t h e s e a r c h e r s
4th March 2013
I don't really enjoy westerns. The scenery is nice and the music generally stirring but all that running around on horses and murdering the locals? Not my cup of tea. So you can imagine my joy at pulling this one out of the S&S Top 10. How seriously Westerns are taken generally is probably reflected in the number that are in the S&S Top 100. To save me actually counting, I going to pin 'not many' to the number.
The Searchers isn't really a Western in the sense that I understand it. There's no cavalry, nobody is lassoed, although the locals are technically the bad guys, it's not that clear cut and there's certainly no hero. In fact what we get as the main character is maybe the archetype anti-hero. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man with a very dubious past (only mentioned in passing) who shows up at his brother's house at the start of the film. To say his brother greets him somewhat coldly is a minor understatement. Edwards' motives are dubious from the outset. A Yankee racist who defiantly refused to turn up at the South's surrender and still clings to the pledge he gave the Southern army, he is accommodated at his brother's house 'for as long as he wants' - his brother sounds less than genuine with the offer.
Events kick into gear when everyone heads off to retrieve a neighbour's stolen cattle, leaving the homestead very much exposed to attack from the locals. Edwards and his nephew (who Edwards dislikes on account of his 1/8th Indian blood) arrive back in time to pick over the remains of the family and deduce that the two youngest girls have been taken. They head off with the local sheriff (by no means a saint) to retrieve the girls from the clutches of the locals. The Indians are treated with slightly more respect than traditional Westerns, viewed mostly through the racist eyes of Edwards. When the group is split up by an attack, Edwards and his nephew go on alone to find the girls.
It is quickly and brutally established that the eldest of the girls has been killed by the Indians. Wayne boiling over with impotent rage at having presumably discovered her remains. The discovery is brilliantly played off-screen, leaving us with only Edwards' aftermath. The remaining pursuit is played at a long distance over the following five years. The film never really deals with a chase of any sort, more a slow, steady tracking as the reluctant pair troop from town to town trying to track down the correct Indian tribe. The relationship between Wayne's Edwards and Jeffrey Hunter's Pawley is a difficult one. Their initial frostiness never really thaws and we're left to concentrate on the brutal environment and constantly morally ambiguous locals.
The film's unswerving brutality is brought to a head when the pair finally discover the remaining child and Wayne tries to kill her. As she's been assimilated into the Indian tribe, he now believes her ruined beyond rescuing. At which point we really wonder whether he is beyond redemption. Pawley saves the girl but they are driven back by the Indians. When they catch up with them again, this time with a group of men, Edwards wants to attack the camp and slaughter everyone in it, including the girl. Pawley persuades the sheriff to let him retrieve the girl. He is successful but Edwards is left to fetch the girl when she makes a run for it. He catchers her and carries her home, apparently abandoning his racist inclination.
The Searchers takes in so much that it's physically tiring to try and put it all into a paragraph. I can't say I particularly enjoyed watching it, the acting is dated and the one character that's fully fleshed out is a pretty repugnant individual (you are never convinced that Edwards has really changed at all, even at the close). That said, it's a truly impressive piece of filmmaking. It's painted on a beautiful canvas, even when it's being dark and dirty and has some of the most iconic scenes in cinema history (the opening shot above). And it's probably as good as you'll ever get for an anti-Western. Redemption is hard won and unrewarding - pretty much everybody loses out, you certainly won't come away from this cheering any heros or booing any villains. But that is of course entirely the point. Just don't ask me to watch it again.