John Ford's 1956 Western "The Searchers," now in a brief revival at the Avalon, remains a vivid and fascinating Western, certainly a notable achievement in the careers of Ford and John Wayne.
In recent years the film also has become the object of a passionately admiring critical following that may not feel vindicated until "The Searchers" is regarded as the greatest Western ever made, if not the greatest Western every made, if not the greatest American movie ever made. But this campaign may succeed only in overstating the movie's virtues and distorting its historical perspective.
The most hyperbolic appreciation to date appeared last spring in New York and New West magazines. The writer, Stuart Byron, quoted a remark by Hemingway, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Fin,'" as a preamble to his own assertion that "in the same broad sense it can be said that all recent American cinema derives from John Ford's "The Searchers.'"
Certainly, the film begins -- as it ends -- with a scene of disarming formal beauty and dramatic eloquence. A door swings open to reveal within its frame a Western landscape; the majestic Monument Valley, the definitive Ford location long before "The Searchers" was a new film. The camera glides through this scenic portal, widening the field of vision and disclosing the members of a frontier household as they watch the approach of a distant, solitary rider.
The rider is John Wayne, cast in one of his strongest roles, the vengeful, remorseless Texas frontiersman Ethan Edwards. After an absence of several years, he returns to his remote west Texas ranch and his wife, son, two daughters and a young man named Martin Pauley (Jeffrey Hunter), adopted by the Edwardses after a Commanche raiding party massacred his own family years earlier.
Indian trouble is brewing again, and soon Ethan is prevailed upon by an old comrade-in-arms, Texas Ranger Sam Clayton (Ward Bond), to join a posse investigating an outbreak of cattle rustling, presumably committed by Commanches. While the posse is gone a raiding party strikes the Edwards place. Ethan and Martin return to find the ranch in flames and the mutilated bodies of Martin's wife and son. The girls have evidently been abducted.
This tragedy provokes a search that lasts several years. At first a sizable posse sets out after the Comanches, but the ranks thin under the pressure of misfortune, dissension, flagging spirits and appalling aftershocks. Eventually, only Ethan and Martin remain to carry on the search from Texas to Canada to Mexico and back again.
At least three filmmakers -- Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and John Milius -- readily acknowledge the influence of "The Searchers" on their own work. Many reviewers had noticed that Schrader's most recent picutre, "Hardcore," transposed the story outline of "The Searchers" to a contemporary setting, although few considered it a trimphant relocation. Perceiving large or small traces of "The Searchers" in "Taxi Driver," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind, "The Wind and the Lion," "The Deer Hunter" and "Star Wars," among other artifacts, Byron went on to declare Ford's prototype "the Super Cult Movie of the New Hollywood."
The traces may be detectable, but are they predominant? Steven Spielberg and Michael Cimino seemed understandably reluctant to confirm Bryon's discovery of apparent affinities between their scenarios in "Close Encounters" and "The Deer Hunter" and the plot of "The Searchers," Even if the affinities are acknowledged, each film clearly suggests an idiosyncratic synthesis of influences and intuitions. Spielberg, for example, has far more in common with the traditions of Hitchcock and Disney than the tradition of Ford.
In the case of "Star Wars," the influence appears strictly incidental: Luke Skywalker's discovery of his murdered aunt and uncle certainly recalls the discovery of the victims at the Edwards ranch. But it also recalls the pivotal motivational sequence in "Nevada Smith." Burned out homesteads and tragic homecomings were durable storytelling features before the birth of John Ford.
Moreover, the admiring reassessments of "The Searchers" seem to preclude recognition of the seminal, utterly indispensable importance of Alan Le May's original novel. This neglect illustrates the disparity in status between superior Western fiction and superior Western filmmaking. The disparity is bound to be exaggerated when movie freaks insist on championing what they believe to be a neglected masterpiece.
