The Searchers, John Ford’s epic 1956 Western, is a film geek’s paradise: It is preposterous in its plotting, spasmodic in its pacing, unfunny in its hijinks, bipolar in its politics, alternately sodden and convulsive in its acting, not to mention boring. Impossible to enjoy, and yet not as obviously medicinal as, say, The Spirit of the Beehive, The Searchers segregates the initiated from the uninitiated; and so it is widely considered, by the initiated, at least, to be among the four or five best movies of all time. At his maiden screening, a young Cahiers du Cinema critic named Jean-Luc Godard wept, later adding, “How can I hate John Wayne … and yet love him tenderly … in the last reel of The Searchers?” Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader routinely name The Searchers as one of their favorite films, adding, “I see it once or even twice a year” (Scorsese), or, “I make sure to see The Searchers at least once a year” (Schrader), though such encomia have the curious effect of making the movie sound dutiful and unpleasant, like a prostate exam. Maybe the analogy isn’t so outlandish as it seems.
Even its adherents regard The Searchers as something of an excruciating necessity. The film, which is now out in a plush new DVD re-release, tells the story of Ethan Edwards, an Ahab-like obsessive who spends seven years searching for his little niece Debbie, kidnapped by Comanche Indians. (“Co-mansh,” in Ethan’s defiant pronunciation.) As played by John Wayne, Ethan is an embarrassing relic, a man who once fought proudly for the Confederacy and who now glories in his hatred of Indians. Ethan’s racism may be cloddishly depicted, but it’s the source of all the movie’s kinky allure. Ethan wants to find Debbie not to rescue her but to kill her for having been contaminated by what Ethan imagines to be her society, such as it is, with Indians. “She’s been living with a buck,” spits Ethan, referring to Debbie’s probable marriage to Scar, the Indian warrior-chief who engineered her theft. *
Coming to The Searchers for the first time, I was surprised at how fidgeted-together this supposedly great film is, how weird its quilting is, of unregenerate violence with doltish comic set pieces, all pitched against Ford’s signature backdrop, the buttes and spires of Monument Valley. Though visually magnificent, the movie is otherwise off-putting to the contemporary sensibility, what with its when men were men, and women were hysterics mythos and an acting style that often appears frozen in tintype. (Hank Worden’s turn, as the lovable village idiot, is particularly gruesome in this respect.) Not coincidentally, pop critics like Pauline Kael, who found much in the film “awkward,” “static,” and “corny,” and Roger Ebert, who finds the movie flawed and “nervous,” have been the most vocal dissenters in the cult of The Searchers. Its reputation lies elsewhere, with two influential and mutually reinforcing constituencies: critics whose careers emerged out of the rise of “film studies” as a discrete and self-respecting academic discipline, and the first generation of filmmakers—Scorsese and Schrader, but also Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and George Lucas—whose careers began in film school. The hosanna chorus for The Searchers is impossible to imagine, in other words, without the formalized presence of film in the university curriculum. The question, then, is: Why did the curriculum attach so intensely to so obviously flawed a movie?
That Ford should be admired and dissected by a legion of academics would have been amusing to Ford, a self-styled man’s man (and by many accounts, a self-styled drunk’s drunk) who once said, “My name is John Ford. I make Westerns,” as laconic a kiss-off to one’s nerd-cultists as one could imagine. But of course, it is Ford’s status, and even more so Wayne’s, as troubling anachronisms that help levitate the reputation of The Searchers. For everything in The Searchers can be said to be “problematized,” that favored term of art for film and culture studies, starting with the old standbys race and gender but moving on quickly to Wayne and Ford themselves. As has been pointed out, Wayne’s image, a vital component of which had been made in war films like Back to Bataan and The Sands of Iwo Jima, films contemporary to a popular war, was in serious decline by the 1970s; and that image, the distillation of white American machismo, was not surviving an unpopular war intact. (Both Ford and Wayne were vocal supporters of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam.) The argument that Ford, and by extension Wayne, set about in the mid-’50s to “subvert” (another film-studies byword) their own meticulously constructed personas as defenders of a heroic code of the unsettled West was first floated in the early days of film studies, and has been catnip to the institutional critic ever since.
For what The Searchers fails to provide (by way of pleasure) to a paying audience is well-compensated for by what it offers up (by way of raw material) to the interpretation factory. Every woman in the film is a tautly drawn and sexless pioneer wife, until we finally see the Comanche-adopted Debbie, played by the ravishing Natalie Wood. “These are my people,” says little Debbie, now not so little and quite the stone fox in her snug Comanche outfit. “Unt-mea. Go. Go.” Later, in the climax of the film, Ethan finally has Debbie in his sights. He has scalped—though not himself killed—his nemesis, Scar, but does not know that Debbie has at last consented to return to white society. And so he prepares, gun drawn, to exterminate her. I stand with the detractors of this silly film, but what follows must count as one of the more thrilling moments in anyone’s movie-watching life. Wayne places his hands under the terrified Natalie Wood’s armpits, then raises her up to the sky, examining her—murderously? Paternally? He then drops her into his arms and utters his first soft words of the film: “Let’s go home, Debbie.”
Now, “Why didn’t he kill her?” is right up there with “Why does Hamlet dither?” and “Did the governess really see Quint and Miss Jessel?” as one of the great seminar unanswerables; it is sure to keep discussion going for the allotted 50 minutes, along with: Wait, why did he want to kill her in the first place? Was he in love with Debbie’s mother, his milquetoast of a dead brother’s dead wife? Why is Debbie the only hint of good sex in the movie? Are Ethan and Scar doppelgängers? Does Ethan spare Debbie because the scalping of Scar has purged him of his own most perturbing desires? Who knows? In later years, Wayne was asked about the strange depth of Ethan’s obsession. “He did what he had to do,” answered Wayne, mangling the basic details of the plot. “The Indians fucked his wife.” A movie made by semiprimitives will submit more docilely to extensive Rorschaching than a self-consciously dark and mature Western like Little Big Man or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As is so often the case, Kael deserves the last word: “You can read a lot into The Searchers, but it isn’t very enjoyable.”
Well, not quite the last word. Why did The Searchers become, as one critic has put it, the “Super-Cult movie of the New Hollywood,” inspiring such ‘70s classics as Star Wars, Taxi Driver, and Hardcore? In styling themselves as something other than well-credentialed nerds, the first generation of film school grads to take over Hollywood had two archetypes of directorial cool to draw upon—the sly European émigré (Wilder, Lubitsch, von Stroheim, Lang) or the homegrown American he-man (Ford, Huston, Hawks). They sampled liberally from both, of course, but in Ford’s Ethan the avatars of New Hollywood found a very romantic allegory for the director as monomaniacal obsessive, on a quest that others along the way may only find perverse. Ethan was reborn in Travis Bickle, et al., because Ethan and Travis Bickle were means for allowing otherwise unworldly men to live out, vicariously, an earlier romance of moviemaking, before filmmakers pedigreed themselves with advanced degrees. (Ford hadn’t gone to film school; he started as a studio ditch-digger.) Ah ha! So that is why Ethan doesn’t kill Debbie! Because at the end of the day, the half-crazed auteur must finally give way to the crowd-pleaser, right? And so when Wayne finally hunts down Debbie, only to raise her up, it’s a moment of pure cinema. …Well, I don’t know. And neither did John Ford.
* Correction, July 14, 2006: In the original version of this article, a quote was misattributed to the main character in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards. The quotation has been removed. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.