Sunday, March 9, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: The Searchers

Watching the Oscars last week, with its "Heroes" theme, I noticed that they included John Wayne in one of the montages. Not just John Wayne, but specifically Wayne in the character of Ethan Edwards from The Searchers (no, really, folks, you can tell John Wayne characters from other John Wayne characters—you watch enough films, or even if you have a brain in your head other than a prejudice, you can tell the so-called "one trick pony" Wayne from one movie to another).

To use the oft-quoted lazy writer's stand-by: "You just don't get it, do you?"

There is no way—NO. way.—that Ethan Edwards can be considered a hero. To do so would indicate that one has not seen The Searchers, and is only going by Wayne's top-billing in the film and the tradition that Wayne, no matter what kind of complicated character he was playing, was always going to be just one thing:  the "Good Guy." This is not lazy acting on Wayne's part. This is lazy thinking on the part of the viewer, writer or critic (who should know better) ...and the twerp who put that montage together.

"The John Wayne character" (for those who insist on using that term) in The Searchers is (and was intended to be) a racist, murderous blowhard former Confederate soldier, who has one non-saving grace—the love of his brother's wife, and even that fuels his years-long obsessive search for her last surviving child...and (if that should sound all warm and fuzzy) with the express intent to kill her, rather than have her live as an "injun squaw." He has one moment of redemption in the film (so powerful that Jean-Luc Godard who loathed Wayne, wrote in Cahiers Du Cinema: "How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him the last reel of The Searchers?" But, even director John Ford doesn't allow that moment to re-define the man, or redeem him, leaving him shut out ('til the end of the movie, anyway) from the welcoming arms of family.

Maybe it was just sloppy vetting that they chose THAT character (when they were probably looking for "a youngish Wayne as a cowboy" image), or maybe they've never seen the film. Who knows?  But, in a year when 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture, they chose to include as a "hero" one of the few Wayne characters who might actually wield the lash. But, then The Searchers has always had this problem: Ford cast his biggest star and an American icon as the "heavy," and for whatever reason, nobody can equate the two. Wayne was careful to avoid any such complications for the rest of his career. But, this was the best acting of his career—a tight-rope where he had to balance the Wayne persona and the dictates of a script that required a tough character arc.  

Maybe someone should alert the Academy about this?*

The Set-up: A lot of "First People" died in John Ford "westerns." That's a fact. Obsessed as he was with telling stories of the building of America, and the conquering of the West, it was inevitable that the Native race was going to get ground up in the gears of the inexorable wagon trains invading their country, and they made for cinematic chases and shoot-em-up's—the kind of excitement that was the bread and butter of the silent B-westerns where Ford learned his craft. But Ford was a Roosevelt Democrat, and he saw things in the Photographic Unit of the Navy during World War II that changed him, just as it did Capra and Huston and Zanuck and Stevens. It was hard to drum up boyish enthusiasm for the necessary action scenes anymore when you saw the damage real bullets did. The movie stuff began to look like a lie.

So the tenor of Ford's movies began to change--an undercurrent that ran through them as the black-and-white blossomed into color. Sure, the Cavalry was the Good Guys, the Cowboys the heroes, the Whites came out on top, but the white hats they wore were not so white anymore. You began to see the dirt. The corruption. The greed. The cost. By the time Ford made The Searchers in 1955 with his old pal, the box office champ John Wayne, they returned to one of Ford's favorite locations despite the haul out to the Four Corners from Los Angeles and the baleful glare of the Studio muckety-muck's that Ford despised, but needed. They'd set up camp in Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation, for which the tribe would be compensated, the residents made extra's, the chief given a speaking part, maybe (if he could get it past the Suits and the part was minor enough), the young men did stunts and with that influx of cash the tribe would make it through another miserable winter in the hard-scrabble of the desert--and Ford would get a little authenticity in his story.

And he'd get Monument Valley, the biggest movie set in the World, as desolate as the moon. One look at its wind-seared escarpments that jut out of the ground like pre-historic high rises told you that life out there was hard, the distances vast and the chances slim. The Valley told you as much about the grit of the characters as the dialog did, more for the isolation that vast floor of dirt provided. Look at the painterly love Ford used in those long shots.

Look at The Searchers today and all you might see is an archaic "John Wayne Western" from the '50's, with the cute antics of the settlers, and the rapacious villainy of the Commanche, and melodramatic hysterics and low comedy. But you're not seeing John Ford's journey, the one that would lead him in the next decade to tell the story of the Trail of Tears, and make the Natives the almost saintly heroes of his Cheyenne Autumn (and they aren't, if one has taken the time to watch the film). You're not even seeing how Ford is starting to see the Native side of the story, and of the racism and genocide inherent in the "conquering of the West." Because this is "the White's" story, it is one of fear and hysterics, of race-hate and savage contempt, but the Destiny is not Manifest, and at one point one of the leads can look at a Native woman killed by the Cavalry (John Ford's beloved Cavalry) and say "What'd they kill her for, she never hurt anybody!" You didn't hear that much in the complacent westerns of the 50's. Nor the sex-hysteria over miscegenation.

But you might recognize the searing race-hatred of Ethan Edwards, embodied by an unreigned-in John Wayne. Wayne's the star of the picture, but he's not the hero. In many ways, he's the villain, the Other, the Outsider. In the gentility of trying to bring civilization to the West, he's as much an anomaly as the Natives, and his time as limited. The movie begins and ends with Edwards on the other side of the closed door of home and hearth. One would like that to mean that his type of hatred is something to be left out of Society, left to wander on the winds and shunned. One would like that.

