The Searchers

The Searchers

The Searchers. The critical spirit falters before the task of doing justice to John Ford’s 1956 magnum opus, one of those mysterious films that surpasses even what a great director should have been able to achieve. At first remove, The Searchers, the story of a quest to rescue a kidnapped girl from the Comanches, is about the emotional life of the adventurer, the hardened outsider, even the sociopath -- and no one who responds to John Wayne’s chilling performance as the obsessed Ethan Edwards, driven to restore the balance of a society that cannot contain him, can ever again regard Wayne as a formulaic actor. All around Edwards is the familiar Fordian spectacle, both disturbing and beautiful, of the sublimation of personality to the dictates of moral/social law; and beyond that spectacle, the awesome, universal perspective on time that is John Ford. A door opens at the beginning of the film to create the home and the desert out of blackness, and that door does not close until the members of Ford’s community have silently, emotionlessly filed through it into oblivion, leaving Ethan Edwards outside to learn how little anguish and desire mean in the face of eternity. For one family opened the door, and another family closed it ten years later -- but in Ford’s universe both families were the same family, and both times were the same time. (L.A. Reader, January 21, 1983)

The Searchers. Stunning in so many ways - so much mystery. One moment I noticed this time was the “Put an Amen to it!” scene, in which genre conventions around funerals (including music) are evoked then disrupted or replaced. I was also aware of how Ethan’s desire to kill Debbie is echoed through the community: Laurie wants it, and says that Martha would have wanted it. Martin stands alone here as a liberal alternative to the old ways, which are not condemned: this and other ideological divides are within the film and are not merely observed by it. The ambition of the story gives rise to narrative glitches: for instance, the logistics of hunting down Scar in the third act are far from smooth, right through to the Indian village raid. Such defects are swept along in the torrent of time, rather like the broad comic acting, which doesn’t trouble me. It’s amazing how Ford is unfazed by the most abrupt mood changes: for instance, the early scene in which the posse realizes Scar’s deadly strategy begins with naked anguish, introduces comedy via Mose Harper, then arrives at Ethan’s foreboding. Among other things, such control of tone is dependent upon, makes use of, the audience’s limited capacity for empathy with fictional crises. (19 Aug 2012)