American Dreamers: John Ford’s “The Searchers”

Ah, yes: The Western. That most robust of genres, forever declaimed as a dying art, yet continuing always to attract the most skilled and cine-literate of directors, from Eastwood to Mann to those two impresarios, the Coen Brothers. This is not the time to be re-beating the drum of The Western’s Revival (more of that later), but there could just be space for a snapshot glance at one of cinema’s under-rated and most enigmatic of creations, that is, the protagonist of The Searchers, Ethan Edwards.

Ford’s 1955 picture proved to be, among other things, that rare occasion when John Wayne (traditionally, and I would think unfairly, dismissed as an actor, if not as a star), played a character, and not just a part. In fashioning this portrait of the hero as outsider, the soldier as exile, the lover as loner, Ford extended and perfected a cinematic form that has since been engaged by countless others, most famously, perhaps, in the writer-director collaborations of Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese.

No wonder the film and its character have lasted. For the odyssey this left-handed everyman undergoes has its roots in a deep tradition, told in different forms and at various stages, in myth and in literature. Ethan is the western’s renewed, inverted and ever-modern take on the Homeric heroes and their stories.

Defeated by the Yankees, hunted and haunted by his post-war wanderings, Ethan, like Odysseus, returns to a home and a family (his brother’s) in which he is in many ways a stranger. Unlike his Greek predecessor, however, the one love to whom he returns (his Penelope, so to speak) is his sister-in-law, Martha; just as the Telemachus figure whom Ethan finds waiting is his adoptive nephew Martin, who has Indian blood-ties and thus is despised by his racist and repressed uncle. Wayne’s hero of an unjust war no longer has a place in the world for which he was fighting, because that world has moved on, has grown in years that Ethan himself missed on his unsung wanderings.

Yet when his brother, Martha and their family are massacred and his niece Debbie kidnapped by an Indian war-band while Ethan and Martin are among a party investigating raids elsewhere, the Homeric journey recommences. Again, it is the character that enthrals. For Ethan is a man in pain before the search for Debbie could ever have been conceived. He is at once Achilles, driven and derided by vanity (to use Joyce’s words), and Odysseus, compelled to voyage again to an unknown end.

Interestingly if we remember that the film was made just one decade after the Second World War, and just after the war in Korea, Wayne’s character gives tormented shape to the human after-effects of combat and battle-experience in the American Civil War, only matched by the great meditations and laments Whitman wrote a century earlier.

Ethan’s near-manic anger can terrify: as he opens fire on buffalo in order to make the Indian winter harder; or viciously and profanely shoots out the eyes a dug-up Indian corpse; or even comes close to murdering his niece, transformed from rancher’s daughter to Indian squaw in his eyes. Yet even more affecting is Ethan’s sadness, deep as the valleys and canyons which he and Martin wander through. The sorrow, as well as the sheer carnage, of war which Whitman evokes in song is something close to what lingers in Ethan, and forces him always to keep searching, even if he rarely knows what for.

The celebrated final image of the film is instructive. Standing at the doorway of one of the neighbouring ranches, his niece returned and the great search finished, Ethan pauses, crosses his arms and walks back into the wilderness as the door shuts and the film draws to a close. Ethan, like many of the tragic protagonists of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of the loners, the outcasts, the strangers who walk the dark fields of a Republic in which they have no home.

I say one of the loners, for this is the real reason the film is called The Searchers. This masterpiece is an odyssey of the screen, precisely composed yet proving majestic in scope. Most powerfully, however, The Searchers stands as a kind of war-monument: to the many Ethans a country has lost, or who remain lost in America.

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