Saturday, June 11, 2011
How the West was Lost
The American Western is a dying genre. The days of Cowboys and Indians have faded into our memories and the curtain has all but closed on the splendor of the West. As America grew and changed, people stopped accepting the black and white depictions they were seeing on the screen. The world is simply too full of grey.
What if our heroes were never really heroes at all?
The Searchers, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is the film that I believe moved the Western into an entirely new direction. While this movie is placed in the "Cowboy and Indian" setting, that is not what is about. This is a film about racism, obsession and the desperate, aching loneliness of one man. This man is Ethan Edwards, John Wayne in one of his greatest performances, an ex-confederate soldier who heads West to visit his family after the Civil War.
Upon Ethan's arrival we see a burning racial hatred towards Indians. Ethan sees Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter), a one-eighth Indian, and even that is far too much for him to accept. Quickly after Ethan arrives at his brother's home, a band of Comanche Indians raid the home and kidnap Ethan's two nieces. Ethan and Martin set out on a quest to find the girls and bring them back. Sadly, shortly into the trip the older niece is found brutally murdered. When one of the characters asks Ethan what happened to the girl he lets out an explosion of rage onto the screen. This is John Wayne at his finest.
The rest of the movie is about Ethan and Martin's five year long search for the younger niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). The relationship between the two men is a mystery to us. They spend years living together in the vast desert wilderness but, Ethan is never able to accept Martin because of his Indian heritage. The hatred runs too deep and has festered for too long. Martin never falters though, he continues on with Ethan and seems to almost study him in the letters he writes to his fiance back home.
Many things happen over the half a decade search for Debbie but none are more powerful than a scene where Ethan and Martin are hunting buffalo. In a confusing and disturbing act Ethan begins to shoot and kill every buffalo he sees. He begins to scream, "At least they won't feed Comanche this winter." It is the mysterious acts like these that lead Martin to a horrific truth, Ethan is not searching for Debbie. He is hunting her. He cannot accept that she lives among the Comanches now, his hatred will not allow it. This hunt has become an obsession. The quest is his life.
I will not ruin the ending for you, I will simply say that it is one of the most touching scenes ever filmed. In the end, however, we see Ethan the same way that we met him. He is silhouetted in the door frame, alone and almost forgotten. He is a defeated soldier who no longer has a place in the world. His time has passed, just like the West he lives in.
This, in my opinion is John Ford's greatest movie. It inspired other films such as Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Paris, Texas and even Star Wars. This movie changed the way we looked at our mythical heroes of the West. In many ways, this movie destroyed its own genre. Audiences didn't want these flawed anti-heroes, black and white was easier for them to digest. It has only been with time that we have truly grown to appreciate this milestone in American cinema; time and understanding.
This Friday night you should be watching: