Sometimes, I just feel like I don’t agree with the AFI on anything.
The Searchers is one of the most well respected movies in the world. It is number one on AFI’s Best Westerns list. It is number twelve on their 100 Years, 100 Movies list. And John Wayne loved playing Ethan Edwards so much, he named one of his own children Ethan.
I thought it was . . . okay. Not my least favorite western of the year — I definitely liked it better than McCabe & Mrs. Miller — but it sure as hell wasn’t my favorite.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) spends five years trying to track down the group of Comanche Indians who’ve killed most of his family and kidnapped his niece. Ethan’s not-quite-nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) tags along.
1. This is not a movie with many likable or sympathetic characters. It’s a bit of a problem for me.
In the movie’s defense, Ethan Edwards isn’t really supposed to be all that likable. His racism is a huge part of the film — you don’t want to just chuck that out and make him a jolly, peace-loving kind of guy cause then, you know, no story. He has some pretty awful ideas and he’s willing to do some pretty terrible things because of them. I don’t take issue with any of that, not really.
But I found John Wayne unlikable from the get-go, and I mean from almost the second he stepped into the house, before we even found out that he had serious issues with Native Americans. And while I feel like I should have some kind of sympathy for him, even if I don’t particularly like him . . . I don’t know. I just don’t. I should admit bias here, though: John Wayne? Not my favorite guy in the world. I wasn’t really a big John Wayne fan before I found out that he was a supporter of blacklisting. (And the funny thing is, I don’t feel like I’ve ever had much trouble separating an artist’s career from his politics, but who knows? We all have our sore spots.)
And there’s just something about Ethan . . . I find him so unlikable that he almost comes off a little one-note to me. And that’s also weird because, despite my dislike of him, I definitely think John Wayne is one of the better actors in this movie. He has some nice moments here and there — well, at least one that I’m thinking of in particular — but I’d still rather see this role in someone else’s hands. I’m not quite sure who. In a remake, maybe . . . Michael Fassbender? Tom Hardy? Christian Bale? Josh Brolin? One way or another, I think I need to find Ethan Edwards a lot more engaging than I actually do.
2. And unfortunately, I don’t like Martin all that much better.
This one has almost everything to do with acting. Jeffrey Hunter (probably best known — at least to Trekkies — as the original Captain Christopher Pike) is severely annoying in this role. I like the idea of his character. He was adopted by Ethan’s now-dead brother, and he’s very young and earnest and desperate to get his sister back, no matter if they’re blood-related or not. I like that Martin is constantly putting his own life on hold because he can’t give up on Debbie, and he can’t entirely trust Ethan to bring her back alive. Martin is an interesting character in theory, but in actuality — man, he’s a whiny sonofabitch.
In Hunter’s defense . . . it’s possible that his sulky performance is at least partially due to John Ford’s interference. Mind you, this is an entirely unconfirmed theory that might have no basis in fact at all, but when I think of the other Wayne/Ford venture I’ve seen, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I remember feeling like Ford was guiding me to empathize with John Wayne over Jimmy Stewart, and I found that incredibly frustrating. And it does make me wonder if there isn’t something similar going on here, if Hunter isn’t playing up Martin’s poutiness to make sure we don’t mistake him for the hero of the piece. Because even though John Wayne is playing against type — something every review of this movie I’ve ever read is eager to point out — I still feel like I’m supposed to see him as the real man of the hour here, and I don’t know. It feels mildly artificial.
Regardless of whose decision it was, though, Martin’s whininess is often pretty irritating. I don’t need him to be super tough or anything, but ineffectual child isn’t really working for me, either. While watching The Searchers, I had an overwhelming urge to rename the movie, something like Racist and Sulky Take the Wild West!
3. Or maybe I should amend that to Asshat #1 and Asshat # 2 Take the Wild West, because honestly. Martin annoys me, but I don’t find him truly unsympathetic until he kicks a woman down a hill for no reason. I’ll talk more about this in the Spoiler Section, but I will say this about it: it’s played for laughs, and it’s not funny.
