Title: The Searchers
Language: English, Navajo, Spanish
Genre: Western, Adventure
Director: John Ford
Frank S. Nugent
Alan Le May
Music: Max Steiner
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch
Harry Carey Jr.
Viably the most well-known Ford-Wayne vehicle to contemporary audiences and my second entry into Ford’s prolific canon, after the lukewarm African sappy adventure MOGAMBO (1953), THE SEARCHERS gradually acquires the prestigious status to be a paragon in the American Western genre while being critically misconstrued by most critics as another routine Ford-Wayne collaboration at the time of its release, and time does its justice in its own manner.
It is magnificently shot in VistaVision’s widescreen and the topography of Monument Valley is faithfully captured by Ford’s acute intuition of visual compositions and DP Winton C. Hoch’s coherent expertise to reconstruct an awe-inspiring wild old west with expansive scale. Nevertheless, it is a vehemently racist story to be invented on the screen, Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran, engages a years-long search for his abducted niece Debbie (played by Lana and Natalie Wood sisters in different ages), whose family has been murdered and torched while herself has been taken by a Comanche group lead by a man named Scar (Brandon). Together alongside him, is Martin Pawley (Hunter), the half-breed orphan first rescued by Ethan and reared by Debbie’s family. Their odyssey is rife with collisions between these two, Ethan’s hatred and anger towards the Comanche tribe is abominably brunt, so the dueling conflict is not only to rescue Debbie, but they are also running against time, since Ethan clearly expresses his resolution to kill her if she has been assimilated and become one of them.
The slaughtering and killing scenes are all off-screen, and it is Ford’s sleight-of-hand to elevate the ominous atmosphere of something bad is going to happen with a helping hand from Max Steiner’s abounding but emotive score, no blood is shed on the screen, but you will anticipate the emotional upheaval with perfect tempo.
Back at the homestead, the five-year-span spoils the patience of Martin’s longtime sweetheart Laurie (Miles), who decides to marry herself off to Charlie McCorry (a drolly and heavily accented Ken Curtis), on the wedding night, return Ethan and Martin, a light farce ensues with fist fights and strife, it is the episodic scattering of Americana comedy which Ford adeptly infuses between the taut tension. So is the comical running gag when Martin unwittingly buys himself a squaw bride “Look” (Archuletta) in exchange of a hat, it is equally ridiculous and provocative, the race gap is so appalling that it is beyond any reconciliation under any circumstance, which may dissuade many viewers of young generations. Frankly speaking, as an oriental myself, I find it difficult to identify with the moral yardstick of white people at that time, it is a common defect deeply rooted in the American Western soils, its outrageous racist overtone is too glaring to discard. That’s why Spaghetti western is much closer to my appetite.
As intolerable as usual, Wayne’s Ethan is a pain in the neck, racist temperament aside, he is a vain loner, a headstrong killer with a poisoned mind, one might feel ambivalent toward him, but overtly it is Wayne’s most dexterous performance, and the most archetypal one of his entire career. Jeffrey Hunter, as the co-leader hogging almost the same screen-time as Wayne, brings about a more approachable presence in the quasi-father-son relationship, he is the one we can easily connect with, although with a less stimulating thrust. Miles is the girl with a strong will, who is never too shy to manifest her affection, Bond’s Rev. Capt. Clayton, embodies both the larger-than-life foolhardiness and the rustic swagger which is an usual staple among side characters. Finally a young Natalie Wood barely has time to tell us what has happened to her character other than a delicate trophy to arouse the final suspense.
One cannot deny what a masterpiece the film is for the sake of its sublime craftsmanship, however, is it a timeless classic? The question mark is hanging there, at least for the new waves of audience who is oblivious of that begone epoch, the genre itself becomes irrelevant and unfamiliar in our universe, let alone its passé prejudice and wilful obduracy. It becomes a legacy to preserve but hard to find the resonance now.