John Ford directs John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter and Vera Miles in this classic Western where a Civil War veteran and mixed race boy hunt the Native Americans who killed their family and took captive the young girls.
Pretty much every shot in this is a Technicolor marvel. Ford’s location work in Monument Valley is epic and unparalleled. Strange to think that pioneer colour cinematographer Winton C Hoch won three Academy Awards, lensed this sumptuous masterpiece, and then ended his career working on Time Tunnel & The Banana Splits for TV? It just doesn’t tally. Wayne manages to turn his simple man of action and vengeance into an enigma. We identify with him as he is the only one taking control, the loudest voice, the only undomesticated beast left in the wilderness. We don’t know if he is on a rescue mission or blinded by hate. His hatred towards the ‘Indian’ race is unfettered and palpable. There is no equivocating. He is racist. “Hero” as he is the only man left and driven enough to get the job done. Yet the film always frames such an attitude as wrong. His deeds posit him tipping over into becoming the villain, much like Red River we foresee a conclusion where the younger man might have to gun the old rabid dog down. Maybe the reason he hates the movie Comanches so much is they like him are a dying, outdated breed. Ethan Edwards and Scar are savage, nomadic and go against the grain of post-war humanity. Their strengths and outlook are not welcome at the wedding dance or the reservation. History is leaving their biases and violence behind, the pioneers no longer need a gunslingin’ alpha driven by righteous anger now the West has been won. The Searchers closes the doors on the old values as they serve their purpose after one last half decade spanning crusade. It is a ride of thrilling adventure and danger, far more sophisticated in its dramatic presentation of prejudice than modern eyes give it credit for. The point isn’t that racism gets the job done, it is that such an attitude has had its final day and is no longer welcome in a civilised society. That iconic shot of a door closing on Edwards is not a lament for his generation but punctuation.
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