The Searchers ★★★★

Films I Watched On TV While I Was 'Working'

I've been feeling somewhat under the weather the last few days so a detailed and thoughtful analysis that a film as mighty as The Searchers is deserving of it may well be evading me this evening. Let's face it, it will evade me regardless of health.

But there are several things here that sprung to mind in between delirium and drowsiness. First and foremost, I don't personally regard The Searchers as anything approaching the finest western I've ever seen. The only thing that it actually lacked, as far as I could see, was an inability to really put across the long passages of time that are covered here in the search for Lana / Natalie Wood. It just seemed to jump months, even a year at a time with barely a hint that it was doing that. As such, I felt it lost quite a lot of its epic scale.

It also has an uneven tone at times that I don't think I noticed when I first watched it. I feel like the mighty efforts of John Wayne to play a remorseless, war-torn killer are undermined to a certain extent by Jeffrey Hunter being used as comic relief on too many occasions. I'm absolutely convinced that The Searchers would be an altogether more enjoyable film if the black cloud that hangs over Wayne throughout hung over the whole film.

Yet Wayne's performance fascinates me. Never the most naturally gifted actor or anything approaching it, he was always at his best when he played against type. I'd say this, True Grit and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were my favourite performances by him, with maybe The Shootist as a plucky outsider. But he really commits to this performance and is determined to put Ethan Edwards over as a despicable bastard, albeit one who has a small measure of redemption at the end. I just wonder what kind of films and performances Wayne could have given us if he'd been born even just 10 years later. I'd like to have seen him make a lot more films during the revisionist era, rather than just flirting with it in the odd one or two films.

I also have no idea what I'm talking about here, but the oft-discussed topic of racism as relates to The Searchers interested me when watching this. What I would say is that I don't think it's unfair for such a debate to be had surrounding this film. Its standing, in the eyes of many critics and indeed big pockets of its commercial audience, as the most notable example of the genre in history means that it positions itself in prime position when the debate is had. Whether that is 'fair' or not.

As far as I can see, I don't think the film itself is any less or more 'racist' than the large majority of other westerns I've seen. I can see why it could be cited as being problematic in this area, more so than many other films of its type. Its alleged racism is actually addressed rather directly as opposed to just just being an undebated part of its plot. Its approach to the subject is one that I found interesting though. On the one hand, Wayne's attitudes towards the Comanche and other tribes are explicitly explored and implanted into his character, and I personally found the styling of this approach to be a critique. Similarly so when Ken Curtis does a mocking whoop before a Comanche attack.

Yet while it is critical on the one hand, it still possesses a fair few of the problematic aspects that dominated the western for many decades, particularly so when you look at the cast of Henry Brandon as Scar. It's like the awareness is there, but not entirely so, almost as if we're seeing the seeds of evolution in the genre being played out over the course of a couple of hours.

Huh, I ended up talking about that more than I expected. The Searchers will do that to you. As a piece of entertainment, I really enjoyed it but could see why most wouldn't. But I would say that its importance in the history of the genre is absolutely beyond question.

Steve G liked this review