It so happens that it's also time for the Favorite Director Blogathon co-hosted by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In and Phyl at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Now, I'm going to make a confession: John Ford is not my favorite director. Joss Whedon is, with Peter Jackson a close second. However, the rules of this blogathon limit participants to directors who directed things before 1990. Which kicks Joss Whedon and Peter Jackson out of the competition.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who my favorite classic Hollywood director is, and I came up with a handful that I really appreciate, but none I was jump-up-and-down excited about. Otto Preminger, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Wyler were all contenders. However, I do really like a lot of John Ford's movies, even if I find the man himself distasteful, so I chose him for the blogathon's purposes because it meant I could review this movie for John Wayne's birthday at the same time.
In preparation for this review, I read the book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel. You can read my thoughts on the book as a whole here on my book blog, and I will be quoting things from the book throughout this post too.
WARNING: I'm not going to mark any spoilage here. I tried, but it got clunky.
This is very much John Wayne's movie. He owns the screen here with a surety few actors ever achieve. Even the opening credits make clear whom we're supposed to be rooting for:
But in truth, John Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, is not the hero of the story. Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) is the hero. And that's why the title is The Searchers, not The Searcher. Ethan is important because of the way he and his actions impact the others in the story, not because of his own heroicness. To highlight that, the very first shot is not of Ethan Edwards on his horse, riding toward others. It's of Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) going to the door of her adobe home and looking out toward the person riding toward her. Ethan's arrival is going to impact everyone in that house in ways they cannot yet fathom. And he himself will change and grow eventually, but more from within himself than from anything anyone else does or says.
The first we see of Ethan, he's almost unrecognizable. His hat brim is pulled low, he's wearing a huge cavalry coat, he's carrying his saber and saddlebags in front of him -- it's almost like he's trying to hide himself, or protect himself from the unpleasant reception he might get.
But Ethan's brother Aaron (Walter Coy) welcomes Ethan and offers him a handshake. Ethan then tentatively turns toward the rest of the family and approaches them.
We can't quite see Ethan's face when he greets his sister-in-law, as if he's trying to hide his feelings from the audience as well as his family. For a moment, it looks as if he might embrace Martha. Instead, he kisses her chastely on the forehead.
I recently read this excellent article about visual implications in this movie, especially in the first few minutes. I quite agree with the author, that it's Ethan's unallowable love for his brother's wife that drives him throughout the rest of the film. And it's easy to miss this, because nobody ever talks about it in the film. Ethan never says, "I love you." Aaron never says, "You've got no business loving my wife!" Martha never says, "I wish I'd married you instead." But all three of them know that Ethan and Martha love each other -- and at least one other character knows it too.
John Ford gives a lot of visual and emotional cues about this forbidden love, however. He almost always positions Martha on the same side of the screen as Ethan, not with Aaron. The characters do a lot of looking at each other and then away, and many moments are heavy with unspoken emotions.
Ford puts Ethan literally between Aaron and Martha repeatedly. But if you don't catch the subtext here, the rest of the film isn't going to make as much sense, especially Ethan's obsession. I know, because I totally missed out on the love triangle the first few times I saw this film, and I didn't like it all that well as a result. I sensed that there was something going on in these first scenes, some kind of uncomfortable undercurrent, but as I recall, I figured maybe Ethan's family didn't approve of which side he chose to fight for during the Civil War. It wasn't until about ten years ago, when I finally figured out WHAT made the opening scenes so weird and uncomfortable, that I started to truly understand and appreciate the film.
Ethan is clearly fond of his nieces and nephews, though not his adopted nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Ethan found Martin many years ago, sole survivor of a Comanche raid, and Aaron and Martha raised him as their own. Martin is part Cherokee, which Ethan holds against him -- yes, Ethan is very racist in his anti-Indian sentiments, at least when the story begins. All Indians are either bad or worthless, or both, in his opinion, and he lumps Martin in with them.
The next morning, a group of men ride up, looking to deputize Aaron and Martin to go help track down whoever stole cattle from Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen). The Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) accepts Ethan's offer to take Aaron's place.
