John Ford’s The Searchers is a movie in desperate search for an identity. For every aspect that is excellent, two more make you want to cringe. The film seems to have feet in two eras. Its ambivalent attitude toward the stereotypical treatment of Native Americans seems slightly ahead of its time, although Hollywood would do much better later. Balancing against this are characters and storylines that would have seemed dated when Ford and John Wayne were first working together back in the thirties.
It’s telling that John Wayne, hardly the most naturalistic actor Hollywood has produced, gives the most natural and contemporary performance in the film. That’s not damning with faint praise, either. Sometimes it appears that Wayne is in a completely different film than everyone else on screen. Ethan Edwards is easily one of the most complex and nuanced characters that the Duke portrayed in his long career. He’s an unreconstructed Southerner whose life since the Civil War may have been spent outside the law. His attitude toward Indians goes just a notch beyond what we typically see in a traditional western.
While old Hollywood wasn’t afraid to show Native Americans as stereotypically mindless savages, it was usually too polite to let characters give voice to General Sheridan’s maxim that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” Ethan doesn’t express that in so many words, but it’s certainly implicit in the scene where he slaughters more buffalo than he can eat, just so they can’t be used to feed the “comanch” that winter.
When Ethan’s brother and his family are slaughtered by a band of Comanche Indians, and his daughters taken, Ethan begins an obsessive five-year hunt for the girls and the chief who took them. The only person to stay with Ethan the whole way, and survive, is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a shirttail relative that Ethan treats with contempt because he is one-eighth Cherokee.
Once they do find the surviving daughter, Debbie (played by Natalie Wood as a teenager and her kid sister Lana as a little girl), they realize that they girl has “gone native” and doesn’t want to leave “her” people. The fact that she is still alive and living willingly with the Comanche drives Ethan over the edge. His goal shifts from rescuing her to killing her, much to Martin’s horror, putting the two men even more at odds.
The darkness of the main plot is frequently undermined, however, by a series of comic subplots that don’t fit with the tone of the film, such as the romantic triangle involving Martin’s clumsy courtship of the daughter (Vera Miles) of a Swedish couple straight from the “yumpin’ Yiminy” school of Central Casting. We also get a simple minded drunk named Mose Harper (Hank Worden), who seems to wander in and out of the story at random intervals. Even Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley seems to have stepped out of a different time machine than John Wayne.
One thing that you can depend upon is that a John Ford western is going to look gorgeous and the director delivers in spades here, capturing the vast landscapes in glorious color. This is simply a beautiful movie to look at (and the Blu-ray edition is enough to make you weep), and features one of John Wayne’s two or three finest performances. Even with the reservations about the dated comedic elements, those two things alone are reason enough to add this one to your collection.