The Searchers, 1956. Directed by John Ford. John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond.

Some time ago, I got into an argument with a friend of mine over what were the greatest Western movies ever released. Both of us agreed on general principles that John Ford was the director whose art was inextricably linked to the west and what we think of as the "great" westerns, but we differed on pinpointing an actual film. My friend contended that My Darling Clementine was the film because it was the movie he could sit down and watch at the drop of a hat at any time. There is certainly something to that and My Darling Clementine is a fine film­one of Ford's best and therefore one of the finest Westerns. It is certainly a less difficult film than The Searchers, which is my candidate. It all boils down to what you want from art, I suppose. I think The Searchers has infinitely more to say about the human condition than My Darling Clementine, which is really about the myth of the West. My Darling Clementine is about the broad history of the West. It begins with a wild town and ends with civilization. It isn't REALLY about people, per se. This is a criticism that can be levelled at many of Ford's Westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence describes the same arc, for instance). The Searchers, however, is an abberation. It is as much about the same themes as Ford's other films, but by approaching the problem from the other side of the equation, from the point of view of the bad men who were eclipsed by the civilizing of the West, Ford was afforded the opportunity to explore themes that are far more universal.

The Searchers tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), an unreconstructed Confederate soldier, and his ten year search for his niece, stolen in a Comanche raid. During the course of his search, Ford puts Edwards under the speculum and exposes shades of hatred and racism that Ford never before or after allowed into his films. Toward the end of the movie, the audience never knows just how far Edward's hatred will drive him and we suspect that he wants to kill his niece as a vindication and as revenge and just to vent his passionate racism. Edwards is the most complex character that Wayne ever played and any suggestions that Wayne wasn't a great actor are refuted in this film. Wayne gives a performance for the ages. And yet despite the essential ugliness of his character, Edwards remains a heroic figure (in part because of Wayne's cinematic anima, but mostly because he is struggling as best he can with a task that would break lesser men). He is the cinema's greatest anti-hero, untouched by the stain of cynicism that is so much a part of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, for instance. He is just a man in the end, faced with difficult moral choices that have no easy solutions. The movie Ford constructs around him is achingly beautiful. This is the best-looking western ever made, filled with images of the Monument Valley that would be at home in the epic landscapes of Bierstadt or Cole. Ford bookends the film with two shots out a darkened doorway into the chrome destert light of the west. In the first shot, we see Edwards returning home at last after the War, only to be called back to battle. At the end of the movie, this shot is repeated as Edward's family takes in their rescued niece, filing through the door until only Edwards is left. He grabs his arm in pain and turns away. He can never go through that door. Through that door is the civilization that Ford shows being built in so many of his movies. There is no place there for a bad man still consumed by rage. This last image is one of the great shots in cinema and in it, Ford's art reached a peak that no other western until Unforgiven even comes near. The Searchers is not just one of the great Westerns, but one of the great movies. Period.


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