Once the beginning credits were over with and John Ford’s first shot of The Searchers came into full view, I went into “holy shit!” mode.
It was a simple shot, really. We begin inside a house and slowly move outside, following “Martha” as she goes out to greet the returning “Ethan Edwards” (John Wayne). It’s dark inside and what we initially see is a silhouette. Outside it’s bright enough, though, and as we go past the door Monument Valley, Arizona, is displayed in all its panoramic glory. It reminded me of the time earlier this year when I visited the Grand Canyon and was blown away by the 3D vistas (the depth of the canyon is so pronounced it felt like watching an IMAX movie in 3D). I had seen the Canyon lots of times in videos and pictures, but they didn’t do it justice, not by a long shot. It’s one of those places that you have to be there to truly appreciate it. That opening shot of The Searchers, however, came very close to that experience.
The storyline: it’s Texas, 1868. Ethan Edwards returns to his brother’s home after years of being away, first fighting in the Civil War (as a Confederate) and then… well, who the hell knows where he went those three other years, the thing is he’s back. The family is very happy to see him back, but he’s just like “meh”. Then tragedy strikes, as Comanche indians slaughter the entire family but for Edwards and “Martin Pawley” (Jeffrey Hunter), who were out searching for those Comanche, and “Debbie”, Ethan’s youngest niece who was kidnapped by the Indians (oh, shut it, I won’t be politically correct and write “Native Americans” every time). The rest of the movie is the search for Debbie, spanning several years until she’s 15. They eventually find her, of course, but what they find is not the Debbie they knew.
The Searchers is a classic, making basically all top ten Westerns lists, in some cases landing the #1 spot. I wasn’t impressed enough to make it my personal #1 Western, but it’s easily in my top ten, maybe top five. There are two reasons for that: John Wayne and John Ford.
Let’s start with Wayne. I’ll be the first to admit that, at this point in time, I haven’t seen that many John Wayne movies. I know him mostly by his reputation as the noble heroic cowboy that everyone looks forward to. His “Ethan Edwards” was anything but noble, though. He was a racist, mean motherfucker that couldn’t care less what you thought of him; for example, his nephew Martin was adopted (Martin was one eighth Cherokee), and Ethan never missed a chance to remind him both that they weren’t kin and that he had Indian blood. When Ethan’s driven – and the Comanche gave him plenty of drive – he wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted. He had his own philosophy of life, one that wasn’t bound by incorruptible honor and gallantry, yet he does care, in his own fucked up way, about others. Wayne nailed this character through and through. I’m not surprised some consider this his finest performance, because it’s one of those that you cannot imagine being done in any other way by any other actor. Ironically, for such a great performance (and such a grand reputation for the movie as a Western and as a film in general), The Searchers received a grand total of zero Academy Award nominations.
Yeah, I guess the Oscars are overrated.
Then we have Ford. That opening shot alone made me understand why Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone (two of my favorite directors and two grand masters in their own right) had Ford in such high esteem and were so heavily influenced by him. What the film lacked in a strong plot more than made up for in direction, cinematography, and editing. Ford should have been nominated for an Oscar same as Wayne. The way he handled the shots made you feel like you were right there, galloping across the desert, surrounded by the Comanche, or attacking their tribe. It was brilliant, and made me wonder why most directors nowadays are so painfully… lazy. “Uncreative” would be another appropriate description, but that is mostly due to laziness and the obsessive attachment to formulaic shots and sequences. It’s like nowadays that majority of Hollywood directors are working on TV soap operas, while John Ford was working on actual Hollywood films. CGI is partly to blame, but not entirely; The Searchers looked much better than anything I have ever seen in the Western genre (Leone included), vastly – oh, oh so vastly – superior to George Lucas’ video game feel in Attack of the Clones, which had a similar red desert setting.
Speaking of George Lucas, there is a sequence in The Searchers that I’m pretty sure he… umm, borrowed for 1977’s Star Wars. As I briefly mentioned earlier, Ethan and Martin had joined a group of rangers to hunt down some Comanche that were known to be in the vicinities. Turns out the Comanche had lured the men out to attack their homes at will. They realize this and quickly return to their respective homes (well, except for Ethan, who was wise enough to allow his horse to rest before going back). What they come back to is a burnt house, and the burnt remains of the family. The sequence is very similar to the one where Luke meets Ben Kenobi and during their conversation realizes the stormtroopers would come looking for the droids at his home, where his uncle Owen and aunt Beru live. When he makes it back, all he finds are their burnt remains, with the house suffering a similar fate.
Not sure if Lucas meant that as a homage to John Ford or just decided to steal the fuck out of that sequence, but the fact that The Searchers is a major influence on so many filmmakers should come as no surprise. Ford and Wayne were at the top of their game here, and The Searchers is a movie that deserves to be seen, studied, and appreciated. It was only fitting – in fact, I was expecting it after that monumental opening – that the movie ended with a reverse shot of the first sequence, completing the circle as Ethan brings back Debbie, and then walks away.