The Searchers ★★★★★

The Searchers gives the lie to the supposed heroism of the Wild West mythos. John Wayne plays the same Indian-killing cowboy we've seen him play since the early 1930's, the image of a valiant savior come to rescue a bunch of white folks from the Native American menace, but here he plays it as explicitly racist, calling out the pathological nature of the traditional cowboy's racialized violence. Our heroes of the West were always outlaws who had to ride off into the sunset, but they were glorified outcasts, they were getting rid of the "real" bad guys. The Searchers shows this hero not as an altruistic warrior, but as a murderer whose positive effects on society are less purposeful, more of a coincidental afterthought.

Wayne's cowboy isn't only problematic because of his racist motivations, but also for the implications this racism has on the American home. The creation of the domestic sphere is a common thread for the Western genre, and The Searchers highlights this by bookending its narrative with scenes of Wayne arriving at home (first from the Civil War, then from the conflict of the film). He helps maintain the stability of the private domestic space at the expense of the public: the home is kept safe by Wayne killing more Indians. The American Dream is born from the graves of the Native Americans. Our country is built on an Indian burial ground.

Also maybe something about the confined diegetic space of inside the house and the majestic beauty of the wide open landscapes, shot with gorgeous deep focus Technicolor cinematography. Something about the home being unnatural and claustrophobic to the human spirit in contrast to the vitality of the outdoors. Rich, warm earth tones and dusty lived-in denim blues clash with the dark, lifeless corners of the household. All I know for sure is that this movie is flat out breathtaking on blu-ray.

Top 10: Western
Removed from Most Popular Unseen Films

[9/21/15 EDIT:] When I watched this, I was troubled by the fact that the Native Americans were still portrayed as the violent savages that they are in the traditional mythological western, but the crucial distinction here is that all the white folks are just as violent and savage as the Natives. The only way out of this violence is into civilization, as the end of the film shows both racial and cultural "Indians" coming together with white folks to create a new domestic/social space—which is of course why the violent, savage John Wayne has no place in it.

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