Thursday, November 19, 2009

Movie Notes: The Searchers (1956)

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.


The Pagan Temple said...

I know what you mean by the comparison, in that today, filmmakers don't seem content to make a point, they seem to have to hammer it in over and over again, like they have to make sure you get the point.

I'm not so sure though if this was the intention of filmmakers like Ford. I am wondering if they even saw a problem with racism, or even if they recognized it as such. Maybe the Fords of forty and fifty years ago saw things pretty much like the men represented by Ethan Edwards in this film saw things.

While it seems obvious to us, it might come as a great surprise to them. After all, if they couldn't see the problem, why should they bother to hide it, justify it, or sugarcoat it?

Even more importantly, if they couldn't see the problem, how COULD they hide it? It's just as much a part of their own landscape as it would have been back then, just they way things were done and the way things were seen.

I don't know if what I'm saying here even makes any sense, to tell you the truth.

The Pagan Temple said...

Okay, I'll give you an example, using your point about the camera angle during the cavalry charge, and the abrupt shift to Ethan scalping the Comanche chief.

To us today, as we see that, even if we can understand it and justify it in context of the girl's abduction, we might draw back and say, wow, that's pretty brutal.

Audiences of the day when it was released would probably be inclined to stand up and cheer.

Rufus said...

One thing to remember is that in the 50s people saw movies on The Big Screen, which meant that subtle acting moves were quite easily read. There's a scene in which Wayne glares at his nephew over the table, for example, that's really easy to miss if you watch it on a television set. But it's also really important for the larger story.

The storyline actually makes the racism a focus in that we're on edge for half the film about whether or not he's going to kill his niece when he finds her for "living with a buck". Interestingly, there's a girl romantic interest who expresses the exact same sentiment- that it's better she be killed than live after miscegenation- in the film. What this does is to clear up the idea that maybe Wayne thinks this way because he's out for revenge. Instead, he thinks this way because people in that time and place thought that way.

I don't think Ford agreed- I can't think of any other Western from that time that dealt with racism and even, in an oblique way, with genocide. But I think his point was that people in that time and place were racist and there's no reason to hide that. So I think the reason he didn't try to sugarcoat it was because it really was a part of life in the Old West.

Incidentally, I just found a really interesting review by Roger Ebert that discusses the film:

Brian Dunbar said...

I am wondering if they even saw a problem with racism, or even if they recognized it as such.

I don't think you're giving the people of that era enough credit, or allowing for a shift in time.

There were big diffs between the 19th century frontier, locked in mortal combat, and their grand and great-grand children in comfortable mid-20th century liberal society.

One can, if one looks, see all kinds of subtle digs at racism in movies made in that era. Example: 'Face in the Crowd'. In a small-town jail in Arkansas, everyone is in the same big jail. Except the lone black man who is in a segregated cell. When the sheriff wants him to sing ('C'mon, sing for the radio') he declines with a dignified comment about how just 'cause he's black doesn't mean he's going to sing.

That bit comes and goes real quick - faster than it takes to read the description - but it really jumped up and poked me in the eye.

The Pagan Temple said...


I was talking about the average person of the day, not every single person alive. Hell, everybody (well, almost everybody) was sickened by the Emmett Till tragedy, but a good many of them were still instilled with the same attitudes that helped make that happen, and most of them didn't really get that. It was just like the air, you breathe it in and exhale, otherwise you don't think that much about it.

If it hadn't been for Till, and other incidents, including Brown v Board of Education, it would have still been there, just not in the public consciousness. But those things brought it to people's attention, and in some cases it didn't engender a positive response. A lot of reactionary, defensive things happened as a result.

As for the Indians, it was easy to view them by this time with less anxiety. They weren't exactly the burning issue of the day, so people could look at them more objectively, and even recognize positive qualities, many of which weren't exactly any more realistic than the former "Indians are all savages" mindset.

Even so, it wasn't common for the average person to view the history of the Indian Wars or Indian-American relations in general, in an even-handed way. Not many white people considered that white people might have been greatly or even in small part to blame for the hostilities. The accepted version was canon. But there was a gradual progression in attitudes. There always is.

Fifty or sixty years from now, people will view Muslims in the same way, if things work out well for us. If conservative, orthodox Muslims in general are talking by then about all the good positive contributions made by western civilization, that might not necessarily bode well.

Rufus said...

I'd sort of disagree about the Indians. I don't know how average folks saw them, but in every Western I've seen from that era, they're pretty much screaming savages. In this movie, they sort of are too- at least the raiding party and their vicious chief Scar are shown as being fairly malevolent. But, what's unique in my experience is showing the hero's response as equally vicious. In another great scene, Wayne goes a bit nuts and tries to kill an entire buffalo herd in order to starve the Indians- it's extreme, but it's also really historically accurate, sad to say. An interesting comparison to Wayne's character (I think Ebert makes it) is to Robert deNiro in Taxi Driver. Again it's a lonely white man who enacts great violence in an obsession with saving a white woman from what he sees as sexual contamination.

