You'll likely not find a better western than John Ford's 'Searchers'

August 20, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

True story: A would-be scriptwriter, new to Hollywood, is going in to a meeting with a big executive. His would-be producer and soon to be ex-partner suddenly says, "Suppose he asks you, 'What movie is your script like?' What would you say?"

The writer, an extremely wonderful and brilliant man, says, "He's not going to ask that."

L But the producer, an idiot, responds, "But suppose he does."

The writer thinks a moment and then says, "The Searchers."

The producer nods sagely and then says, "Hmmm. If he asks you that question . . . don't say anything."

That's the sad truth of "The Searchers" (1956), a great movie that almost nobody wants to see or even remember. It regularly makes every critic's list of 10 greatest films and it almost always is listed No. 1 on any compilation of 10 greatest westerns. Yet it is the most ornery, cussed, embittered great movie in the canon. It's as warm as a rattlesnake, beginning and ending with massacres and chronicling in between the travels of a bitter, violent misanthrope.

Well, at least now viewers will have a chance to make up their own minds and judge the film as it should be judged, on a big screen, at the highest pitch of its almost unbearable pictorial grandeur. The Senator is bringing back a brilliantly restored version of the movie to fill out a slow week of evenings between mainstream releases (in the afternoons, a superb print of "Snow White" is being screened.) And, if nothing else, the movie is a feast for the eyes, featuring two icons of the American screen -- Monument Valley, Utah, that dusty plain from whose flatness arise gigantic buttes like aircraft carrier flight decks, cheerfully disguised as Texas, and Mount John Wayne, icon and hero, charmer and sadist, leader and killer, in probably his most beautifully realized performance. Anybody who tells you Wayne couldn't act should be required to sit through this one.

"The Searchers" was nearly the culminating picture in the long relationship between Wayne and John Ford, who made him a star in 1939's "Stagecoach" and returned to him over and over in distinguished films such as "The Quiet Man," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "They Were Expendable" and so on; they would work together once more in what amounted to a western coda, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

"The Searchers" is visually consistent with Ford's other great work which celebrated the Western landscape, but intellectually an anomaly. He almost always celebrated the society of men and the values of community and team work, but "The Searchers" is a dark and troubling film. Its hero Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is the most isolated hero in Ford's entire oeuvre and one of the most isolated men in American movies, a paragon of violent repression and a symphony of contradictions.

An ex-Confederate cavalryman, a possible murderer, tough, brutal and cynical, Ethan loves one thing: the woman his less dynamic brother has married. When he returns home to Texas after mysterious adventures following the war, it's just to see her, to be around her at a discreet distance (he's a secret romantic, specializing in unrequited love).

When she and the whole family are wiped out in an Indian raid, Ethan goes insane with rage. Yet a part of his massive spirit of contradiction is that, in some ways, he loves and respects the Indians, and has apparently even lived with them. (His background is never revealed in depth, but I bet it would be very interesting.) It then turns out that one daughter has survived and been adopted into the tribe, and thus Ethan, and a sidekick played by Jeff Hunter, take off after her, unaware that they are about to be tourists in genocide.

Ethan the Indian hater is unmoved as he ranges through the West, encountering signs of a tribal culture being deconstructed by the white man, while poor Marty (Hunter) is made more and more compassionate. (This is one of the earliest and best buddy-pictures, by the way, and the Ethan-Marty relationship is beautifully evoked.) For the longest time, "The Searchers" is picaresque, taking Ethan and Marty through resonant adventures in the West, each sketched briefly and pungently by Ford.

Ultimately, of course, the action returns to Monument Valley and Ethan at last finds his quarry. But the terrible anger of his burden has seemed to destroy him. He doesn't want to rescue Debbie (Natalie Wood), he wants to kill her, for the crime of miscegenation. Yet even for this most terrible of American men, the racist killer, there exists a chance at redemption and it's the movie's most powerful moment (and subtlest) when Ethan at last confronts his own kin and his own demons.

Of course, by today's chop-chop-chop editing standards, "The Searchers" may seem sluggish. When I showed it at a course I taught on "The Western" some years back, it chased my students from the room or into slumberland more effectively even than my rambling speeches (hard to believe, I know).

So here's my advice. It's long, it's bitter, it's slow. Deal with it. It's still great.

'The Searchers' (1956)

Starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter

Directed by John Ford

Released by Warner Bros

Unrated

****

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