The Searchers

What a weird Western this is...Tonally, most of all: while the topic is dead-serious and the "hero" not really much of a hero at all, there are many moments of odd, jarring comic relief. Wayne plays an odd character here, one who knows much about the Comanch, speaks their language, but hates them, even wants to kill his niece for just having been close to them. He's a bit of a madman, really, especially when he starts shooting.

Nowadays, this would of course mean a psychologically motivated flashback to the incident in his past that caused this, but here it's all left to our imagination, which is unsatisfying but all the more intriguing. Unfortunately, Wayne doesn't show us many shadings, never allows us to think he's thinking something more, and the conflict in his personality can only be seen in his actions. It's a good thing Martin is there to act as an audience substitute (and to walk around shirtless a lot).

It took me a while to get into the movie, but once it grabbed me I liked it quite a bit. I'm still more in favor of the more self-conscious, reflexive kind of westerns, spaghetti westerns in particular, but this film has made me eager to watch more older ones, and find out what those were reflecting upon. Any recommendations?


cjKennedy said...

I just watched this one recently too. The first time I saw it, I didn't undertand what all the fuss was about, but I'm starting to warm up to it.

It's probably about as self-conscious as either John Ford or John Wayne ever got. It kind of turns their previous work together on its head or at least reflects back on it. In this case, the character who would normally be the hero is actually pretty bad. He's a racist for sure and he's not glamorized at all.

I haven't watched a lot of the older westerns myself, but you could do a lot worse than any of the movies Ford did. My Darling Clementine is a peronal favorite of mine. Stagecoach is good.

Howard Hawks also has a bunch of good ones. Rio Bravo and Red River.

Shane is great too. I'd put that up there with My Darling Clementine.

ava13 said...

How about The Gunfighter (1950) -- Gregory Peck as the gunman well aware of the downside of notoriety. It would probably help if you don't listen to the Bob Dylan song about it first.

My personal fave is the original 3:10 to Yuma, which to me is all about competing philosophies of what it means to be a man. Just watch Van Heflin sweat as the clock counts down -- terrific. [Very quotable, too!]

Justine said...

One of my favourite films, although I'm the first to admit it's faults (namely the lighthearted part of the story to counterbalance the darkness of Ethan's tale). It's a film that has inspired a lot of films to follow, namely Taxi Driver, and you can easily draw up the similiraties between Travis and Ethan.

I like what you say about the frustrating ambiguity, because it certainly is there... however (you have to be very observant), when the young girl is hiding in the grave yard at the beginning of the film the tombstone she is leaning against says "Here lies Mary Jane Edwards killed by Commanches May 12, 1852. A good wife and mother in her 41st year." A subtle and hard to miss motivation for Ethan's hatred for the Comanches, as they killed his mother sixteen years earlier. Even this though doesn't really matter in the great scheme of things, Ethan is a mystery, and a loner. He cannot fit into society because of his rage and drive. He is a madman, and in this film we have perhaps the great shift in westerns from a grand old time, to reflective on values, heroes and the old west as mythology.

CJKennedy recommended most of my favourites, I'd also throw in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Another great Ford.