As for blacks, I'd agree with Brian that the average person's feelings were probably more nuanced than we recognize today. My grandfather could say some pretty insensitive things about African Americans, and was probably worse in the 50s. On the other hand, he quite quietly and without any fuss gave hundreds of dollars worth of school supplies and sporting equiptment to the local black elementary school because he thought it shameful that they were so underfunded.

So, people are complex and often I think the loudest shouting voices get more attention than anyone else, which can skew our later perceptions.

The Pagan Temple said...

I don't mean to imply that everyone just hated them unequivocally. Of course there were well-meaning people like your grandfather who did things like that, out of a sincere desire to help. But at the end of the day, given the right set of circumstances, the different races had their place, so to speak. It is telling that the men who murdered Emmett Till were all acquitted by the white jury in their trial, even though it was obvious they were guilty of committing a horrible atrocity.

I would love to read the transcripts of that trial, because I would almost be willing to bet that something there happened to make the jurors, as well as the spectators, feel as though not only were the defendants on trial, but they themselves were on trial, or more precisely, their way of life and society was on trial. As such, how could they objectively be expected to come to a guilty verdict?

Did that mean the jurors or anybody else during the trial looked at the defendants as heroes? Did they invite them over the following Sunday for a fried chicken dinner? I find that very doubtful. They probably would have been more inclined to grab their children by the hand and lead them hurriedly down the street if they met them on the sidewalk. But that probably didn't change the fact that they felt they were absolving themselves of some degree of responsibility by that verdict, albeit on some unconscious level.

I wouldn't read too much into the buffalo scene, or other violent encounters during the film. Remember, these kinds of films catered to audiences that liked and expected violence, and these kinds of films met that demand. You wouldn't expect any different from a John Wayne film of this era, any more than you would expect to go to a Freddie Krueger movie and view a cerebral, thoughtful film exploring the nightmare process. You would not expect to see this kind of movie that treated the Indian conflicts of the prior century in an even-handed way.

It's possible, just possible mind you, that the "red man" might have been used as a symbol of the "red man" of the nineteen hundreds, ie, the communist menace, known to be a major John Wayne focus as well.

People were greatly encouraged to be patriotic at this time, almost everybody loved westerns at this point, so what better device to use to instill patriotic values by substituting one "red menace" for another. I bet if you looked hard enough, you could even find reference to a proto-communist lifestyle within Indian tribes in these movies.

Brian Dunbar said...

Fifty or sixty years from now, people will view Muslims in the same way, if things work out well for us. If conservative, orthodox Muslims in general are talking by then about all the good positive contributions made by western civilization, that might not necessarily bode well.

I don't understand what you mean by that last bit.

Rufus said...

I don't quite understand that bit either.

And, as my life's work is writing a history of Western Civilization, I have to say that I generally find it hard to exclude the dar al-Islam from what I consider to be the "West". The decision to separate the two, even though there's a Muslim country in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and a surprising amount of cultural exchange given the religious wars, seems to me to be based on an equation of Europe with Christendom, which is sort of true, but not the entire truth. As a pagan, you likely know that other religions (including Islam) are a big part of the Western story, and Europe plays a big part in the story of Islam. And, given the supposed "clash of civilizations", it's noticeable that the majority of their time together has been spent in relative detente.

The Pagan Temple said...

All I meant was that it's easy to see positive attributes in a society or a culture when you no longer view them as a threat, or as a menace, to your own culture and way of life. Many times, unfortunately, that only happens once you have defeated the offending perceived menace. Nobody back in the days of the old west viewed the Indians in a positive light, or at least the vast majority of people did not.

They were considered a threat, so they were "bloodthirsty savages", who should be either killed or herded onto reservations. Once the danger was long past, people began seeing the positive attributes, and saw Indians in general in a more balanced view.

Thus, if Muslims see us in some future time in a positive light, it might mean only that they have supplanted us to such an extent, we are no longer perceived as a threat to them.

Mind you, I don't necessarily think that is going to happen, I was just using that as an example.

Brian Dunbar said...

On your suggestion, I watched it. Dang, that is a good movie.


The setting was supposed to be the Staked Plains and up around Dallas. Which doesn't look like that Monument Valley. But that's okay - the landscape is an uncredited character in this film and it works.

When Laurie reads Martin's letter she seems to be 'ok' with the notion of him taking a wife - until she reads the bit about her being a squaw. Then she goes off high and to the right. Whoa, lady: racist much?

To the actual people of the time Ethan's feelings may not have been racism. You gotta acknowledge they're people first, and people in frontier Texas at the time seemed to have felt the 'Comanche' were sub-human. I know a lady who is a historian and western-fiction writer: I should ask her.

This film would look a lot better on a big screen: on my laptop it lost something.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I sort of wish there were more theaters that showed these old movies. When they were thinking in terms of the Big Screen, they really used the whole frame. And there's a lot of visual information in there. I also love how we get the point that he's in love with his sister-in-law purely by visual cues. It's never mentioned in the dialogue.