October 16, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
John Ford’s The Searchers

The Searchers. 1956. USA. Directed by John Ford

These notes accompany screenings of John Ford’s The Searchers on October 17, 18, and 19 in Theater 3</a>.

The Searchers and [The Man Who Shot] Liberty Valance are the two masterpieces within Ford’s later project of disclosing the dark underbelly of the American West’s progress from wilderness to civilization…. Beyond the borders of family and community reside the emptiness and danger of the desert and mountains. The film continually reminds us of the abyss of nothingness that always lies on the other side of our desire to persevere.

Ethan is, in a name, John Wayne. We cannot imagine another Ethan Edwards; like landscape and character in The Searchers, Wayne and Edwards are one…Ethan is undoubtedly Ford’s most complex and problematic hero. This has much to do with Ethan’s commitment to avenging his loved ones’ murders, and this desire for retribution is fueled most intensely by his hatred of “the red man” and…by his fear that his niece…has been sexually defiled by Chief Scar…. We would not regard Ethan as morally ambiguous, most likely, if he were simply a killer bent on revenge solely for justified purposes, but his thirst for vengeance is mixed with blatant racism.

Though hearth and happiness are unattainable by Ethan, he has overcome his hatred, and he acts, finally, out of love. In this sense, Wayne completes the portrait of the classic westerner that was conceived by Harry Carey and William S. Hart: the “good bad man” who responds to a woman in a way that reforms his character and makes him do what is right, even if it means riding off alone at the end…. Ethan turns away from the present into his memories of the past…. It is a moment he must hold alone; it cannot be shared. Such reflection covers the deepest emotion, and it almost overpowers Ethan as it does us, for here we have reached the deepest layers of the Western, the sense of what has been lost in the struggle. The search may have helped Ethan find some part of his soul, but he will never recover from all that he has lost….

– Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western (University of California Press, 2012) (currently available in the MoMA Store)

The Searchers is one of Ford’s finest achievements, even considered by some to be the greatest film ever made. It has a richness, resonance, and virtuosity unrivaled by any other Western, except perhaps for a handful of Ford’s own. More than any single character in an American film, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards has the eminence and stature of which folk heroes are made. He is an ambulatory legend, a myth who is his own myth-maker. To suggestions of his limitations, his vulnerability, his mortality, Wayne’s disparaging “That’ll be the day!” is sufficient to convince us that his persona is limitless, invulnerable, and immortal. Ethan Edwards is the Great Man of the West. Like Walt Whitman’s archetypal American (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”), in The Searchers, John Wayne contains multitudes.

The Searchers. 1956. USA. Directed by John Ford

The film is a glorious collaboration between cinematographer Winton Hoch and Monument Valley, writer Frank Nugent and “Pappy” Ford. It is Ford’s most symmetrical and consciously structured film, even to the point of casting Mrs. Harry Carey as the mother of Harry Carey, Jr. There is a 1913 Griffith Biograph short, Olaf – an Atom, starring Harry Carey, Sr., soon to be Ford’s collaborator on several dozen Cheyenne Harry Westerns. He plays a loner, not unlike saddle tramp Ethan Edwards. Olaf climaxes with a family reunion scene, shot outward through the open door of the family home. The reunited family enters, leaving Carey, whose rescue of the father had brought about their happiness, outside and alone. According to John Wayne, it was the spontaneous inspiration of seeing Olive Carey standing in the doorway of the last shot of The Searchers which prompted him to grab his elbow in the manner characteristic of her late husband. Then the door closes on Ethan Edwards forever, and we are left with a dark screen…and a legend.