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The Searchers

April 11, 2007

The Wild West , a land of legends and tales. A place of harsh beauty, and wide, open, landscapes. An era when men were men, and it was the survival of the fittest. An era of cowboys on horses, sharpshooters, frontier towns, log cabins and gambling saloons. An era immortalized on celluloid by the likes of John Ford, Sergio Leone, Fred Zimmerman . Actors like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, Lee Marvin and of course Clint Eastwood became identified closely with this genre.

In the early days most of the Westerns were simple black and white stories. The hero, was the good, noble person, protecting the town from the bad guys. The good guys were usually the white settlers, civilized. And the bad guys were the uncivilized savage Red Indians. But as the standard Western became predictable, more and more Westerns started to break away from the conventional mode.
Fred Zimmerman’s classic High Noon starring Gary Cooper , was the first in the line. But one of the most significant and greatest Western movie to be made is John Ford’s 1956 epic Western The Searchers . Ford and Wayne were to the Westerns what Scorcese and Robert De Niro where to the gangster movie. John Wayne had acted in many memorable Westerns under the direction of Ford like Stagecoach, Rio Grande , She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache . But it was the Searchers that would prove to be the greatest in their collaboration.
The movie starts off with Ethan Edwards( John Wayne) returning to his brother Aaron’s home in Texas after the Civil War. His brother’s family lives on a farmstead, and consists of his wife Martha , their two daughters Lucy and Debbie , and their teenaged son Ben . Ethan has been away from his family for long, and no one knows where he has been and what he has been doing all this time. The family also includes Aaron’s adopted son, Marty Pawley( Jeffrey Hunter) who is of half Indian breed.

In a Comanche ( a tribe of Red Indians) raid, his brother’s family is slaughtered, while Debbie is kidnapped by them. Ethan comes back to see Martha raped and killed, and his brother, along with his soon, murdered. Ethan sets out on a search, for the killers, along with Marty, Brad( who is Lucy’s fiancée) and some other rangers. He has a twin objective of rescuing Debbie & Lucy, as well as avenging his brother’s death. What happens to Debbie ? Will she be rescued by Ethan ? Can Ethan overcome his hatred for the Indians?

Though on the surface it looks like a straight forward Western tale of revenge and adventure, The Searchers , is in fact a complex study of racism and masculinity. Ethan himself is not a straight as arrow, good guy. He is a cynical loner, and none knows what he did for a living. He hates Indians with a vengeance and considers Marty as a half breed. When he comes to know, that Debbie has been married off to a Comanche , he considers her impure, and feels its better to kill her off. As he says “Living with the Comanches aint being alive”. While still depicting the Indians as a brutal, savage people, it doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities inflicted upon the Indians by the American settlers either. Ethan Edwards is a morally ambiguous and complex character.

Another theme the movie harps on is the clash between civilization and wilderness. The memorable opening scene, where the door of the cabin opens out, shows a visual motif, contrasting the wilderness outside with the safety of the home. And in one of the most memorable introductions, Wayne’s character slowly comes into focus against the vast landscape of the desert. The woman strains her eyes in the sunlight, and then she recognizes him. The movie looks at traditional Western values like honor, chivalry and courage in a somewhat different light.

It is because of this, this movie has been an influence on many other American movie makers. Martin Scorsese , in fact used the concept of a lone ranger, on a mission to save some one close to him in Taxi Driver . Like Ethan Edwards, Travis Bickle is a loner, who wants to save the life of a young girl from the scum around her. No wonder Scorsese calls it one of the biggest influences on his career. One of the memorable scenes is the attack by the Indians. We see the tension building up slowly, and the panic stricken reactions of the family members. It cuts to Chief Scar, standing over Debbie, and then he blows the horn, signaling the massacre. Sergio Leone adopted this for a similar scene in Once Upon A Time in the West , and the scene when Ethan comes back to see the cabin in flames, and the family members slaughtered was taken by George Lucas for a similar scene in Star Wars , when Luke Skywalker comes back and watches his home in flames, his uncle and aunt dead.
Like any other Western, this movie has some wonderful wide screen shots of Monument Valley in Utah using the Vista Vision technology. The opening scene has got to be one of the best introductory scenes in Hollywood. David Lean was again inspired by this to create a similar introduction for Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia .

John Wayne gives one of the best performances of his career, as the cynical loner, who needs to find his kidnapped niece. He wonderfully brings out the moral ambiguity of his character in many a scene.
Giving him good support are Jeffrey Hunter as Marty , the half Indian adopted son of Aaron and Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards , the abducted girl, who is forcibly married off to a Comanche . This is a movie to be watched by every movie lover for it’s wonderful cinematography, excellent narration and characterization, and of course John Wayne.
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