The greatest Western of all time . . . isn’t. Though The Searchers is regularly hailed as the finest exemplar of its genre and one of the best movies of any kind (seventh-best of all time, according to the decennial Sight & Sound poll), John Ford’s 1956 film is mediocre for most of its run time. Nearly all of the praise heaped on it stems from two elements: its closing minutes (notably its ambiguous but beautiful final shot, one of the most enduring in cinema history) and the uncharacteristic brutishness of John Wayne’s portrayal of the film’s hero Ethan Edwards. The acclaim comes from obsessives who have seen the movie so many times that they see things that simply aren’t there, often motivated by a leftist loathing of American mythology that, to put it mildly, Ford and Wayne did not share. A conventional midcentury Western somehow became the Left’s favorite cowboys-and-Indians allegory, a metaphor for Vietnam, McCarthyism, and the civil-rights era.
Smith is writing for a conservative politics-and-culture publication, so the politics, I guess, have to be in there. I don’t know how accurate his description is; when I was at UC Santa Cruz and hanging out in Berkeley, the lefties actually hated The Searchers, mostly because it had John Wayne in it. Be that as it may… I agree with Smith. I never really got the effusive praise for The Searchers, including the supposed profundity of the final shot, which critics and American Studies professors get mighty frothy about.
“No American movie has ever so directly addressed the psychosexual underpinnings of racism or advanced a protagonist so consumed by race hatred. . . . Ethan takes America’s sins — racism, cruelty, violence, intolerance — onto himself.” — J. Hoberman
Somebody please give Mr. Hoberman a cigarette…
From the time I was a little kid, I thought it was weird that the cabin was built on dirt, with nothing but dirt for miles around until you got to more dirt. What pioneer settles in the middle of a giant dirt patch? John Ford was obsessed with Monument Valley for its stunning visuals — understandably enough — but it is kind of ridiculous as a stand-in for Comancheria.
For an excellent depiction of the authentic terrain, check out The Son.
And for an authentic depiction of frontiersmen on a years-long mission to redeem their captive women, go to the original novel The Searchers. Alan LeMay’s novel really is a great Western (although I don’t classify it that way. More on that in a minute). It’s been decades since I’ve read it — I read it multiple times in college. LeMay had frontier roots and a genuine feel for the culture and the landscape of the Great Plains. He knew his history, and he knew the Comanche in all their magnificence and as what McCarthy describes as “a Legion of Horribles.”
Amos Edwards (renamed Ethan in the movie) is a classic example of Richard Slotkin’s “Man Who Knows Indians.” He is an archetypal Indian hater — and he has his reasons. No amount of revisionist scrubbing or rationalization can change the fact that the Comanches were unspeakably brutal in their mode of warfare. Rape was exceedingly rare among the woodland tribes east of the Mississippi, and women who were captured often married, became a full-fledged member of tribal society and chose to remain (see Mary Jemison).
The Comanches often gang-raped female captives. While some, like Cynthia Ann Parker, did become wives of warriors, a common fate was a nasty, brutish and short tenure as a slave.
Men and women who had experienced this cruelty, or suffered loss to it, did, in fact, often succumb to an abysmal hatred and saw the Comanche — any Indians, really — as wild beasts or demonic beings fit only for extermination.
I tend to make a distinction — perhaps idiosyncratic — between the “Western” and the “frontier novel.” In this formulation, the Western operates outside — and without any real need for — context. It’s a kind of mythic morality play. The frontier novel is tightly bound to historical context, even if it is mythologized to some degree. The movie version of The Searchers is a Western; LeMay’s work is a frontier novel.
Journalist Glenn Frankel describes his masterpiece well:
The Searchers is a story of courage and endurance, of stubborn people like LeMay himself who refuse to give up even when the odds are ruthlessly stacked against them. It focuses on two men: Amos Edwards, a ranch hand and Civil War veteran in his early 40s, and his adopted nephew, Martin Pauley, a callow teenager. Together they set out to find young Debbie Edwards, who is Amos’ niece and Martin’s adopted sister, who was kidnapped by Comanches. It is a hard, pessimistic book, as unyielding as the landscape it takes place in.
And now that I’ve set my moccasins on that old, hard, unyielding trail, I feel a need to revisit it.