That'll be the day.

The Story: Almost as soon as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a bitter veteran of the Civil War, visits his brother and sister-in-law, tragedy strikes the Edwards stake: a Commanche raid leaves the parents and son dead, and Lucy (Lana and, eventually, Natalie Wood) and Debbie Edwards (Pippa Scott) kidnapped. Now a vengeful Edwards leads Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter)—the Edwards' adopted son—and Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey, Jr.), Lucy's fiancee, on a search for the two girls. 

Mount up!

BRAD JORGENSON: They gotta stop sometime! If they're human men at all, they've gotta stop!
ETHAN EDWARDS: No, a human rides a horse until it dies, then he goes afoot. Commanche comes along and gets that horse up, rides him 20 more miles, then eats him. (watches Martin Pawley drinking from a canteen) Easy on that.
MARTIN PAWLEY: Sorry. We don't even know if Debby and Lucy's in this bunch. Maybe they split up.

EDWARDS: They're with 'em, alright--if they're still alive.
JORGENSON: You said that enough! Maybe Lucy's dead! Maybe they're both dead! But if I hear that from you again, I'll fight ya, Mr. Edwards!
EDWARDS: That'll be the day! 
EDWARDS: (gets on his horse) Spread out!
(Fade to later in the day)
PAWLEY: Found a main trail, but four of 'em cut out right here, and they rode on up through the pass there.
JORGENSON: How come they do that, Mr. Edwards?
EDWARDS: I'll take a look. Keep after the others.
PAWLEY: You want us to fire a shot just in case...
EDWARDS (cuts him off): No, nor build bonfires, nor beat drums! I'll meet you on the far side. Move!
He rides off.
Later, they wait for him on the other side, and Ethan rides hurriedly up and jumps unsteadily off his horse, throwing his rifle to the ground.
Agitated and silent, he sits and starts digging in the sand with his knife. PAWLEY: You want some water, Ethan?
Edwards grabs the canteen and drinks greedily,
Pawley and Jorgenson stare at him.
EDWARDS: Oh. The trail leads over there.
JORGENSON: Why'd they break off? Was there water in that canyon?
EDWARDS: No water.
PAWLEY: You all right, Ethan?
EDWARDS: I'm all right.
PAWLEY: Hey, what happened to your Johnny Reb coat? You lose it?
EDWARDS: Must have. 
EDWARDS: But I'm not goin' back for it.
They mount up and ride on.
Transition to night.
Pawley and Edwards are lying on the ground, keeping watch, when Jorgenson runs up to them.
JORGENSON: I found 'em!  JORGENSON: I found Lucy!  
JORGENSON: They're camped about a half mile over. I was just swinging back, and I seen their smoke. Bellied up a ridge, and there they was, right below me.
PAWLEY: Did you see Debbie?
JORGENSON: No, no. But I saw Lucy, all right. She was wearin' that blue dress that she--
EDWARDS: What you saw wasn't Lucy.
JORGENSON: Oh, but it was, I tell you.
EDWARDS: What you saw was a buck...wearin' Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat. Buried her with my own hands. Thought to keep it from you.
JORGENSON: Well, did they...w-w-was she--
EDWARDS (furiously): What do you want me to do, draw you a picture?! Spell it out?!
EDWARDS: Don't ever ask me! As long as you live, don't ever ask me more!
Jorgenson stares at him in disbelief and shock, then, hysterical... 
...runs to his horse .
PAWLEY: I'm awful sorry, Brad. 
PAWLEY: Hey, Brad! 
PAWLEY: Brad!...
Jorgenson rears his horse and starts to ride furiously towards the Commanche camp. Pawley tries to grab his reins and runs after him.
PAWLEY: ..wait a minute!! Brad!! Come back here!
Edwards trips up Pawley, and grabs him, keeping him from going after Jorgenson.
PAWLEY: Brad!! Come back here! Brad! 
In the distance, wild gun-shots are heard... 
...then a final rifle-shot. 
Edwards lets go of Pawley, and the men stare off into the distance, into the dark. 
Fade out.
Fade in to the two men continuing their search. Time has passed. 
It is now snowing. They stop.
PAWLEY: Well, why don't you say it? 
PAWLEY: We're beat and you know it.
EDWARDS: Nope. Our turning back don't mean nothin.' Not in the long run. If she's alive, she's safe. For awhile, they'll keep her to raise as one of their own, until--'til she's of an age to...
PAWLEY: Look, do you think maybe there's a chance we still might find her?
EDWARDS: Indian will chase a thing 'til he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. 
EDWARDS: Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter who'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em...
EDWARDS: ...just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth.

The Searchers

Words by Frank S. Nugent

Pictures by Winton C. Hoch and John Ford

The Searchers is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Brothers Home Video.

...for Jon

Post-Script: Doing research for this I found a marvelous article by Richard Franklin (writer/director in his own right) that cautioned that The Searchers should not be one's first foray into the life-work of John Ford. The Searchers is, above all else, a "pot-boiler" in all senses of the term. He recommends starting out with The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable,  How Green Was My Valley,  Fort Apache,  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Quiet Man. I would add Stagecoach (essential!), Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine,, hell, I'd watch anything by Ford. In fact, I've got a full week of reviews of some "between the cracks" Ford films that are not considered classics, but you can tell come from a classic film-maker. But I'd agree that The Searchers is a pump that needs to be primed. Such is its power.

* Of course, I'm not serious.

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