The Searchers (1956)

Viewed January 30th

In the aftermath of the Civil War, an unrepentant Southern rebel searches for the Comanche tribe who kidnapped his niece.

Despite this film's enduring reputation among cineastes and filmmakers, I have, in the past, found The Searchers a strange viewing experience. There's the dark obsession and the portrait of toxic racial animosity; there's the surreal Monument Valley landscape photographed in some of the most lush technicolor in the history of Hollywood; and there's John Wayne in perhaps his most haunting performance. This is the stuff that famously inspired Taxi Driver. But there's also the broad comedic strokes; and there's the continual return to scenes of the domestic life of the Jorgenson clan; and, at the core of those scenes, there's the Martin-Laurie love story. I would find myself wanting director John Ford to focus exclusively on the dark, serious parts of the film, on the revenge and its implications for the American mindset, and ditch the other, lighter elements. But in this viewing, I came to appreciate the entire package. It's two-handed approach really is what ultimately makes The Searchers so indomitable and what makes its problematic aspects even more incendiary. Led by John Wayne's performance, it is a mythic American film par excellence. The myth is repulsive, but that doesn't make the previous statement any less true.

I'm certainly not the first person to note this, but the key for viewing The Searchers lies in the iconic first and last shots, in which the seemingly endless untamed expanse of the American West is framed by the doorway of an interior space, a home. It's right there in that shot, the dichotomy of wildness and domesticity, lawlessness and civilization. And as with so many of Ford's films, but perhaps never so perfectly articulated as it is here, the myth being spun about this dichotomy is as follows: in order to secure that domestic space for tolerance and cultural refinement, white American men of European descent need to do nothing less than get their hands dirty by killing off the non-white natives. The "home" of Wayne's "Let's go home, Debbie," is a literal domestic space, but also the heimat of white colonial culture. This genocidal clearing of the ground for civilization, for home, is, in the myth of The Searchers, a necessary evil. And John Wayne is the cinematic embodiment of this myth. When you see him up on the screen you say "My God, it's John Wayne." He's there, a living breathing cinematic entity. In some sense every screening of The Searchers is a live event in which "John Wayne" (not the physical man playing this mythic figure, but the mythic figure created when the physical man is photographed) is reborn and lives in the present of every frame. "John Wayne" is a man who came in from the wild and returns to the wild, an odd sort of believer in a future without violence at every turn, but, at the same time, a bitter realist who believes that such a pleasant vision is not yet upon us. For Wayne, the pleasure of cultivating the home is for the younger generation, that's for Martin and Laurie.  But for him, for his aging generation, in order to allow the ideal of home to exist, some dirty business still needs doing. In the myth of The Searchers, this type of man is called a "Texican." As the Mrs. Jorgenson character puts it: "It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothin' but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. 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. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come." And so John Wayne's odyssey involves leaving home and returning home, leaving home and returning home, demonstrating the pleasure of domestic safety in order to justify the necessity of genocidal violence. It's a right wing American mindset and it's fundamentally based on lies and racial fears spurred by sheer ignorance and intellectual laziness. As much as Ford puts thought into his portrayal and complications of the white frontiersman, he puts horrifyingly little energy into conceptualizing the other. If he did ever conceive of the Comanche as anything beyond a bloodthirsty rape and violence machine, his myth would fall apart. And the idea that the aging John Wayne is among the last of his type is belied in the present moment by the presence of President Donald J. Trump, who's whirred up an obsessive thirst for the blood of the other is the national mindset that's possibly as strong as it's been since the Civil War. Despite the promises of his myth, the necessary violence at the core of Ford's white supremacist vision is hardly winding down. The fact that it's only growing stronger suggests the process of revising these powerful cinematic myths remains necessary ground for filmmakers to clear.