Ethan is worried that it's Comanche who have stolen the cattle, and warns Aaron to stay close to the family. He and Clayton size each other up a while, which I find thoroughly enjoyable. Wayne and Bond were very dear friends in real life, and any time they're on screen, their mutual affection and respect can't help but shine. There's another scene later between Ward Bond and Patrick Wayne, John Wayne's 15-year-old son, that makes me laugh and laugh because I can just imagine how much fun it must have been for them to film, Patrick sassing his dad's buddy, and Bond acting all annoyed.
Anyway, most of the posse heads outside, along with most of the family. Clayton stays behind to finish his coffee, and he inadvertently sees something that makes him pause.
He sees Martha take Ethan's coat out of the chest where she'd stashed it for him and caress it tenderly. And Clayton knows then, if he didn't know before, just exactly what sorts of tensions are going on between the three Edwards adults.
In the next minute or so, I want to hug Clayton (as if I didn't already -- I'm extremely fond of Ward Bond). He stares straight ahead, drinking his coffee and eating a doughnut, while Ethan and Martha say a restrained farewell just behind him.
Ethan again kisses Martha on the forehead, a sort of benediction and farewell all at once, like he's blessing her and letting her know he'll do his best to keep her safe, even if he's the one she needs to be kept safe from. And all the while, there stands Clayton, munching and slurping, keeping his eyes resolutely forward. It's a poignant moment filled with all the unsaid, unsayable emotions that will drive the rest of the film.
In the book I talked about earlier, Glenn Frankel said, "Ford despised excessive camera movement -- he felt it called attention to itself and was distracting to audiences" (Frankel, p. 299). This whole scene is a beautiful example of that. The camera never moves when it's focused on Ward Bond -- instead, both Dorothy Jordan and John Wayne come into the shot from opposite directions. The camera stays still, patient, just like Ward Bond's character, waiting for them to finish their goodbyes, and it only pans to the side a little to follow Martha when she follows Ethan out of the shot. Time after time, Ford allows his actors to move in and out of the frame, and to move around within it, letting them drive the action instead of making the camera do that, and as a result, we feel almost like we're watching a play sometimes. At least, I do.
Another thing Ford makes wonderful use of is the contrast of foreground and background, especially for size comparisons. He constantly uses shots like the one above to show the majestic, untamed wilderness of Monument Valley as it towers over the people and their man-made structures.
I think he's using so many shots like the ones above to reinforce the idea that these people are comparatively insignificant. They're puny next to the towering rocks, helpless even. By extension, the problems that consume them, the troubles that befall them are really minor when taken in the context of the history of the world. I'm reminded of that line from Casablanca about how the problems of a couple people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
But hey, let's watch a movie about their problems anyway, because to them, these are HUGE problems, just like the things you and I face from day to day can be huge to us. Perspective is good, but compassion and understanding can be better, amiright?
The posse find the cattle, all slaughtered. It's obvious now that the Comanche only stole the cattle to draw out the menfolk from the small, far-flung homesteads, and now they're likely on a murder raid. Everyone wants to turn around and gallop back, and most of the posse heads for the Jorgensens' because it's closest. They'll join Ethan and Martin at the Edwards' place as soon as they can.
Ethan insists they need to rest, feed, and water their horses before they ride back. He says their mounts won't make it otherwise, which means the men won't either, as the farm is forty miles away now. Martin refuses to listen and rides away.
Ethan watches Martin leave with the most heartbreaking look in his eyes. Here's a man who fought in the war, who lived in Texas before that, who knows what sorts of depredations human beings are capable of committing.
He knows exactly what fate will befall the woman he loves, the brother he respects, the nieces and nephew he's fond of. He's terrified for them, he's in agony over his helplessness, all of which is once again conveyed without words. Ethan does everything he can, taking care of his horse so he can get to his loved ones as quickly as possible, even though he knows he'll likely be too late.
And too late, he is.
