Film Fest 1: 'The Searchers' (1956)
By: Robert Burgoyne
My Favorite Film is The Searchers (1956).
Selecting a single favorite or most admired film is a decision I have avoided making for a long time, although it's a question I am often asked. Usually, I respond with the titles of three films, each from different periods and each belonging to different genres, as works I truly love and admire, with no one film taking precedence. At Violet Chaudoir's invitation, however, I am mounting the barricades for what I can now say is my favorite and most admired film, The Searchers, by John Ford (1956).
This brilliant Western, one of the most beautiful and textually layered films ever made, has drawn filmmakers and artists as well as film scholars into its orbit. In broad terms, the plot can be summarized as the five-year search through the deserts, forests and mountains of the American Southwest for a young girl, Debbie, abducted by the Commanche tribe of Native Americans during a raid on the Edwards' homestead in the period after the American Civil War. The men searching for Debbie, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), are driven by the desire to rescue Debbie, but also, in the case of Ethan, by darker, more ambiguous motives. The film follows the search through the years and through the seasons, as they persist through chest high snow, lunar desert landscapes, swamps and rivers, presented in pellucid images of unparalleled beauty.
Images from The Searchers(John Ford, USA,1956). Released by Warner Bros.
The Searchers has captured the fascinated interest of many other filmmakers and artists. Douglas Gordon, for example, the extraordinary British avant-garde artist, has constructed an homage to The Searchers entitled the "5 Year Drive By." It consists of a single projection of the film, stretched to five years -- slowed down to one frame advancing every 45 minutes, so that the complete film takes five full years to unfold. The emblematic installation for this piece is in the California desert, on a drive-in type movie screen where the film's setting in Monument Valley and the desert landscape that surrounds the screen blend into each other. Gordon explained that just as it took five years for the two protagonists, Ethan and Martin, to find the kidnapped Debbie, it would take five years to consider all of the mysteries embedded in the film.
Many other artists have been fascinated by the work as well, including Martin Scorsese, who quotes it at length in Taxi Driver, Paul Shrader, who says that "The Searchers plays the fullest artistic hand," and George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. What most moves and intrigues me about the film is its extraordinary combination of surpassing visual beauty -- visual poetry, really -- and its dark, dramatic subject matter and subtexts. It exposes the murderous racism of the central character, Ethan, who is one of the most complex and darkly shaded characters in American film. Consider Ethan, a figure of mythic proportion -- the hero of the narrative -- for just a moment. A former Confederate soldier, he still swears allegiance to the Confederacy, and may be wanted in several States; he is in love with his brother's wife and she, with him; he is consumed with race hatred, so much so that he cannot bear that his sidekick and probable nephew, Martin, "looks like an Indian;" and he desecrates the corpse of Scar, his Native American nemesis and double, and is seen carrying Scar's scalp in his hands. As he pursues Debbie at the end of the film, she is seen running for her life, convinced that he is pursuing her in order to kill her -- for violating the white code, for passing over to the Indian side.
Even today, Ethan contains shadows that only now seem to emerge from the depths of the character. Recently, given my current interests in the war film, I have seen Ethan in a new light, as a victim of war trauma, a walking time bomb ravaged by demons he cannot name or control.
The film exposes the dark heart of the American frontier legend, the untold story of the near genocide of the Indians. This war narrative of the West is not a story of transcendence. But the film's exploration of this poisoned history is rendered with grandeur and the full force of emotion. Like an ancient myth, it unfolds as a celebration and a lament all in one.