Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Films of John Wayne: The Searchers

I love movies. Between the years of 1965 to 1976 I saw at least two movies a week, when school was out four or five a week. Along with current releases, re-showings of older films regularly made the circuit of our local movie houses. Westerns were especially popular fare in our town and I think I saw them all. There was a time when I didn't care for John Wayne or his movies. I had seen a good many when I was a kid, but in college during the late 70's, I was beginning to find them hokey and trite at best. Then by chance I caught a screening of "The Quiet Man" at the student union and fell in love with his work again.

For me, the movies of John Wayne fall into three categories: those made with John Ford, those made with Howard Hawks, and all the rest. Once asked who his favorite directors were, Orson Welles replied that he preferred the old masters "by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford" (Before it was displaced by "Citizen Kane", John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" was once considered the greatest of American Movies). Director John Ford's movies all seem to have a similar thematic thread running through them: melancholy, lonely, sometimes angry, solitary men driven to do the right thing, the solemn honor and dignity in the face of defeat.

Decades later I watch John Ford's 1956 film "The Searchers" whenever I come across it on TV. The film seems to be loosely based on the life of Cynthia Ann Parker, who in 1836 was taken along with five other children by Comanches. The other children were eventually ransomed but Cynthia was not and she remained with the Comanche band Nokoni for 24 years before being captured by US Cavalry. Her Uncle spent those years and most of his money searching for her. The Comanches of the 1800's were nomadic, hunters, traders and horsemen. Plagued by low birthrates, high infant mortality and short overall lifespan, they frequently raided other Indian tribes, Mexican villages and Anglo settlements; taking children to supplement their ranks and or to use for ransom.

The Searchers is an imperfect film, brilliantly filmed poignant scenes marred by the humorous subplots which seem cobbed on to tone down the relentless somberness of the main plot. The greatest scenes in the movie are for the most part visual, accompanied by little or no dialog. The viewer is left to determine from body language and facial expressions what it is the characters are thinking and feeling. The film works because of these scenes, the acting of John Wayne and to a lesser degree, the acting of the supporting cast.

In The Searchers, John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, who returns home after the Civil War dressed in his Confederate Calvary uniform and bearing his sabre in his hands declaring "I don't believe in surrender". Ethan also returns with a large amount of gold, and although it is never clearly stated, it is suspected by Captain Clayton of the Texas Rangers that he may have come by his gold illegally and suspects him again years later when a trio of men are found dead. "you fit a lot of descriptions" he tells Ethan early in the story and again years later. Ethan appears to be planning on settling back into civilian life only to have his brother and sister in law and nephew killed in a Comanche Indian raid and his two nieces kidnapped. His anguish and rage are palpable. He spends the next five years doggedly searching for her. In the early months of his search he comes upon the raped and mutilated body of Lucy, the older sister. After seeing what was done to her, Ethan is determined that Debbie, the remaining girl, cannot be permitted to live after being the "leavin's of a Comanche buck". With Ethan on his quest is Martin Pawly, who, as a young boy, was brought by Ethan to his brother Aaron's home after Martin's family were killed by Indians. At first his intentions are to help find the two girls whom he considers sisters. But Martin later remains with Ethan solely to stop him from killing Debbie. Eventually they track her down, but Ethan cannot bring himself to kill her. He picks her up in his arms and tells her "let's go home".

Like many of the hero's in Ford's films, John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a bit of a loner. He returns home from the Civil War beaten, but undefeated. Ethan seems to have good friends, is able to smile and laugh, yet there is a solitary loneliness about him. After the deaths and kidnappings, he becomes increasingly hard-bitten and cynical. It soon becomes apparent that he hates Indians and is disgusted by the fact that Martin is 1/8th Comanche.

Being 1/4 American Indian and experiencing racism first hand myself, Ethan's words and actions are a slap in the face, yet somehow I admire and identify with the character. I think I watch the film repeatedly in an effort to understand my contradictory feelings. At odds with his racism is the fact that Ethan can be gentle, tender and kind; he speaks the Indian dialect quite well and seems to have no overt ill will against the various tribes they deal with over the years. Also at odds with his racism is his knowledge of Spanish and seems to bear no animosity towards the Mexican man who helps him finally track down his niece. Can a racist hate just Indians (or just one tribe of Indians)? Is his vitriolic attitude solely due to the tragic deaths of his family?

The film opens with gentle, sweet music playing softly in the background. Martha Edwards opening the cabin door and stepping out on to the porch, eying the rider that slowly approaches. Putting her hand up to shield her eyes from the bright Texas sun, she recognizes him as her brother in-law Ethan. There is a tension in her body, and she reaches for a porch post to steady herself, but touches it almost caressingly. Her husband comes out, looks and turns to her and says "Ethan?" Martha searches her husbands face as he steps out to meet his brother, is he angry? Is there bad blood between them? Ethan dismounts, stands before his brother, then shakes his hand. No warm greeting here. Then he walks towards the cabin, stopping before Martha. She looks up at him and he leans down and tenderly kisses her forehead. She searches his face too, then backs away and the music abruptly sounds discord. Do they have a history? Watch the opening scene and see what you think.

Some reviewers have posted the theory that Martha and Ethan were once lovers, that Debbie is in fact his child. I don't believe this is the case, I think that their story parallels the sub plot of Martin and Laurie. Laurie loves Martin, but is so caught up in his quest to find and protect Debbie that he neglects her. Frustrated at waiting so many years, she becomes engaged to Charlie McCorry. By chance Ethan and Martin arrive back home just before the wedding and Martin stops the wedding.

Captain Clayton tells Ethan that he is taking him in to face murder charges, but before they can leave a US Cavalry man arrives with a message for Captain Clayton, the Nokoni Comanche tribe that has Debbie has been spotted not too far away. Clayton returns Ethan's revolver and the sadness on Ethan's face as he looks at the gun in his hand says it all: the time has come for him to kill Debbie.

Here, in the final scene, Ethan returns Debbie home, his quest is finished. Debbie goes into the cabin with the Jorgensens followed by Martin and Laurie, leaving Ethan alone on the porch. He stares into the cabin for a moment, then turns and walks away.

Alone again, cut adrift from his past life. What happens to man whose obsessive mission has ended? Ethan, like me, must find new meaning for the events that have transpired in his life. I think I watch this film hoping to find answers and clues to those in my life.