Friday, 7 January 2022

Peter Bogdanovich on The Searchers

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford)
The Searchers is a 1956 American western film that is largely regarded as filmmaker John Ford's magnum opus. It stars John Wayne in one of his most illustrious performances, portraying possibly his most ethically complex role to date. 

Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is a mystery drifter who arrives at his brother Aaron's (Walter Coy) Texas ranch following the American Civil War. Aaron and his family extend a cordial welcome to him, including his wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (played by both Lana Wood and Natalie Wood). Ethan is unquestionably a controversial personality, and there are indications that he has committed illegal acts. When Ethan and other local men are enticed to go after Native Americans who have stolen livestock, Scar (Henry Brandon), a fearsome Comanche leader, attacks Aaron's property, murdering Aaron and Martha and kidnapping their daughters. Enraged, Ethan begins an obsessive search for Scar and the girls. He is first aided by a local posse and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a young guy regarded as the Edwards’ adopted son. Ethan's hard-nosed actions eventually alienate the majority of his allies, but he and Martin continue their search even after discovering Lucy's death. The search continues for years, with Ethan's reasons increasingly questioned as his racist rage toward Native Americans suggests he might murder the girl he is trying to save in the first place. 

Ford referred to The Searchers as a ‘psychological epic,’ and the complexity of its characters and their motivations has prompted considerable examination. Particular focus was paid to the film's examination of racism and intolerance. Although it is now considered a classic, The Searchers received no Academy Award nominations when it was released. The cinematography of Winton C. Hoch captures the splendour of Monument Valley, Utah, and Ethan's final scenes are justifiably eerie and famous. Max Steiner's score received critical acclaim as well. The Searchers was based on Alan Le May's 1954 novel of the same name, and it shared parallels with the true storey of Cynthia Ann Parker, a child who was kidnapped by Comanches in the early nineteenth century and became the mother of the warrior Quanah Parker. The film had a profound effect on succeeding filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.

One of the key figures leading the renaissance of American cinema in the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich (b. 1939) began his career as an actor, taking classes with Stella Adler, before distinguishing himself as a writer and film curator. After one of his articles drew the attention of producer Roger Corman, Bogdanovich took the opportunity to direct his first film, Targetsa stylised tale of a serial killer starring Boris Karloff in one of his final roles. Bogdanovich’s three subsequent films, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, were successful reinventions of studio-era genres – the Western, the screwball and small-town comedy.

An important film historian, Bogdanovich has made a significant contribution to cinematic history with his writing and interviews with the great directors of the studio era including Fritz Lang, Leo McCarey, Joseph H. Lewis and most notably Orson Welles and John Ford, of whom Bogdanovich became a respected authority. Indeed Bogdanovich’s documentary, Directed by John Ford, ranks as one of the most influential portraits of the veteran director. In a post on his blog at indiewire, Bogdanovich outlined his thoughts on John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers in which he suggests that the key to the undiminished power of the film lies in the archaic and mythical power of its narrative:

The picture begins with the classiest Western opening of all, a black screen becoming a door that opens from within a home to the red desert outside this settlers’ house as the whole family – father, mother, three children (two daughters, one son) and a dog – walk onto the porch while a lone horseman rides up from the gigantic red buttes in the far distance. The rider is the father’s long-absent brother, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), returned for the first time since the end of the Civil War, three years previous, during which Ethan was on the side of the Confederacy, a loner who has spent the bitter years since then fighting as a hired gun in Mexico. What is conveyed in a few small private moments is that Ethan is chastely in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him, though neither would think of showing it in any overt way.

There is the alarm of a Comanche uprising, and Ethan rides off with the sheriff’s posse to check on a nearby ranch. While he and the others are gone, Comanches attack Ethan’s brother’s house, brutally murdering the man and his young son, raping and killing the beloved wife and teenage daughter, abducting the eight-year-old little girl, burning down the house from which we have emerged so recently to begin this story of Ethan’s subsequent ten-year search. He and an adopted ‘quarter-breed‘ (Jeffrey Hunter) become the searchers not only to find the kidnapped young niece but also to avenge the terrible deaths by executing the destroyer, a proud and virile Comanche chief, who will become the child’s husband. The search is both love-and-vengeance ridden and racial.

The saga that ensues is remarkably vivid, filled with incident, superbly composed, emotionally complicated, often darkly funny, deeply moving. That Ethan’s obsessive fury and hatred in some way turns against the young victim as well is among the most troubling aspects of the story, resolved by Ford (at odds with the novel) in one of the most profoundly touching moments in picture history. The ironic theme of the work, spoken by settler Olive Carey, is that all the sufferings these ‘Texicans’ (read Americans) must endure will make it possible for future generations to live in harmony and peace. Although Ethan succeeds in his quest, at the end another settler’s door closes on him walking away toward horse and desert as alone as ever; thus concluding John Ford’s penultimate poetic landmark of the West that has shaped us, that haunts us still as both history and myth.

– Extract from ‘Peter Bogdanovich: The Searchers’ at indiewire 

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