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The Searchers

#601 - The Searchers
John Ford, 1956

After most of his extended family is murdered by a group of Native Americans, an ex-Confederate soldier joins forces with the family's adopted son in order to find the family's kidnapped daughters.

John Wayne is a difficult person to like both as a public figure and as an actor. Though he naturally tends to be the most prominent factor of every film he appears in, I paradoxically think that the quality of any one of his films is dictated by virtually every other factor instead of his presence. This might just be because his iconic countenance and mannerisms makes it feel like you're never just watching him play different characters; rather, he is pretty much a universal constant that everything else in the film revolves around. As such, having The Searchers become recognised as not just one of his greatest films he's ever been involved in but also one of the greatest American films ever made means that Wayne neophytes are liable to start with it and thus earn a very negative first impression of the man. That's one of many reasons why The Searchers casts a very long shadow over most of the man's extremely prolific career. Another prominent one is that, despite the overt problems with it that seem really clear with it in retrospect, The Searchers actually is a really good film.

Of course, Wayne's character in The Searchers is a very difficult one to sympathise with in general, but at least it's done with some intent. The film takes place in Texas a few years after the conclusion of the Civil War, with Wayne's character being a former Confederate soldier returning home for the first time since war first broke out. Right from the outset he sets himself up as a more complex protagonist than one might expect judging by the lingering looks he gives his sister-in-law and the racial epithets he spits at the family's part-Cherokee adopted son (Jeffrey Hunter). His reticence towards talking about what he's done in his absence even to his closest loved ones also speaks volumes without the use of words, providing the same impressive economy of storytelling that I've come to expect from Wayne films (especially those directed by John Ford). Eventually, a story emerges as what appears to be a simple matter of joining a posse to round up a neighbouring rancher's missing cattle ends up being a diversion for a group of Comanche natives to launch a raid on the Edwards residence. After it's revealed that the parents and eldest son are dead while the daughters have been kidnapped, the posse turns its attention towards tracking down the natives. Soon enough, most of them are willing to abandon the search because it makes more sense for only a couple of them to go (apparently), and so it falls to Wayne and Hunter to continue the search. Years pass, but the duo don't give up searching even after setback after setback while the home front starts to move on without them (especially in the case of Vera Miles as Hunter's childhood sweetheart, who is understandably growing tired of the headstrong young man's diligent attempts to salvage what's left of his host family despite the odds growing smaller and smaller every day).

The core narrative is simple enough, but the film more than adds in enough character to justify its two-hour length. As if his introductory segments don't provide a complicated enough excuse for a hero, various other actions that Wayne takes throughout the film do. Whether it's deliberately desecrating a native's corpse because he knows it clashes with their religious beliefs or even using Hunter as bait in order to kill off some treacherous white men, Wayne repeatedly pushes the boundaries as to how much of an anti-hero he can be. Though his goal of recovering his missing nieces is an ostensibly noble one, it's tempered not just by constant external setbacks but also by his all-encompassing racism that isn't an overt part of his personality (at one point he's willing to trade with a tribe of friendly natives) but still influences enough of his actions to the point where he practically becomes an antagonist by the time the film's third act rolls around. The clean-cut and blue-eyed Hunter isn't that much better as he also gets caught up in Wayne's obsessive quest out of not only a strong sense of personal honour but also out of a desperate need to have family to connect to; ironically, this only leads to him distancing himself from the extremely forward Miles and also involves him accidentally marrying a native woman during a bartering session. A regular cast of character actors peppers the rest of the movie; Western stalwart Ward Bond makes yet another good impression as the reverend/captain who forms the original posse, while Henry Brandon lends steely-eyed menace to what could have been an extremely thankless role as the film's main villain. Miles makes for a good romantic lead who can sell her character's brash nature, never becoming irritating because of how relatable she makes her frustration with Hunter. Some dopey comic-relief characters such as Hank Worden's "doddering old fool" and Ken Curtis's guitar-strumming young postman may come across as extremely dated examples of humour and threaten to grind the film to a halt with their slow-witted nonsense, but after a few viewings I actually do find their presence rather amusing (if not vital to the film as a whole).

Veteran director Ford reunites with The Quiet Man's Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton C. Hoch to capture Monument Valley in all its Technicolor glory, depicting a variety of settings from cozy homesteads to rocky red deserts to snowy forests with vibrant and colourful images (and, of course, that final image, which incidentally serves as a great bookend). The music is serviceable enough for a classic Western, with the more intense pieces being far more effective than the more peaceful fragments or the country-sounding theme song. Despite being almost 60 years old by this point, it has aged remarkably well even when one takes into account some of its cornier or unintentionally questionable moments (such as Hunter's less-than-gentle reaction to his new wife trying to sleep next to him on one cold night). It deals in some dark subject matter that, being made in 1956, it still has to allude to with deflecting dialogue and actions from Wayne, but the film is honestly all the better for it. This much is emphasised when his reaction to a companion questioning him about a traumatising discovery is to scream, "Whaddaya want me to do, draw you a picture?" No, we definitely don't need that picture even in an age where subsequent Westerns have gone on to depict the sorts of horrors that are obscured by this film's shadowy corners. I think I'm still due to re-watch Rio Bravo to see if it holds up (and I'll probably do that before too long), but in any case I would be okay with holding up The Searchers as my favourite Wayne film despite my rather complicated attitude towards the man. This might have something to do with the film leaning into Wayne's real-life image and daring to paint the most iconic all-American hero of the era as a horribly bigoted anti-hero who doesn't seem to be all that far removed from the murderous natives he claims to hate so much. Essential viewing no matter what.