Ironically, Le May, who died in 1964 of a brain tumor at the age of 65, was once a fairly prominent screenwriter. Recruited by Cecil B. DeMille, Le May set aside a prolific early writing career, mainly Western fiction, to collaborate on the scripts of "northwest Mounted Police," "Reap the Wild Wind" and "The Story of Dr. Wassell." Switching to Warner Bros, in the mid '40s, Le May contributed to such films as "San Antonio," "Cheyenne," "Tap Roots," "The Adventures of Mark Twain" and "Rocky Mountain," the comic Gary Cooper Western "Along Came Jones" was based on a Le May novel, "The Useless Cowboy." Venturing into independent production in the late '40s, Le May ended up directing one of his scripts, "High Lonesome," released in 1950. He resumed writing novels in the early '50s, and his first two books, "The Searchers" and "The Unforgiven," were filmed by Ford and John Huston respectively.
According to Le May's widow, now remarried and residing in Pacific Palisades, Calif., little notice was taken of his death, even in the trade press. She viewed the neglect philosphically, remarking, "Writers are forgotten people out here."
Not only "out there." A critical anthology called "Favorite Movies" includes an appreciation of "The Searchers" by Jay Cocks, who refers to Nugent's "superb script" without mentioning that it happens to be an effective distillation and modification of a novel that was exceptionally effective. Indeed, the filmmakers felt impelled to sacrifice certain elements whose loss you profoundly regret once you become aware of them. Le May devised stunning climactic and concluding episodes. They leave emotional reverberations that the movie never quite equals, despite the combined eloquence of Ford's pictorial genius and Wayne's towering physical presence at the fadeout.
In all likelihood neither Cocks nor Byron ever bothered to consult the novel. After a thumbnail sketch of the plot, Byron surmises: "Reduced to such an outline, 'The Searchers' might seem to have little more depth than the Western novel by Alan LeMay [sic] from which it took its basic story. But, working with screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, Ford created something so agonizingly complex about this nation's divisions that 'The Searchers' takes on an epic quality and becomes, as two critics flatly put it, 'the story of America.' Nice guess, but as a matter of fact, the epic elements were there to begin with, ready for Ford and Nugent to recognize and reproduce in cinematically effective terms.
To their credit, the filmmakers responded to the most significant elements in the original material: Le May's vivid, straightforward evocation of the period, establishing the cultural and social setting for recurrent, murderous conflict between Texans and Indians; and his tragic view of the lives of isolated, hard-pressed, pioneering clans. The precarious sense of community appears to have interested Ford more than anything else. While he tends to slough off action scenes, he warms to domestic interludes, social gatherings, eccentric character traits and intimate character interplay, whether cordial or hostile. Despite the scenic grandeur of the exteriors, "The Searchers" is stronger at social observation than picturesque spectacle.
In addition, Ford must have shared Le May's perception of depicting not "the story of America" but an American story, historically and emotionally revealing but not necessarily all-encompassing and prophetic. The rediscovery of "The Searchers" appears to be inspired to some extent by the need to purge guilt feelings connected with American intervention in Vietnam. According to Byron, "The Searchers" exposes the psychosexual reasons for imperialism. It is no accident that the critical re-evaluation of 'The Searchers' proceeded so rapidly during the Vietnam era. The movie might well be retitled 'Why We Are in Vietnam.'"
That title would certainly wrench the story out of the context that makes it particularly affecting. Ideological hindsight transforms Edwards' obsessive quest into a prophetic allegory, possibly reflecting an irresistible need to believe in some kind of national original sin, from which all iniquity -- past, present and future -- inevitably flows. Byron doesn't seem to consider the possibility that Edwards has some justification for his anti-Indian sentiments, vehement and sometimes appalling as they are.
Edwards reflects something authentic about the conflicts within a valorous, wrathful, driven man, but he can't be expected to serve as the definitive American outsider, let alone embody all the contradictions in the national character from his time and place to our own.
Ace Books will reprint "The Searchers" in paperback early next year. And it would be fitting if subsequent revivals of the film could call attention to the writer who gave the filmmakers such rich material.
When the film's final portal image closes, it appears to exclude Ethan Edwards from the society he has struggled to revenge, protect and restore. The movie ends with a lingering impression of Wayne's Edwards beyond the threshhold, a proud, lonely man. But there's also an unseen, forgotten man lingering out there in the cinematic ether: the storyteller who imagined "The Searchers" in the first place.