If this shot of Ethan's older niece, Lucy (Pippa Scott) looks to you like it's from a horror film, you're not wrong -- this part of the film plays out like a horror film in many ways, from the ominous red lighting to the throbbing music. Except, we never see the Indians attack. We only see the family preparing for the attack, Lucy's terror as she realizes what's likely to happen to them all, and little Debbie (Lana Wood) being sent to hide in the graveyard in a desperate attempt to keep her safe. After all, Martin Pawley's parents kept him safe from the Comanche by hiding him, so we as an audience have the hope it will work for Debbie as well.
But while Martin Pawley was found by Ethan Edwards, Debbie is found by Scar (Henry Brandon), a Comanche war chief.
Interestingly, Debbie and Martin's stories mirror each other: their families are massacred, and they're adopted by the person who finds them. But within the story, while it's a-ok for the white Edwards family to adopt the part-white, part-Indian Martin, it's not okay at all for the Comanches to adopt the all-white Debbie. Of course, it's not the idea of Comanches adopting and raising Debbie that makes Ethan and Martin desperate to find Debbie. It's the fact that, once she's older, she'll be married off to an Indian.
There's a brooding, unspoken fear lacing this story: the fear of what having sex with a Comanche will turn someone into. Will it turn them into a Comanche? Will it make them hate whites? Will they produce offspring that are half Indian, half white, and belong nowhere? Martin Pawley is himself descended from an Indian-and-white pairing, and while most of the white characters in the story accept him as one of themselves, Ethan Edwards is deeply suspicious of him for much of the film. He reminds Martin over and over that Debbie is Ethan's niece, but she is no kin whatsoever to Martin. "She's your nothing," Ethan tells him, with deep scorn.
But back to the story.
When Ethan finally reaches his brother's homestead, we know from the expression on his face what has happened, even before we see it what he's seeing.
Ethan stumbles through the smoke, calling for Martha. Only for Martha.
He finds her dress outside the entrance to a dug-out of some sort that we didn't see earlier in the film -- possibly the family's original home before they built a "real" house, and now used for storage?
John Ford uses silhouettes to great effect in this film. He uses them at all the biggest emotional turning points, like when Martha first sees Ethan returning, at the end when Ethan chases down an adult Debbie, and here, when Ethan approaches the dugout where he finds Martha's body.
In this instance, not only do we not see what Ethan finds inside that dugout, we don't even get to see his reaction to it. As if his grief and horror is too personal for strangers to witness. As Frankel puts it, "[t]he audience sees very little violence in The Searchers; what we witness instead are the devastating effects of violence on those who survive" (Frankel, p. 306). This is never more evident than here, when Ethan mourns the loss of the woman he had loved, his grief telling us all we need to know about what happened to her.
Ethan and Martin realize that both Debbie and Lucy have been taken captive. With Lucy's boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.), Reverend Captain Clayton, and a handful of neighbors, they set out to track down and rescue the girls. Thus begins the great search that will consume Ethan and Martin.
Right away, Ford again reminds us visually of man's insignificance. To quote Frankel again, "Ford was a storyteller who loved to create and manipulate myths, and as he grew older and more complex, he loved to challenge them as well, reaffirming the audience's deepest conventional wisdom and then gently shattering it" (Frankel, p. 6). We see Ethan Edwards as a mighty warrior, a powerful man whose will and determination can change the lives of others. And yet, he's just a tiny speck in this picture. He might be larger-than-life, played by a famous and powerful actor, but in the end, he's not so important, is he. He will pass on, but the beauty and splendor and stark wildness of the land will endure.
The posse finds a dead member of the Comanche war party, and Ethan desecrates the body by shooting its eyes out because he says the Comanche believe that without eyes, they can't enter the spirit land. Martin and the others are appalled by his behavior, and yet no one moves to stop him, either because they regard him as unstoppable, or because they secretly wish they'd had the guts to do the same -- I'm not sure which.
