John Ford was the greatest American director of the classic era, a poet with a camera, able to convery volumes of dialogue with a single image. Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas each cite Ford as one of their strongest influences, and Orson Welles once said he studied directing under the three masters, being “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” High praise indeed. Ford once introduced himself as “My name is John Ford, I make westerns” at a famous meeting of the Directors Guild in which his speech ended a divide and coup that was taking place engineered by rabid American Cecil B. Demille. In a few short sentences, Ford cut the pompous Demille down to size, and then left the meeting, perhaps going home to read or play poker with John Wayne and Ward Bond. Ford won four Academy Awards as Best Director, ironically not one of them came for a western though that is the genre with which he is most associated. His finest The Searchers (1956) is also the greates of the genre, a masterpiece of visual poetry with a towering, seething performance from John Wayne that marked the greatest work of Wayne’s career. Never before had Wayne portrayed such a conflicted, twisted man as Ethan Edwards, a warrior at war with himself more than any man he ever fights. His deep hatred for the Indians will emerge over the course of the film, after the slaughter of his brother’s family at the hands of a murder raid in which the two your neices of Ethan’s are taken. One girl is found, the eldest, raped and murdered in a canyon where Ethan forever scarred by the sight, wraps her in his coat and gently buries her. The youngest, Debbie, becomes the obsession of Ethan’s search, spanning the years, with Ethan always coming, never stopping, forever chasing down the tribe and cief that took Debbie to raise as one of their own.
With Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) with him, the years slip by as Ethan continues his search, his rage intensifying, building to the inevitable explosion. The look of hatred on his face when he sees women driven mad by living with Indians is terrifying to see, as is his slaughter of buffalo, believing he is taking away for the food supply of the Indians. When he finally comes face to face with a teenaged Debbie, he is startled but does not give away who she is to him. The Indian warrior who took Debbie, Scar, hates Ethan as Ethan hates him, and the curious dance they do is a prelude for a showdown that has been coming since Scar killed Ethan’s brother’s family. Martin has come to realize that Ethan has never been looking for Debbie to bring her home, but rather to kill her as she has been defiled by the Indians. Despite his deep love for his sister in law, Martha, he will kill Debbie if he gets the chance because he believes death is what weill release her from the prison she is in among the Indians, who she nows call her people. Yet again face to face and alone with Debbie, Ethan lifts her high over his head as he did when she was a child. Sweeping her into his massive
arms, he whispers to her, ‘Let’s go home Debbie”, having found the last thing he expected to find on this quest…his humanity. In embracing Debbie, now a sixteen year old woman, he is holding the last of his family, and a part of himself. When he delivers Debbie home, to the people who will raise her as one of their own, he remains outside, like his Indian enemies, to wander between the winds, to never be part of civilization.
It leads to a sequence that is one of the most iconic in film history, with Ethan standing framed in doorway, darkness around the rectangle shape of the door, which closes on him as he turns to wander away, never able to be a part of the family inside.
John Wayne would win the Academy Award in 1969 for his performance as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969), a fine performance in which he again portrays a western hero elevated to myth, but the greatest work of Wayne’s long career was as Ethan Edwards. He portrays the role with a barely concealed fury, ice cold in his rage, truly unlike anything he had ever done or would do again. Wayne had been great before, in Red
River (1948) or The Quiet Man (1952) and would be after, in The Shootist (1976) but never again did he give the sort of astounding performance he gave in The Searchers. It is a darkly brilliant piece of acting that was a major departure from anything he had done before, and Wayne knew while making the film it was the best role of his career. One of his co-stars describes looking “into the coldest, meanest set of eyes I had ever
seen…it was the Duke as Ethan.”
Not a single Academy Award nomination was awarded to The Searchers (1956) despite a Directors Guild of America nomination for Ford, and rave reviews. Years later it found even greater critical acclaim, and today it regarded as one of the great American films of all time. Like all great westerns it possesses the themes most associated with the genre, but the most interesting one in the film is man versus himself. Ethan is at war with himself, and forever will be. There is something in him capable of love, but long since buried underneath his anger. For a split second he feels that love emerge when he sees Debbie, perhaps thinking of her mother, and in that instant, discovers himself the best part of himself for a second. Never given his due during his lifetime as an actor, I find it exciting that today, thirty one years after his death, Wayne is being reviewed with fresh eyes, appreciated for the actor, not the icon he was. He gives a scadling performance in the film, searing itself into the landscape of our mind, connecting with the character unlike any he ever had before. He was Ethan and Ethan was him.
Ford’s storytelling techniques were perfect in the film, with the years passing through the changing of the seasons, or a letter read aloud, written one year before. No title cards are necessary, one just needs to listen and follow the story to understand the time frame, Ford puts it all out there for those following. Ford captured the old West brilliantly as always, from the homsteads in the middle of noweher, thereby open to Indian attack, to the fort where we encounter the insane women, through to the final moments on the prarie where Ethan brings Debbie to live with people who once knew her. There are some supporting performance that do not hold up to today’s standards of performance, and Ward Bond is over the top, (but fun) but this is Wayne’s film and despite the fact it is directed by John Ford, this was the one time that the star mattered more than the director.