I recently taught a “Film as Literature” course in which I showed 14 different films that had “literary merit.” In selecting the films for the class, I tried to avoid movies based on prose works that were already considered “great literature”—but I slightly cheated on that approach by using two films based on works by Philip K. Dick. I also used 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that wasn’t “cheating” because Arthur C. Clarke’s novel was written after Clarke and Stanley Kubrick worked on the screenplay together.
I plan to write a Spontaneous Quixote column for each of the films I used, and this week’s column is the first of these planned 14 columns. For this first one, I wanted to get The Searchers out of the way because it is the film I liked the least out of the 14. In fact, when I teach the class again this coming June, The Searchers will not be part of the curriculum.
As I was putting together the list of films to use in the class, I initially came up with a list of 35 movies (I have since thought of three others I forgot to include, so that “master list” is now up to 38). My goal was to pare the master list down to 10—with at least one film from each decade beginning with the 1920s. I eventually expanded my goal to 12 films, and then settled on 14 when I couldn’t decide which two to remove with the final cut.
Additionally, I wanted to try to include a variety of subgenres—such as comedy, romantic comedy, musical, crime, western, war, science fiction, et cetera. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed in either of my two goals. Despite expanding my final list to 14 films, I ended up not having a representative from the 1990s. Additionally, due to my personal preferences, I ended up having five science fiction films in the final 14:
- Metropolis (1927)
- Modern Times (1936)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Blade Runner (1982)
- A Scanner Darkly (2006).
Obviously, I had difficulty in cutting the list down to a minimum of two science fiction films—which meant some of the other subgenres were not going to be included. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a gangster film on the final list. I cut The Godfather due to time constraints, and I had forgotten about Miller’s Crossing (one of the three films I have since added to the original 35).
Anyway, one of my biggest dilemmas was deciding on which western to use. I had four on the original list of 35, but I have since added Heaven’s Gate (1980) as another of the three new additions. I realize Heaven’s Gate is a film that is hated by many critics and moviegoers, but I liked it a great deal when I saw it. However, the original four westerns I had were:
- The Searchers (1956)
- The Wild Bunch (1969)
- Unforgiven (1992)
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Of those four, I ended up picking The Searchers (a film I had not previously seen) because it was on several lists of “all-time best films” and was often called the “greatest western ever made.” It was also directed by John Ford, who made other westerns I have enjoyed, and I figured it was a good idea to have a Ford film in the class. Additionally, the late Roger Ebert claimed that the film’s protagonist, Ethan Edwards, was “one of the most compelling characters Ford and [John] Wayne ever created.”
After watching it, I do not consider The Searchers to be a great film. However, to be fair, it was probably a much more impressive film in 1956. It might even be argued that in 1956 it was “the greatest western ever made” at that point in Hollywood history—though Shane was released in 1953, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I did The Searchers.
I have no doubt that part of my problem with The Searchers is that I’m looking at it with the eyes of a jaded 21st-century American in 2015. However, the film being almost 60 years old is not an issue. I love old movies, and I consider Citizen Kane (1941) to be one of the greatest movies ever made—definitely in my top five. No, my problem with The Searchers isn’t that it’s old; it’s that it’s old fashioned! It’s outdated. The plot isn’t the problem; it’s how the plot was presented for a 1956 audience.
After a Comanche attack that kills his brother and sister-in-law, Ethan Edwards sets off in search of his two nieces who were abducted by the Comanche raiding party. The two nieces are Lucy Edwards (played by 21-year-old Pippa Scott) and Debbie Edwards (played as a 17-year-old woman by Natalie Wood and as a 10-year-old child by Natalie Wood’s little sister Lana Wood).
In his pursuit of his nieces and their abductors, Ethan finds Lucy early in the story—a discovery that is only described through indirect exposition rather than shown on the screen. I have not read the novel on which the movie is based, but I’m guessing it goes into a more detailed description of Ethan’s discovery than we are given in the film. However, from what little we are told of Ethan’s off-screen discovery, it’s easy to extrapolate by the end of the story that Lucy was gang raped by her Comanche captors before being murdered and scalped.
Lucy’s mostly implied fate must have come as quite a shock to audiences in 1956—and the shock would certainly have left a long-lasting impression that could cause audiences to recall the film as “the greatest western ever made.” However, because of the way it was handled by Ford (whose options were undoubtedly limited due to the Hollywood standards of the time), Lucy’s ghastly fate did not shock me—nor did it leave me with a lasting memory of the film. Her rape, death, and scalping could have affected me had it been presented differently, but not in the way it was handled with Wayne’s character struggling to suppress his anguish while saying he didn’t want to talk about it. That type of suppression of emotion and dialog can be effective for a contemporary audience, but not in the way it’s presented in this film for a 1950s audience.
I’m familiar with the type of memorable “shock” that can come from an older film that can seem old-fashioned to a contemporary audience. For me, that film is George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1969)—which, admittedly, looks rather outdated now, but that movie scared (and scarred) me when I first saw it on late-night television when I was 16 years old (at a time when it had not yet become “quaint”).
An updated remake of The Searchers that openly shows the story’s physical brutality and emotional cruelty would make for an excellent film—just as another old John Wayne western, True Grit, was remade by the Coen Brothers into an effective film starring Jeff Bridges as Wayne’s iconic Rooster Cogburn.
