The Searchers ★★★★

It's quite apt that I watched The Searchers after watching what is arguably its twisted, bastard offspring Bone Tomahawk earlier this week. I didn't plan to watch it, I found myself at a bit of a loose end today and watched an episode of Columbo on ITV4 (How to Dial a Murderer, the one with Nicol Williamson and a very young Kim Cattrall. Classic, and I'm annoyed it's not on here) when immediately after it, The Searchers popped up and, despite my intentions, I ended up sticking around. It's funny how we can all accept the racial (or rather racist) implications of Ford's classic western, yet highlighting a similar issue and concern seems lacking in S. Craig Zahler's horror western mash-up.

Knowing how much of an arsehole John Wayne was, I much prefer films that allow him to play an arsehole. As a result, films like Red River and this play better for me than those which required him to do little other than play the traditional hero that my grandfather loved. And make no mistake, Wayne is an utter arsehole here, to the extent that his character colours the film for many audiences. His Ethan Edwards returns from the war (tellingly, he fought for the Confederacy) to display an angry, vengeful streak that swells to Ahab-like proportions when he is tasked to recover his abducted nieces from Comanche Indians. A bitter, twisted man, Ethan is visibly repulsed at the sight of quarter-Indian Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who accompanies him on the search, but that's not the half of it. He is shown to think nothing of mutilating Comanche corpses or of gunning down those in retreat, he brutally attacks their villages and, memorably, when finding his eldest niece (Natalie Wood), he attempts to execute her because she has 'gone native'; "living with the Comanche ain't living" remains his blunt verdict. Ford wants to address the racial prejudice that existed in the West, but he muffs it in the long run, simply because there's no lesson to be learned for Ethan. At the close of the movie, he remains the same man he was at the start. The only hope is that the audiences may have had pause to reconsider.

Conversely - and unlike Zahler who hides behind the horror characterisation to address the frontiersman mindset for modern audiences - Ford depicts the Comanche as ruthless, but possessing a motivation for their actions that audiences can appreciate. Just like Ethan, Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon) is gripped by the desire for revenge; in his case, it is because the frontiersmen murdered his two sons. There is roughly the same equivalence in terms of barbaric violence and the bloodlust mindset to both men, which remains quite distinctive and refreshing.

Many argue that reviewers find in The Searchers things that are simply not there, but I can't quite agree with that. I don't for one moment think that Wayne himself felt Ethan to be an anti-hero or even a complex, dangerous man, but I do think that Ford was genuinely trying, albeit in a haphazard, tentative kind of way, to do something a little different this time around that nonetheless could still play to his audiences and not frighten the horses. The subplot, or undercurrent, that Natalie Wood's Debbie may even by Ethan's daughter is one that I think was definitely meant to be implied, but could not be outright addressed at the time. If you can look past the traditional western tropes, the shocking attitudes and the ill-advised and arduous attempts at comedy and romance, in short the whole '50sness of it all, then The Searchers offers quite the reward.

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