Viewing The Searchers for the AFI Project
What's the AFI project, you ask? For more information, or if you just enjoy my bemused ramblings, read here http://pippin2010.filmaster.com/review/revisiting-psycho-for-the-afi-project/?preview
The Searchers is on the following AFI lists:
The Original Top 100 (#96)
The Revised Top 100 (#12)
10 Top 10's (#1 Western)
Rounding third, if not halfway to home base, of the baseball diamond that is the AFI's Original List, the next entry (which I watched months ago instantly via Netflix...remember, I'm catching up) was The Searchers, which the AFI also deemed to be the greatest Western of all time. It was for this reason that I was intrigued by the film, despite the fact that it's a Western, which, as you may remember, is my least favorite film genre. Still, it seemed promising: it features the Duke and is directed by John Ford, who also directed Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath, two other films ranked in the AFI's bevy of lists, and both of which I mostly enjoyed. Yet, it's always a tall claim to label something "the greatest" without a proper test, so with the aid of my Roku, I embarked upon this (next) journey into the wild west.
In The Searchers, it's1868, and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns home to Texas from the (American) Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to reunite with his brother, Aaron, and his family. The film implies that Ethan comes to this peaceful homestead amidst some dishonor, though the story does not specify the root of Ethan's troubled past. He brings with him a stash of gold coins, a Mexican war medal, and a refusal to join the Texas Rangers, however, as well as what could only be described as an unspoken and passionate yearning for Aaron's wife, Martha, which seems requited on her part. Ethan is not home long when a neighbor of Aaron's is subjected to cattle thievery by a local tribe of Comanche Indians. Ethan begrudgingly agrees to accompany the Rangers for the ensuing investigation, but the cattle theft is ultimately discovered to be a ploy for the tribe to draw the men away from their families. When Ethan returns to his brother's home, he finds the family murdered, with the exception of Aaron's two young daughters (Lucy and Debbie), who have been kidnapped by the tribe, as suggested by the evidence. A segment of the Rangers, including Debbie's adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and Lucy's fiancé Brad (Harry Carey Jr.), ride off in search of the two girls. The expedition, however, is fraught with perils, and the men witness several more travails with this particular tribe. Before long, the expedition is reduced to just Ethan and Martin in an uncomfortable pairing of mismatched age and experience, as they both zealously pursue the lost girls for their own at-odds reasons.
Upon concluding this film, I was wont to ask, and not at all rhetorically, what makes The Searchers the greatest Western film of all time, according to the powers that be when it comes to deciding such things? For my money, The Searchers is about as formulaic as they come, and I've seen a fair few of the westerns on the 10 Top 10 list.
Is it John Wayne? The Duke is at his usual top form in this film. He plays an openly racist character and manages to make him sympathetic with his signature drawl and quiet bravado. Ethan is stalwart and uncompromising; he's not perfect, and he knows it. Still, this type of persona crops up several times in Wayne's storied filmography. Was Ethan Edwards his best character portrayal, his best performance? Call me mundane or pedestrian, but I thought his roles in films like Stagecoach and True Grit (his Oscar winning role) were far more interesting.
Is it John Ford? The storied director had a long and illustrious film career and no doubt learned much about the use of camera, lighting, to evoke a visual story. He also seemed to have a knack for finding the right pace for the script, and The Searchers is no exception. Though Ethan and Martin's search is long and toils for many years, Ford does not let the story drag nor allow for the whiplash of sudden action. The movie is also beautifully shot; Ford emphasized panorama and, therefore, the size and scope of this near-impossible journey by maximizing the photography of the on-location settings that formed the backdrop for this tale.
Is it the story itself? I've read a few reviews and synopses that suggest that Ford and the screenwriters, with this film, pioneered an examination of the perspective of the Native culture during a decade when it was fashionable to stereotype Indians as the no-holds-barred villains of the western genre. The perpetrator, Scar, the chief of this tribe, has his reasons for his actions, and the "White man" is not without guilt. In fact, Scar's attitudes toward the families his tribe pillages are directly contrasted with Ethan's more banal and less eloquent views of tribal existence and customs.
Yet, the story itself is not ahead of its time. It's a tale of search and rescue, and the contrasting of prejudice on two sides of the coin is not even necessarily a new concept for this decade in film ("Giant" was released the same year).
Also, this film is not the modicum of cinematic perfection, either; it is flawed at its most basic levels. The overall character development suffers; the lack of background for Ethan's character does not aid the viewer in achieving connection or likability with the character. If any connection is maintained, it's owing chiefly to Wayne's charisma as a performer in this type of vehicle, not because the mystery of his past is so alluring. In fact, the lack of past for Ethan, the character with which the viewer is meant to identify most, is potentially more alienating than the alternative; a bit more explanation for why the character is so openly against Indians would have been a start, if for no other reason than that seemed to the character's primary motivation for his unerring search, rather than a love for nieces he barely knew.
Some of the supporting performances are, further, nothing short of strange, from Hunter's awkwardly kooky and headstrong Martin to the shrill reactions of his paramour, Laurie (Vera Miiles), in a B-love story that fails to service the overall narrative, even as effective comic relief. That romance is so disjointedly thrust against what is otherwise an uncompromisingly dark and arguably gripping tale of determination and triumph against the odds, it almost sinks the picture entirely.
Of course, therein lies the crux, I believe, of why The Searchers is bestowed with such accolades. What is ultimately a pretty ordinary western is lent some extraordinariness by the elements described above: Wayne's unflinching anti-hero, Ford's grasp of the genre and ability to pace the picture to the benefit of the viewer's maximum engagement, and the basic story itself and what it represents. Racist and potentially adulterous though he is, Ethan is a man pouring his heart and soul in and risking his life on a search for the love of two helpless girls who need him, regardless of what he did in life prior to the point, and regardless of why the girls need his help in the first place (or what might be fueling his fire to keep riding). I think any other social commentary about the history of race relations in this context is buried by the story's sinews centered on courage and determination against insurmountable hurdles.
The Searchers was, thus, entertaining but nothing close to a perfect film, and, in my opinion, not quite the best Western of American cinema. I think the AFI's second choice, High Noon, was a far better film (see my review here: http://pippin2010.filmaster.com/review/viewing-high-noon-for-the-afi-project/). This is also one of the AFI's notably dramatic re-ranks on the Revised list, jumping 84 spots and incomprehensibly replacing Sunset Boulevard on the original list. I don't think this film warrants such an honor. It was good but not great.
In the end, I find myself wanting to rank The Searchers a 7.5 on the patented ratings scale, for being between shaky and entertaining and having minor flaws but being very good. Viewing the film is worthwhile; this is simply one of the rare AFI rankings with which I staunchly disagree. If anyone would like to come the defense of this film and its import in American cinema, please comment. I know I'm searching for a better explanation than I've heretofore been able to find.