Monday, July 20, 2009

The Searchers (1956)

Of all the canonical classics of American cinema, few are as highly disputed as The Searchers. It has been called the "Great American Film," and a generation of filmmakers, critics, and moviegoers have imbued it with an almost mythic stature. Yet a new generation of moviegoers have questioned its reputation, focusing on its perceived racism and jarring variations in tone. I find the accusations of racism hard to fathom, though The Searchers is far from politically correct. However, The Searchers is flawed in several important ways, most of them tracing back to the script.

As the film begins, crusty Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) arrives at his brother Aaron’s ranch in Texas. Shortly afterwards, a Comanche raid leaves all but Aaron’s two daughters killed. Ethan sets off with a search party to rescue the two girls, but soon all have abandoned the quest except for Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Aaron’s adopted son. As the years go by, the racist Ethan becomes intent upon killing the lone survivor, Debbie, believing that after years of living with Indians she is beyond saving.

This central arc of The Searchers is compelling, but unfortunately screenwriter Frank S. Nugent surrounds it with a meandering romantic subplot. In several scenes, Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles play out a contrived romance which only serves to distract from the main story. Nugent’s script is also flawed in its treatment of the supporting characters, most of whom are caricatures being played for laughs. The comedy often sinks quite low – in fact, a big joke is made out of a large Indian woman being kicked down a hill. The script is altogether too comic, a flaw which often undermines the film’s suspense and the film’s tone in general.

What cannot be argued with, though, is John Ford’s superb direction. Monument Valley, no doubt a stunning vista on its own, becomes even more breathtaking when filtered through Ford’s discerning camera. Few films capture so well the beauty and breadth of the natural world, along with the inherent dangers that go with it. Ford also displays his skill for choreographing exciting and suspenseful action sequences. It is no surprise to see how often the film’s shots are quoted, in films ranging from Star Wars to Lawrence of Arabia to Kill Bill.

Yet Ford’s skill does not lie only in the cinematography. He takes a rather conventional Western script and draws out universal themes like obsession and the nature of heroism. This is done completely without pretension, and Ford never seems to stretch to lofty artistic ambitions. The Searchers reveals what a master Ford is, as he simultaneously delivers an entertaining Western movie and elevates it to something far more lyrical.

Still, I cannot pretend that The Searchers is the masterpiece that so many claim. I think the film's supporters tend to ignore the buffoonery of the supporting characters and the many imperfections of the script. It is one of the landmark Westerns, no doubt (though I prefer both My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). But one of the greatest films ever made? That'll be the day.

Verdict: B