According to the American Film Institute, this is the greatest Western of all time. I've never been especially fond of Westerns, which tend to have a bit too much dust and drawl for my tastes. So, I can't say how John Ford's film The Searchers fits into the pantheon of Western movies. However, I'd imagine it sits pretty highly. Not only is it a filmic poem to the creation of America; it's also clearly a masterpiece and probably the best movie John Wayne ever appeared in. It was also one of Ford's favorites of his own films, and given the relative perfection of the average John Ford movie, that's really saying something.
The film stars Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a veteran of the Confederate Army who returns home to Texas just in time to see his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew killed and their house burned down by a band of Comanches. Vowing to save his abducted nieces, Ethan sets out with a band after the raiding party. His nephew wants to bring back
his sisters alive, but we start to realize that Ethan would rather they were killed now that they have been contaminated by the Comanches. In order to save the girls, he won't just have to overcome the elements and the Indians; he'll also have to overcome his own racism.
I've never really been a John Wayne fan either; he strikes me as more of an enunciator than an actor. But, here, what becomes obvious is that his performances
are really defined by his restrained economy of physical behaviors. He conveys loneliness by holding his arm, he conveys shock and horror by digging in the dirt with a knife; he gets across more with very slight actions than most actors do by chewing the scenery. I think that what I always saw as Wayne's limited range is really a dead-on portrayal of the emotional repression of his characters. The characters barely know how to express themselves and Wayne conveys their stoicism through limited expression.
This style works well for Ford who is a supremely visual filmmaker. It is easy to imagine The Searchers as a silent film. In the same way that Wayne conveys more without dialogue than he does through words, Ford conveys a great amount of setting,
character, and subtext with how he frames his shots and when he deploys them. The first shot of the film, in which the camera passes through the open door of a house to the frontier beyond, is famous and has been referenced in many films. There's also a wonderful close-up of Wayne, in which we know that he is aware that his family members are elsewhere being assaulted simply by his expression and the fact that this is his first close-up something like 25 minutes into the film. My favorite shot, however, is a raid on an Indian village in which the camera is racing alongside the cavalry. It's a thrilling shot and Ford immediately undermines its heroism by showing Wayne kneeling to scalp the native chief.
What to make of Ethan Edwards? He is a hero who fights to restore order to hearth and home; and he's also almost pathologically racist. There's something very honest about the film, though- his racism is almost part of the scenery through most of the movie. It fades into a historical background in which it most likely would have been overlooked. With modern eyes, we can't miss it, and finally it's central to the climax of the film. I think Ford is trying to tell the full story of the old west- the heroism and grit of the frontiersmen, but also the fact that making the country meant taking it from the people who lived there. And the people who did so did generally see the people they took it from as savages. So, it's true to life, but it's also very understated. I don't know how many viewers see the film as being about racism at all, or how many did at the time. It's amazing to me, when I watch older films, how deeply their directors trust the audience to pick up on nuance. Not so today.
And maybe the racism is just one more detail in what amounts to a poem about the creation of the United States. There's so much going on in this film, from grand sweeping landscapes and scenes of violence to very tiny bits of acting. But the hero's racism is a detail that adds a bit of darkness to the story, and causes it to resonate more deeply.