Sunday, April 13, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: The Searchers

The Set-up: A lot of Indians died in John Ford "westerns." That's a fact. Obsessed as he was with telling stories of the building of America, and the conquering of the West, it was inevitable that the Native race was going to get ground up in the gears of the inexorable wagon trains invading their country, and they made for cinematic chases and shoot-em-up's--the kind of excitement that was the bread and butter of the silent B-westerns where Ford learned his craft. But Ford was a Roosevelt Democrat, and he saw things in the Photographic Unit of the Navy during World War II that changed him, just as it did Capra and Huston and Zanuck and Stevens. It was hard to drum up boyish enthusiasm for the necessary action scenes anymore when you saw the damage real bullets did. The movie stuff began to look like a lie.

So the tenor of Ford's movies began to change--an undercurrent that ran through them as the black-and-white blossomed into color. Sure, the Cavalry was the Good Guys, the Cowboys the heroes, the Whites came out on top, but the white hats they wore were not so white anymore. You began to see the dirt. The corruption. The greed. The cost. By the time Ford made "The Searchers" in 1955 with his old pal, the box office champ John Wayne, they returned to one of Ford's favorite locations despite the haul out to the Four Corners from Los Angeles and the baleful glare of the Studio muckety-muck's that Ford despised, but needed. They'd set up camp in Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation, for which the tribe would be compensated, the residents made extra's, the chief given a speaking part, maybe (if he could get it past the Suits and the part was minor enough), the young men did stunts and with that influx of cash the tribe would make it through another miserable winter in the hard-scrabble of the desert--and Ford would get a little authenticity in his story.

And he'd get Monument Valley, the biggest movie set in the World, as desolate as the moon. One look at its wind-seared escarpments that jut out of the ground like pre-historic high rises told you that life out there was hard, the distances vast and the chances slim. The Valley told you as much about the grit of the characters as the dialog did, more for the isolation that vast floor of dirt provided. Look at the painterly love Ford used in those long shots.

Look at "The Searchers" today and all you might see is an archaic "John Wayne Western" from the '50's, with the cute antics of the settlers, and the rapacious villainy of the Commanche, and melodramatic hysterics and low comedy. But you're not seeing John Ford's journey, the one that would lead him in the next decade to tell the story of the Trail of Tears, and make the Natives the almost saintly heroes of his "Cheyenne Autumn." You're not even seeing how Ford is starting to see the Native side, and of the racism inherent in the "conquering of the West." Because this is the White's story, it is one of fear and hysterics, of race-hate and savage contempt, but the Destiny is not Manifest, and at one point one of the leads can look at a Native woman killed by the Cavalry (John Ford's beloved Cavalry) and say "What'd they kill her for, she never hurt anybody!" You didn't hear that much in the complacent westerns of the 50's. Nor the sex-hysteria over miscegenation.

But you might recognize the searing race-hatred of Ethan Edwards, embodied by an unreigned-in John Wayne. Wayne's the star of the picture, but he's not the hero. In many ways, he's the villain, the Other, the Outsider. In the gentility of trying to bring civilization to the West, he's as much an anomaly as the Natives, and his time is as limited. The movie begins and ends with Edwards on the other side of the closed door of home and hearth. One would like that to mean that his type of hatred is something to be left out of Society, left to wander on the winds and shunned. One would like it.

That'll be the Day.

The Story: Almost as soon as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a bitter veteran of the Civil War, visits his brother and sister-in-law, tragedy strikes the Edwards stake: a Commanche raid leaves the parents and son dead, and Lucy (Lana and Natalie Wood) and Debbie Edwards (Pippa Scott) kidnapped. Now a vengeful Edwards leads Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter)--the Edwards' adopted son, and Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey, Jr.), Lucy's fiancee, on a search for the two girls. Action!

Brad Jorgenson: They gotta stop sometime! If they're human men at all, they've gotta stop!

Ethan Edwards: No, a human rides a horse until it dies, then he goes afoot. Commanche comes along and gets that horse up, rides him 20 more miles, then eats him. (watches Martin Pawley drinking from a canteen) Easy on that.

Martin Pawley: Sorry. We don't even know if Debby and Lucy's in this bunch. Maybe they split up.

Edwards: They're with 'em, alright--if they're still alive.

Jorgenson: You said that enough! Maybe Lucy's dead! Maybe they're both dead! But if I hear that from you again, I'll fight ya, Mr. Edwards!

Edwards: That'll be the day! (gets on his horse) Spread out!

(Fade to later in the day)

Pawley: Found a main trail, but four of 'em cut out right here, and they rode on up through the pass there.