The posse gets in a big fight with part of the Comanche war party alongside a river. Although the main native characters, Scar and Look, were played by white people, John Ford employed many natives from the Navajo tribe that lives on the reservation that Monument Valley is a part of. They played most of the smaller Comanche roles, like those pictured above, and also made up much of the crew that built the sets and kept the filming going while on location. (And by "on location," I mean "in Monument Valley," because the story is supposed to take place in Texas, but Monument Valley isn't in Texas, it's in Utah.)
After the riverside skirmish, Clayton and most of the others turn back to get their wounded to safety. Only Ethan, Martin, and Brad continue trailing Debbie and Lucy. Eventually, they reach a place in trail where several of the Comanches broke off from the rest of the group and rode into a side canyon. Ethan suspects why they did, but won't explain it to the young men. He leaves them behind and rides in by himself, once again forcing himself to witness the ravaged remains of his family in order to keep younger, more innocent people from seeing them. Because he finds Lucy's body in that canyon and buries her in his own cavalry coat.
He doesn't tell Brad and Martin this at first, but when they catch up with the Comanches and Brad sees someone in Lucy's dress that he assumes is Lucy, Ethan must tell him the truth. The fact that Lucy's dress is on someone else, and Ethan had to bury her body in his coat tells the boys and us all we need to know, the things left unsaid and unseen once again made clear.
Brad goes wild with grief and rage, and commits suicide-by-Comanche before Ethan and Martin can stop him.
Martin and Ethan continue their search for Debbie, but are forced to give up when winter comes. Ethan tells Martin that if Debbie is alive, she's safe for now, that he's sure the Comanche will raise her "until she's of an age to..." And Martin begins to realize that, if they don't find Debbie before she's reached that age, Ethan's not going to rescue her alive, he's going to kill her to free her from whatever the Comanche have turned her into. This, I think, is because Ethan loved Martha and can't bear to see her child become something Martha wouldn't love. He thinks that somehow, he will be both avenging Martha's rape and murder as well as honoring her, in some twisted way.
More than a year passes, and the men keep searching. They stop in at the Jorgensen place one day, where we learn that Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) loves Martin Pawley. Martin begins to realize this too. But he can't stay there with her -- he has to keep wandering with Ethan in case Ethan ever does find Debbie, because Martin is becoming more and more sure that he'll have to be there to stop Ethan from killing Debbie.
You see, "while The Searchers pays homage to the familiar themes of the classic Western, it also undermines them. Its central character possesses all of the manly virtues and dark charisma of the Western hero yet is tainted by racism and crazed by revenge, his quest fueled by hatred" (Frankel, p. 6). Ethan Edwards fought on the losing side in the Civil War. He loved the woman his brother married. He's strong and determined and resourceful and clever, but there's something not right about him.
It's as if the filmmakers are trying to gradually convince the audience that might does not equal right, that the compassion and understanding embodied by Martin Pawley are much more important than the strength and determination embodied by Ethan Edwards. And that's what makes The Searchers such a powerful and enduring story, that slow reversal of the expectations an audience brings to a western.
Do you remember that video I linked to and discussed when I reviewed Slow West (2015) a couple months ago? It points out that in our culture, "left to right indicates the progression of time," so movie makers have coded their films using that idea, and movement from left to right in movies is used to "indicate time, progress, and normality," while movement from right to left "indicates moving back in time, abnormality, and regression."
Look at the screencaps I've posted. In almost all of the shots of Ethan and Martin moving somewhere during this search, they are travelling from right to left. Even the composition of the shots points to Ethan being abnormal, "backward," and wrong. (Martin is just following Ethan to stop him from killing Debbie, so I don't think this is supposed to show him being those things as well -- Ethan's the one leading him those directions.)
Eventually, they do find Debbie (now played by Natalie Wood). And out in the harsh, unforgiving desert that visually reflects Ethan himself, Ethan prepares to do what he's decided he must, since Debbie has now become one of Scar's wives.
Martin does what he's come along for -- he protects Debbie. He literally steps between her and death.
