Backlog #5: The Searchers (1956)

I mentioned earlier about playing bastards. John Wayne in The Searchers is probably as grand a bastard as the cinema has seen. He’s a confederate soldier returned from the war to his family, who soon after are massacred by the Comanche, except for his five year old niece, who is kidnapped. The film becomes his trail of vengeance, as he goes looking for her, expecting trouble.

Wayne as Ethan Edwards is dominant: nothing in life is as contemptuous as his delivery of the word “Comanche”. It’s fascinating: the great American actor playing at the surface, a great American hero. But no: whilst his down to earth charisma works its magic on the audience, we’re confronted by the uneasy reality that Edwards is barely short of a psychopath, a man driven to madness by his desire for revenge.

I’m nothing of an aficionado for westerns: I’ve never watched more than the fingers on my hand, so I’m can’t place Ford or Wayne in much of a context. The Searchers is at one level a rollicking adventure pursuit; at another as I’ve alluded to, an intense psychological study. It is all within the framework of Ford’s widescreen presentation of the west; an infinite territory of nature within which man and his quarrels and even his culture are swallowed up.

The awesomeness of this, merged with the power of Wayne is the film’s majestic strength. I found the humour, main via the character of Martin but also Wayne’s occasional diversions into geniality, a little incongruous. The film also moves a little interminably towards its climax – although we know that this film is a genre western, we can easily sense the themes that Ford is exploring and whilst fascinating it can be a grim and provoking experience.

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