Jorgenson: How come they do that, Mr. Edwards?

Edwards: I'll take a look. Keep after the others.

Pawley: You want us to fire a shot just in case...

Edwards: No, nor build bonfires, nor beat drums! I'll meet you on the far side. Move!

He rides off. Later, they wait for him on the other side, and Ethan rides hurriedly up and jumps unsteadily off his horse, throwing his rifle to the ground.

Agitated and silent, he sits and starts digging in the sand with his knife.
Pawley: You want some water, Ethan?

Edwards grabs the canteen and drinks greedily, Pawley and Jorgenson stare at him.

Edwards: Oh. The trail leads over there.

Jorgenson: Why'd they break off? Was there water in that canyon?

Edwards: Huh? No water.

Pawley: You all right, Ethan?

Edwards: I'm all right.

Pawley: Hey, what happened to your Johnny Reb coat? You lose it?

Edwards: Must have. But I'm not goin' back for it.

They mount up and ride on.
Transition to night. Pawley and Edwards are lying on the ground, keeping watch, when Jorgenson runs up to them.

Jorgenson: I found 'em! I found Lucy! They're camped about a half mile over. I was just swinging back, and I seen their smoke. Bellied up a ridge, and there they was, right below me.

Pawley: Did you see Debbie?

Jorgenson: No, no. But I saw Lucy, all right. She was wearin' that blue dress that she--

Edwards: What you saw wasn't Lucy.

Jorgenson: Oh, but it was, I tell you.

Edwards: What you saw was a buck...wearin' Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat. Buried her with my own hands. Thought to keep it from you.

Jorgenson: Well, did they...w-w-was she--

Edwards (furiously): What do you want me to do, draw you a picture?! Spell it out?!

Edwards: Don't ever ask me! As long as you live, don't ever ask me more!

Jorgenson stares at him in disbelief and shock, then, hysterical, runs to his horse .

Pawley: I'm awful sorry, Brad. Hey, Brad! Brad!...

Jorgenson rears his horse and starts to ride furiously towards the Commanche camp. Pawley tries to grab his reins and runs after him.

Pawley: ..wait a minute!! Brad!! Come back here!

Edwards trips up Pawley, and grabs him, keeping him from going after Jorgenson.

In the distance, wild gun-shots are heard, then a final rifle-shot. Edwards lets go of Pawley, and the men stare off into the distance, into the dark.
Fade out.

Fade in to the two men continuing their search. Time has passed. It is now snowing. They stop.

Pawley: Well, why don't you say it? We're beat and you know it.

Edwards: Nope. Our turning back don't mean nothin.' Not in the long run. If she's alive, she's safe. For awhile, they'll keep her to raise as one of their own, until--'til she's of an age to...

Pawley: Look, do you think maybe there's a chance we still might find her?

Edwards: Indian will chase a thing 'til he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter who'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em...just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth.

"The Searchers"

Words by Frank S. Nugent

Pictures by Winton C. Hoch and John Ford

"The Searchers" is available on DVD from Warner Brothers Home Video.

...for Jon

Post-Script: Doing research for this I found a marvelous article by Richard Franklin (writer/director in his own right) that cautioned that "The Searchers" should not be one's first foray into the life-work of John Ford. "The Searchers" is, above all else, a "pot-boiler" in all senses of the term. He recommends starting out with "The Grapes of Wrath," "They Were Expendable," "How Green Was My Valley," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and "The Quiet Man." I would add "Stagecoach" (essential!), "Young Mr. Lincoln," "My Darling Clementine,", hell, I'd watch anything by Ford. But I'd agree that "The Searchers" is a pump that needs to be primed. Such is its power.


Jon said...


The more I watch this movie, the more I find myself agreeing with the level of separation there is between Ford and Wayne.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Their relationship was an extremely complex one--Wayne dearly loved "the old man," and Ford was a hard task-master who helped forge the Wayne persona and yet needed him and his box office clout to make his projects, and abused him constantly on-set--Henry Brandon, who played "Scar" in this film, said that Ford was the only man who could make Wayne cry. Ford never let Wayne forget that he didn't serve in WWII and that he profited from Roosevelt's policies that Wayne constantly bitched about, and they didn't agree politically until the the nation was coming apart over Viet Nam. Ford was more politically forward than Wayne, but he could be a real jerk, and Wayne was vehemently conservative, but also extraordinarily generous to folks he didn't agree with. Very complex men with a very complex relationship.

The more I read, the more it fascinates me.

One of these days I'll put up the story Joseph Mankiewicz used to tell about Ford and "loyalty oaths" during the McCarthy era. It's an amazing story.