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Obsessed, Rebellious and Driven

A new look at John Ford’s classic film, ‘The Searchers’

May. 21, 2013
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Director John Ford defines The Searchers as a “psychological epic.” John Wayne plays the primary character, Ethan Edwards, in this 1956 movie as both a driven, rebellious outsider and noble, obsessed hero.

In The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Bloomsbury), Glenn Frankel tells an engaging story about making the movie as well as the movie’s lasting impact. This is more than a successful book about a particular film and its director. It is the work of a critic who distinguishes himself at every turn of the page. Ford locates the issue of prejudice in The Searchers with obvious dramatic intent, but it is the rejection of racism and its shocking consequences that are the central theme of the movie. As Edwards, Wayne pushes his screen persona to an unexpected conclusion in one of the greatest endings in all of American cinema. In the end, Edwards does not kill the rescued woman but returns her to the family home. However, as all the principle characters go into the house, one after the other, Edwards ushers them forth and then, hesitating at the doorway, turns around and walks away from what should have been the typical Hollywood finale.

There is a freeze-frame as the film concludes with Edwards swaggering (but with less nobility and more resignation) away from the doorframe as he stalks off into movie history as the ultimate loner. The typical John Wayne lope is less steady than usual, as though under the weight of a personal code broken. What is not seen is the family reunion that Edwards has made possible. What is seen is Edwards’ inability to recapture the reunited family, saved by virtue of his brave but broken spirit.

That the film presenting this sophisticated, disenfranchised anti-hero is in the form of a western, and with John Wayne as the star, is a tribute to Ford’s revelatory directorship. Ford perceives a new version of a lost code. It is the code of the West that best be turned inside out in order to craft an epic truth for a coming generation. The genre of western movies suddenly became different, as did we all.

The Searchers was adapted from a novel by Alan LeMay inspired by the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who in 1836 was abducted at age 9 by Comanche and rescued by a Texas Ranger 24 years later. Edwards is based on a historical figure; however, Ford’s treatment of the anti-hero on the screen is not as simple as historical fact or even fictional recreation. In the film, Edwards does not want to rescue the captured girl (played by Natalie Wood), to whom he is related, but rather seeks to murder her because she no doubt has adapted Native American ways to survive.

John Wayne is an enigma in this movie. It is interesting to note that a young Buddy Holly, a Texan, was so taken by the outsider status of Wayne’s character that he chooses a phrase spoken four times by Edwards in the film for a song title: “That’ll Be The Day.” This is what Edwards says in poignant defiance of the law, family and friends at critical moments as he relentlessly pursues his prey, a loved one. Wayne’s enigmatic ways spoke to the young in 1956 more than the static morality of the old cowboy movies. That Frankel picks up on this testifies to his astute judgment and scope as a critic.


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