The Searchers (1956) – John Ford

John Ford and John Wayne. When it comes to westerns there are few names better, and they are my next stop in the Action section of the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book.

Confederate soldier, Ethan (Wayne) returns to his family’s homestead in Texas after the end of the Civil War, where he tries to reacquaint himself with his kin, and his earlier life. His nephews, and nieces have grown, and things have changed.

He hopes to settle down and stay close to those he love, but he’s also a Confederate soldier through and through, refusing to turn over his sabre at the end of the war, and his hatred of the Other, in this case the Comanche Indians, threatens everything.

When his nieces, Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood & Natalie Wood) are taken in a Comanche raid, he sets out with his 1/8 Cherokee nephew,  Martin (Star Trek’s Jeffrey Hunter) on a trail of vengeance, and hatred.

John Ford’s beautifully shot film follows Ethan on his journey not only through the wilds of Texas, but through the bigoted hatred of one man, symbolising the losing nation of the Confederates. Ethan is a bit of an anti-hero. He’s supposedly on a rescue mission to save his niece, but is more intent on claiming lives of anyone who isn’t white.

He hurls racial epithets at his nephew, desecrates the Comanche dead, and when his years long hunt finally reunites him with a now naturalised Debbie, is her life forfeit now as well?

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Wayne’s character is almost a villain, he’s racist, white, and violent. And you actually believe that once he learns that Debbie has been naturalised into Scar’s (Henry Brandon) tribe, that he will, in fact, kill her. His hatred for The Other is all that he’s got after the resolution of the war.

Wayne is definitely playing against type in this one. Yes, he’s the hero, in a sense. He’s intent on rescuing members of his family, but it’s a question whether his love for them, or his hatred for those not like him drives him faster.

I love the look of the film, though some of the characterisations are troubling, both hero and villain.

For all that, it’s a very strong film, it has stood the test of time, and if one delves beneath the surface of the highly enjoyable Western, there’s some solid social commentary at work as well.

And I love the last shot of the film, and what it means for the character.

That being said, I have never been a John Wayne fan. I’ve never seen the appeal, and after this film, I can still say I don’t. Of course, I didn’t grow up with his films, so that may be part of it. He’s a fine enough actor, but in this case it’s Ford’s direction, the story, the commentary, and the gorgeous location work that help define this film.

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