I'd just like to point out that Jeffrey Hunter is almost impossibly handsome in this movie. When I was a kid, I didn't think so, but yeah, I've wised up.
Anyway, before Ethan and Martin can shoot each other, the Comanches find and attack them.
Ethan and Martin flee, taking refuge behind some boulders at the mouth of a cave and firing at their pursuers.
Scar dons his war bonnet and prepares to rid himself of these pesky white men once and for all. But they fend him off and escape to fight another day. Ethan and Martin ride back to the Jorgensen ranch to get reinforcements so they can attack the Comanche camp and/or rescue Debbie. Martin sneaks into camp to rescue Debbie and kills Scar in the process. Then Ethan rides in and sees Debbie.
Debbie sees him and knows what he intends to do. She runs away toward that same cave that sheltered him and Martin earlier.
Once again, Martin tries to stop Ethan. He grabs hold of him, tries to wrest him from the saddle. But Ethan is too strong for him this time. He kicks Martin into the dirt and rides off after Debbie.
But something is starting to change within Ethan. He's seen Debbie twice now. He's called her by name. And look what this shot tells us, with its coding of movement. Ethan is not travelling right-to-left anymore. He's coming into frame from the left, riding toward the right. There's a reversal going on that we can feel even before we get confirmation of it within the story.
Ethan rides Debbie down just as she reaches the cave. Now he's reversed again, heading left and "backward." And once again, we've got silhouettes to emphasize the emotional upheaval of the scene.
Ethan slides off his horse and towers over Debbie. She shrinks away, but faces him. She's scared, but she's not a coward.
Then Ethan Edwards does a peculiar thing. He grabs Debbie and swoops her up, raises her high above him. Is he inspecting her? Offering her to heaven? Physically putting her life above his own vengeance? I'm not sure.
As abruptly as he'd lifted her on high, he swings her down and cradles her like a child. Once again, he's facing mostly away from the camera, the moment too intimate and personal for us to witness head-on.
Softly, tenderly, he says, "Let's go home, Debbie."
Ethan returns Debbie to white civilization. He returns Martin to Laurie.
But Ethan has no home to return to. And he doesn't belong here with the Jorgensens either.
Ethan pauses in the doorway and watches Debbie get welcomed back into the world of white people. John Wayne crosses one arm over his chest and clasps his hand around his other arm, a silent tribute to his mentor Harry Carey, Sr., whose son played Brad Jorgensen, and whose wife Olive played Mrs. Jorgensen. Harry Carey, Sr. was a good friend of John Ford, and they made many movies together. This gesture was kind of a trademark of his, and John Wayne used it as a way of almost including him in this movie too.
Then Ethan turns and walks away alone, back out into the unknown from whence he came. He's accomplished his purpose of finding Debbie, but he had failed to protect his brother, the woman he loved, and their children, and now he has no reason to remain. Still, he's a changed man, one who was nearly consumed by vengeance, but was able to overcome it at the last minute. Frankel points out that "Scar cannot let go of his hatred and therefore he dies; Ethan is able to soften his at the last moment and is allowed to live, albeit in emotional exile" (Frankel, p. 311). Civilization ultimately has no place for a man like Ethan Edwards. He's found his humanity, but too late for humanity to accept him, at least in this place. Will he ever find peace and place to settle down? We'll never know.
I know this has been another of my extremely long reviews, but I want to take a minute to talk a bit about director John Ford, since this is my contribution to the Favorite Director Blogathon.
Is this movie family friendly? Minus the subtext, it basically is. The word "rape" is never used, and though it's clear that's what happened to at least two characters, nothing is shown or even spoken about directly. There's one or maybe two mild curse words. There's violence, though as I've repeatedly pointed out, it's more often implied than shown. The gun battles might be scary for small children. I won't let my own kids watch this until they're in their teens, but more because I want them to be able to begin appreciating it and understanding it, which they wouldn't now.
My thanks to The Midnite Drive-In and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting this blogathon! Follow either of those links to find a list of all the event's entries.