Additionally, an updated remake of The Searchers would have to be more blatant in its depiction of Ethan as a racist ex-Confederate soldier. The racist aspects of Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan are evident, but it’s a polite racism. As we jaded 21st-century citizens know, racism is not polite—and a contemporary audience would not accept a film with “politically correct” racism.
Another problem with the film is one I have with many westerns—including most of Ford’s other westerns and Sergio Leone’s otherwise classic Once Upon a Time in the West. Many Hollywood westerns (as well as spaghetti westerns) tend to use Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park as the film’s setting even though those beautiful, stark desert buttes make absolutely no sense within the context of the story. For instance, The Searchers is set in Texas—with some scenes occurring north of Texas in Oklahoma and/or Kansas. Nothing in those three states looks anything like Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah.
Monument Valley is located in the border region between northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah—and the area shown in Hollywood westerns is only about five square miles of the region. The use of these beautiful desert buttes in so many westerns over the past seven decades has caused many people to conceptualize the American West as one vast Monument Valley landscape. It’s not, but it has become the iconic image of the American west.
Speaking of iconic scenes, The Searchers ends with a scene that is considered an iconic image of John Wayne—and my reaction to that final image is actually the first thing I wrote about this film. It’s the iconic image that I assigned my students to write about, so I also wrote about that scene.
See? This entire column has been moving towards my spontaneous reaction to that one iconic scene that I had not seen before watching the film that day with my students.
The ending of the film shows John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards standing in the doorframe as the rest of the characters file into the Edwards’s house. That closing shot is a reflection of the film’s opening shot in which Lucy and Debbie’s mother, Martha Edwards, opens the door and looks out at the stark desert landscape and sees Ethan approaching as he arrives “home” from the Civil War—albeit three years late in 1868.
While the opening shot is symbolic of opening the door for the audience as we enter the movie to watch the story, the closing shot of Ethan in the doorway is symbolic of Ethan’s situation in society and representative of Ethan as the American type (which is different from “the typical American”).
From our vantage point as the movie’s audience, we are already inside the house, and the rest of the characters are entering through the doorway to join us. Thus, the home in which we are in is emblematic of society—a group of people who choose to live, work, and cooperate together for the benefit of the whole (at least in theory)—and, just as the doorway into this house frames Ethan within the film’s final shot, so too is Ethan framed by the society from which he has chosen to live separately.
Ethan is representative of the lone American hero—the literary tough guy who chooses to be independent from the larger social body but who is nevertheless defined by the social body—for a lone-wolf protagonist cannot be defined as “lone” unless we also define The Other from which he has voluntarily isolated himself.
Thus, as the rest of the characters come together to re-enter society following the story’s events that threatened to tear them apart, Ethan looks on and realizes he is incapable of re-entering that society—and he has been incapable of it from the beginning of the story following his service in the Confederate army during the Civil War. In fact, as a Confederate American, Ethan’s independence plays off two American types:
- The Colonial Revolutionary who fought for independence from England in order to form a new society in a New World—with the American as the New Man (or New Adam);
- The Confederate Rebel who fought for independence from the Union rather than accept conformity—and who still rejects the new society even though his struggle is over.
There are, of course, other valid interpretations of the ambiguity of Ethan standing in the doorway. For instance, Psycho Drive-In’s managing editor, Paul McCoy, told me that he doesn’t view the ending as Ethan rejecting society and conformity. Instead, Paul interprets the ending as Ethan being a “semi-psychotic racist with no place in Ford’s America. He’s not valorized, but shunned.” Paul’s view is certainly a valid interpretation that I respect, but one of the problems I have with the film is that I see Ethan as either greatly softening or completely rejecting his racism by the end of the film.
When he believes he is going to die, Ethan bequeaths his property to Martin Pawley, who was raised by the Edwards as a son—and, thus, as Lucy and Debbie’s brother. Martin is one-fourth Cherokee (and I suspect he’s actually supposed to be Lucy and Debbie’s half-brother that their father sired with a half Cherokee woman). Earlier in the film, Ethan clearly had a racist attitude to Martin, who is essentially Ethan’s nephew—so making Martin the heir to his property is definitely a softening of Ethan’s racism.
Similarly, Ethan initially wanted to kill Debbie after she had “become a Comanche” during her seven years of captivity (think Stockholm Syndrome). Yet, by the end of the film Ethan has accepted her as his niece and does not kill her. Instead, he cradles her in his arms and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.”
Ethan’s rejection of his racism occurs over the course of seven years, but it seems too quick for viewers of a two-hour film—and his racism was too polite throughout the film, which makes his renunciation of racism too easy for viewers to accept. Thus, I don’t think society is rejecting Ethan at the end. He would likely be welcomed into the house (society) if he wants to enter.
However, instead of entering, he turns his back to us—to the viewing audience, to the people in the house, and (thus) to society. We haven’t turned our back on him; he is rejecting us.
Yes, The Searchers has all of those layers, which means it should be a great film—and it would have been a timeless great film if Ford had not conformed to the Hollywood conventions of Eisenhower’s 1950s America. On the other hand, if he had not conformed, Ford would not have been able to make this good (but not great) film at all.
Sometimes, conforming to conformity is the only way to slip a bit of subversiveness into society without drawing too much attention.