4. The bright spot in this whole movie for me is Vera Miles.
Vera Miles was also in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and she was just as much fun there as she is here. Here, though, she plays Laurie, Martin’s love interest. She’s funny and smart and has quite a bit of a temper, but she also has flaws — for instance, she’s totally a racist. Basically everyone is — it’s clearly something that pervades the whole culture — but boy, does it show in one particular line. Still, I like her. She feels fairly well-rounded to me, and she livens up the whole movie. I was desperately grateful when she came along, and I only wish there had been a western where Vera Miles had played the cowboy because, man. I would have watched that film in a hot second.
5. The more I think about it, the more I see common factors between The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
A. Village Idiot Characters
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it’s the sheriff. In The Searchers, there are two characters who could fit the bill — Mose, who’s kind of annoying, and Charlie, who’s incredibly annoying. Charlie is so especially irritating because he’s the other supposed love interest for Laurie, as if Laurie is such an unattractive woman that the only other man out there who might be interested in her is a guy who can barely get a sentence out. Once again, I think I’m supposed to find these guys funny, but if so, I’m missing the joke.
(An aside for you Twin Peaks fans out there: the guy who played Mose, Hank Worden? He also played the ancient waiter guy. Man. I hated that guy.)
B. Repetitive John Wayne Catchphrases
He might not say “pilgrim” nearly two dozen times, but John Wayne does say, “That’ll be the day,” at least four times throughout the film, and that’s just too much. Repetition is a subtle art, people! I’m tired of explaining this! (See? That was kind of a joke, cause . . . oh, never mind.)
C. Age-Inappropriate Actors
It’s not quite as egregious as casting a fifty year old man as a teenager, I suppose, but Pippa Scott is a 31-year-old woman playing a girl who, I’m guessing, is supposed to be about sixteen? They never actually say her age, but she’s clearly supposed to be at least a decade younger than she looks, and wow, does it show.
6. More Casting Fails: I don’t take serious issue with the fact that all the Comanches are played by Navajo Indians, although maybe it wouldn’t have been a terrible idea for them to actually learn the Comanche language and dress in appropriate Comanche clothing, Mr. Ford. But obviously when one of the Native Americans actually gets to have dialogue, well, clearly that’s when you cast the white guy.
Because no one looks more convincing as an Indian chief than a German with blue eyes.
7. Finally, before Spoilers, one of my biggest problems with this movie is a character shift at the end of the film. I won’t say exactly what happens, just that one of the main characters changes his/her mind about something far, far too abruptly for my tastes. I don’t object to the change of opinion itself, exactly — you know, people learn things — but the buildup for it is crap. I don’t buy it at all.
If you’re not tired of all this blasphemy yet, feel free to continue further.
We begin our story with Ethan Edward dropping by his brother’s for a visit. Ethan’s been gone for some time, doing various mysterious, no-good things, but his sister-in-law, Martha, sure looks glad to see him. Ethan looks glad to see her too, but other than a few exchanged looks, we never really get any confirmation of an affair between them. I kind of like this, the mini-subplot’s complete lack of dialogue, but I’ve also read that some people are completely convinced that little Debbie is Ethan’s daughter and not his niece.
I can see where people are pulling that from, and I don’t take issue with the interpretation — in fact, I kind of like it — but I do feel that if I’m supposed to know it as fact, without a shadow of a doubt in my mind, well, then I would need some dialogue. At this point, I think it’s only an interpretation. A good one, but certainly not an indisputable truth.
Anyway, Ethan comes home and is relatively pleasant — as pleasant as he gets, anyway — to everyone in the family except for Martin, who he stares at with obvious distaste and pretty much dismisses as a half-breed. Martin says he’s 1/8th Cherokee, which of course is 1/8th too much for Ethan, and he will spend the rest of the movie reminding Martin that they aren’t kin, and that Martin isn’t really related to Debbie, and so on and so forth. This is kind of crushing for Martin, not just because it’s awful, hateful talk, but also because Ethan was the guy who saved Martin as a child. (Martin’s parents were killed by Indians when he was a boy.)
