family was slain by Comanches and he’s part Indian himself. But he’s vastly different due to his ability to adapt to the new social code.

Faced with the truth of his mother’s murder – that she was slain by the man who holds his adopted sister captive – the boy refuses to allow the code to determine his conduct. Instead of acceding to Ethan’s course of action he refuses

“That don’t change it,” he yells at Ethan. “That don’t change NUTHIN”

For me, the most dramatic shot of The Searchers is the next scene where Martin heads off to try and rescue Debbie before the attack on the Indian camp. He’s held in the air by Ethan in the darkness and then drops into the unknown below.

Unlike his mentor, Martin has an ethical courage to face the unknown on his own. It’s is only possible due to the framework of the previous system of morals but it moves beyond it.

While Ethan’s moral framework comes from the Old Testament, Martin’s is of the New Testament. The path to salvation isn’t through suffering but through forgiveness. The rules that brought the community out of the wasteland have to change now the community has been established.

Ethan, somehow, understands. And when he finally confronts his niece he lifts her in the air as he did when she was a child and he does not let her touch the ground again.

posted by kleph @ 4:00 am |

comment posted by: mershanda on february 7, 2008 @ 10:28 am
I visit your website, i've been there in Monument Valley myself. Actually i lived there almost my entire life. My grandmother, told me she visit John Wayne. When she was younger. It surprised me. Well thats all i wanted to say. Good job.
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