By Peter Lenihan
Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford.
Apologies for the EXTREME tardiness of this week’s post—as some of you may or may not know, I live and work at a small provincial college in a fairly remote area on the border of Thailand and Burma, where power outages, not to mention internet disconnections, are a daily reality. Ideally I would have my pieces scheduled here at WitD well in advance, but that rarely happens, and when the power is out the power is out.
I have found in the past few weeks that I have less and less time to dedicate to these entries, and that I find myself repeating the same ideas from essay to essay. It’s for these reasons that I’m deciding to suspend the Finding Ford series for the time being—it may very well be resuscitated some time in the future, but for now I think it has run its course, and it’s unclear to me where it has left to go. (And if anyone feels like continuing the series themselves, perhaps offering fresh perspectives on the films I haven’t yet covered, they absolutely have my blessing; just throw Sam or me an email).
The Searchers has been written on twice before at Wonders in the Dark. Here Allan Fish called it the ninth best film of the fifties. And here Maurizio Roca contrasted it unfavorably with Michael Cimino’s striking Heaven’s Gate—I don’t agree with a word of the latter piece but there’s no denying it stakes out a position that many today agree with, and does so in a way that is far more palatable (and less self-centered) than the Stephen Metcalfs of this world are capable of.
It’s a S&S poll year, and it will be interesting to see how highly The Searchers places this time around. Of all the very recognizable titles (think Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, Vertigo, Citizen Kane) that appear on these sorts of lists year in and year out—or decade in and decade out—Ford’s film is arguably the most controversial, and the fact that many people consider it to be one of the medium’s greatest masterpieces frustrates some in a way that may be unique even within the prissiest cinephilic circles. It is, of course, ultimately pretty irrelevant—polls can only track the critical fashions of a given moment and often inadvertently end up embalming the films that are most kinetic and alive. The Searchers isn’t always thought of as one of these, and I’m not sure any Hollywood director of Ford’s time moved the camera less frequently (it’s worth remembering here what Renoir said of The Informer), but it’s also true that few directors consistently filled the frame with as much movement as Ford was able to. Still, at some point the opening shot of The Searchers, complemented by Max Steiner’s lovely score, becomes indistinguishable from the fact that we are watching the shot, slavishly recreated in only the Lord knows how many fifth hand pastiches—the inky blacks of the opening title card slowly dissipating as Martha Edwards opens the door of her cabin and grasps one of the columns of the porch as she spots her brother-in-law (and, more likely than not, the love of her life) on the horizon.
That opening shot is undeniably big, and its size and emphasis on the moment’s own larger-than-life-ness is pretty well sustained throughout. There’s some of the small of Wagon Master and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon here (particularly in the breakfast table conversations and a botched wedding ceremony), but overall Ford emphasizes the iconic grandeur of Ethan’s and Martin’s quest, and I’d be lying if I said I thought it was a better movie for it. On the other hand, there’s only one Searchers, and for all its similarities with earlier and later Ford oaters, it’s pretty unlike anything else he did—Ford’s protagonists may or may not be men on missions, but his films are rarely about that mission, and the sometimes single-minded attention he pays to one here certainly works within this context. There was always something a bit Russian in Ford’s compositions—many of his early silents have the same possessed quality one finds in Dovzhenko, and his close-ups always have this deeply unsettling, grand quality that can’t help but remind one of the masters of the Soviet cinema (it is perhaps not coincidental that Eisenstein stated that Young Mr. Lincoln was the one movie he wished he had made). It makes sense that in The Searchers, with its unusual focus on Ethan Edwards and his maniacal quest to murder his niece, Ford would find a way to synthesize both his preoccupation with the Russian qualities and the mysterious expressionism that he had been developing (both in chiaroscuro and Technicolor) since seeing Sunrise in 1927. Not even Ford’s harshest detractors (which include Manny Farber, the most inconsistent and infuriating of the great critics) can deny the film its striking, unusual visual beauty.
And the story, of course, everyone knows. Ethan Edwards, a Dixie, a racist, and more likely than not a bank robber and bandit, spends seven long years tracking down his only remaining family member so that he can “save” her from a fate worse than death (that is, by killing her). He is accompanied by a quarterbreed Cherokee he once saved from a similar murder raid, and together they don’t end up learning too much about themselves, each other, or the strange, forbidden land they call home. Edwards will probably remain Wayne’s most iconic performance (although it could be argued that his conventional, not particularly convincing hamwork as Rooster Cogburn is more beloved), and it’s a turn of terrifying ferocity—there will probably never be a successful film adaptation of Moby-Dick, but he would have been the perfect Ahab (and of course, in some sense, The Searchers is the cinema’s Moby-Dick).
Ford doesn’t often tip his hand here, but the film’s secret lies, I think, in one line that could easily be interpreted as a throwaway: I’ll meet you on the far side. Before he gets there, of course, he must bury Lucy’s desecrated body, and the next time we see him he appears disheveled and possessed. The Searchers is like that—it’s about men pushed to the breaking point so that even the living world resembles the hereafter, and so that all they can see is their own deaths looming ahead. That was what always gave the rituals Ford’s characters clung to meaning, and it’s certainly all they have here, so that the fact that Martin walks in on the wrong wedding or Ethan can only stand in a doorway takes on ominous, almost heartbreaking proportion.