So, Ethan and Martin accompany some old Confederate soldiers to try and track down some stolen cattle. Turns out, the cattle was just a ruse to draw people away from the house. When they return, Ethan’s brother, Martha, and their young son have all been killed, and Lucy and Debbie have been kidnapped.
A couple of things about this:
1. Lucy’s fear is unintentionally and unfortunately pretty hysterical. I feel a little bad about that because her character does meet a pretty awful end, and she has every right to freak out here — but the way the actress portrays that fear, with the hand slowly rising to her mouth and the drawn-out scream . . . it’s nearly impossible to take seriously.
2. I’m not entirely crazy about some of the editing choices. The parents sneak Debbie — and only Debbie — out of the house so that she can hide at her grandmother’s tombstone. (Hiding’s a charitable word, really. She’s almost completely exposed out there.) I initially assumed this was just a way to get Debbie on her own, since I knew going in that the Comanches would abduct her. However, they also take Lucy, and that seems strange to me — why even isolate Debbie, then? Why include this scene at all? (Other than to hint at the origins of Ethan’s secret hatred of Native Americans. The tombstone apparently explains that his mother was killed by them, although I totally didn’t notice at the time, so if that was the reason to include it, well, it kind of failed for me.)
Point is, it took me a little bit to realize someone else had been taken — Mek and I were like, Wait, why are there are only THREE crosses — and even longer to confirm that Lucy was the other family member stolen away. I just feel like the whole thing could have been done a little cleaner.
But back to the plot — Ethan, Martin, and Lucy’s Boyfriend ride around with the ex-Confederates for a while, trying to catch up with the Comanches, but that doesn’t work out so well. So the three separate and go on their own. At one point, Ethan goes through a canyon by himself and suspiciously leaves his jacket behind. We find out why shortly afterwards: he found Lucy’s naked corpse nearby, and he covered it up with his coat. Presumably, she was raped as well as murdered, and in his fury, Lucy’s Boyfriend charges directly at the nearby Indians without any kind of plan but RAGE. Sometimes that kind of thing works for superheroes, especially if there’s only fifteen or twenty minutes left in the movie, but this movie’s barely begun and Lucy’s Boyfriend is such a minor character that I clearly couldn’t even be bothered to look up his name. Therefore, he quickly dies.
Ethan and Martin spend the next five years searching for Debbie, occasionally going back to the Jorgensen’s home to rest up. Lucy’s Boyfriend was a Jorgensen. Also, Laurie — Martin’s love interest. (Sadly, Laurie will never even once make mention of her dead brother. I don’t know. It’s weird.) She wants Martin to stay home and insists she won’t wait on him forever, but he can’t do it. And I actually feel for both of them here. I completely understand not giving up on your sibling, but I also know that I’d be incredibly unlikely to wait five years for my lover to come back from chasing someone who might already be dead. In fact, I respect Laurie a little more for not doing that and trying to move on.
Except, of course, that she’s trying to move on by marrying Charlie. And this, this I cannot abide.
One other thing to mention about the Jorgensens: the mother is a schoolteacher, and she has this to say about her home and its future: “Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year and next, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be.”
Seriously, writers. Shut the hell up.
Okay, let’s see . . . right. At one point, Martin accidentally manages to buy himself an Indian wife. (Because oh, the hijinks.) Her name is Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky, or Look. Whichever Martin prefers, really. Martin doesn’t like either. He goes to sulk in his sleeping bag, as is his wont — honestly, I don’t think I can accurately capture just how much Martin pouts in this movie — and when WGFitNS/Look lies down beside him, he rolls over and kicks her down a hill.
Martin, I admire your dedication to your sister and all, but you are now officially an asshole.
WFGitNS/Look runs off after Ethan questions her about Chief Scar. (Oh, I forgot to mention him. Well, he’s the Big Bad
German Indian Chief, as you might imagine from a guy named Scar. Oh, subtle naming strikes again.) She’s later found dead with a bunch of other Comanches, who were killed by a bunch of soldiers.
Eventually, Martin and Ethan do find Debbie, who’s all grown up now. Okay, partially grown up. Anyway, she’s transformed from Lana Wood to Natalie Wood.
By now, Debbie has assimilated into the
Navajo Comanche culture. She tells Martin that she waited and waited for him as a child, but he never came, and these people are her family now. At one point, Ethan tries to shoot her — because, you know, better dead than one of them — but Martin won’t get out of the way. Frankly, I’m a tiny bit surprised that Ethan doesn’t just shoot both of them, but I guess traveling with someone for five years makes you slightly less inclined to kill them, despite your prejudices . . . although this has not been my own personal experiences with road trips.
Oh, one other thing I almost forgot — Chief Scar shows Martin and Ethan some scalps he has, and Ethan later tells Martin that one of the scalps belonged to Martin’s mother. First: how long do scalps keep, exactly? This is a serious question. I’m curious. Second: did Martin’s mother have a particularly distinctive scalp? I mean, was her hair blue or something? Did she have a big mole on her hairline? Third: really? We really had to make Chief Scar the same guy who killed Martin’s parents? For Christ’s sake. This is unnecessary and dumb.
Anyhow, Martin and Ethan escape from the Comanches and get home just in time to see Laurie in her wedding dress. Martin gets into a fistfight with Charlie, and Charlie eventually calls off the wedding. Laurie pleads with Sulky to stay again — this time arguing that Martha would have wanted Ethan to kill Debbie which, OUCH — but Martin takes off again. This time, he and Ethan team back up with the ex-Confederate soldiers.
They’re supposed to meet some Union soldiers, too, but the Union — save one useless kid, played by John Wayne’s real life son — isn’t going to get there in time because, you know, they’re all a bunch of incompetent bastards. The Searchers is such a pro-Confederate movie. (Really, here’s a line — “Figure a man’s only good for one oath at a time; I took mine to the Confederate States of America!”) It’s practically a sub-genre of Hollywood now, Yay Confederacy! Films, and it’s one that always confuses me a little. Because — and here I go, pissing off the South and almost certainly my father, sorry in advance, Papa — the Confederacy was not exactly a good. You can talk about states rights all you want; the Confederacy was fighting to keep slavery. I know the Union wasn’t chock full of great guys, either — hey, I know history; I’ve seen at least two parts of North & South — but to me and most people I know, the Confederate flag is a symbol of one of our most shameful periods in history. It’s just not something to be celebrated.
All right, enough of that. Martin sneaks in alone and rescues Debbie — who now wants to be rescued, which is kind of an abrupt 180. But okay, maybe she’s had some time to think it over offscreen, whatever. It bothers me, but not as much as what’s coming. Martin shoots Chief Scar in the head, and Ethan later scalps his corpse. The rest of the men charge in attack the rest of the tribe. Somehow in the fray, Martin and Debbie get separated, and Ethan chases her down. There’s a moment when you think Ethan’s going to kill her, but he scoops Debbie up and takes her home instead.
And I don’t mind that he decides to do this, in theory, but I just don’t feel we’ve seen enough change in him over the course of the film for this to seem remotely believable. I either need Martin to kill Ethan in order to save Debbie, or to see a real moment prior to this scene where Ethan is struggling with what he should do. As is, I’m calling bullshit because this moment feels contrived instead of genuine, and it’s a serious problem for me.
Anyway, they all go home. Martin is reunited with Laurie, and presumably they’ll get married and have babies, and hopefully Martin won’t kick them or her down any hills. As for Ethan, he stands in the doorway for a while, watching everyone, before eventually turning away.
It’s a very iconic last shot and for good reason — it’s a great conclusion. But overall, I don’t think this film is the masterpiece that everyone else in the entire world claims it is.
Good story and good ideas, but unlikable characters and unconvincing fourth quarter conversions make this one pretty problematic for me. I’d kind of like to see a remake, honestly. Also, I’m clearly a heathen, but I guess we already knew that.
Family is what matters most. Probably. Unless Debbie had refused to go with Ethan at the end of the film — then I bet he still would have shot her. Who thinks I’m wrong?