“That’ll be the day…” – Ethan Edwards
If you’ve never seen a John Wayne movie, you should. If his movies just aren’t your thing, do it just for the experience of seeing him – he’s like no other. I think he’s a great, often underrated, actor….but it’s his screen presence that is truly remarkable. He didn’t just dominate the screen because he was such a big guy. And he was a big guy. He was 6’4…and not a scrawny 6’4. But that’s really not the only thing – he had a way of delivering his lines, taking pauses in strange places…sort of drawing out every fiber of every word that makes you believe him. No matter who he shared the screen with, you couldn’t help but notice him.
He’s often associated with American patriotism, and whether you agree with his personal politics or not, he was a patriot on and off the screen. So many times, in so many movies – he stood for justice or just doing the right thing no matter what. But he had his own code and he was one of the rare few that could seem to stick to it. I’m going on and on because I think he deserves more praise as an actor than he gets. Yes, he did play similar roles – but they’re not all the same. More importantly – I can’t imagine anyone else in them. There is no other John Wayne. If you’re among the ones that doubt his acting talents, you must not have ever seen The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – or for a different kind of John Wayne: The Quiet Man. I recommend all three….well, and a whole bunch of others.
Anyways, onto The Searchers…
I used to watch John Wayne movies growing up, with my dad – I liked them but I didn’t appreciate them until later and that’s exactly how my love of The Searchers grew. I saw it, I liked it – I didn’t understand it was a masterpiece until later. I think it might be one of those films that the more you see it, the more it grows on you and the more you love it.
The Searchers begins with Ethan Edwards appearing as a speck on the horizon – coming in to his brother’s ranch. He’s riding alone, covered in the desert dust, and we learn a little bit about him through the family conversation. He fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy but he’s showing up three years after the war ended and he’s got a lot of gold pieces. Where has he been? What has he been doing? His past is a mystery but it’s implied that he’s done some questionable things. We learn from Clayton, a Texas Ranger, that he “fits a lot of descriptions.” We also see an unspoken but obvious love between Ethan and his brother’s wife, Martha. They share a few tender moments – nothing scandalous by any means. It’s sweet in a sad way. He kisses her forehead at one point, she clearly cherishes the moment. It’s likely they never had an affair of any kind – they’re both honorable. I think they fell in love long ago but because of Ethan’s loner ways and perhaps his tendency to be an outsider, they never married and she married his brother instead.
Shortly after Ethan arrives, a neighbor’s cattle herd is run off by some Comanches and the men decide to ride off and get the cattle back…Ethan tells his brother Aaron to stay close to the ranch. He suspected the Comanches could be luring the men away. Tragically, he was right. Like my usual posts, I’m going to give away as little as possible. I don’t want to spoil it. But the men figure out too late and by the time they get back – the ranch where Ethan’s brother, his beloved Martha and their three children live is burning to the ground. Ethan calls frantically for his family – especially Martha….and then he finds her dress. He stumbles forward into the burning house and comes back out with a look of terror and rage on his face. He obviously saw the aftermath of what that empty dress just told us. But Lucy and Debbie aren’t there – his nieces were kidnapped. Hopefully, they’re still alive. Now for the search….
“Put an Amen to it! There’s no more time for praying.”
That’s what Ethan says to the preacher (also the Texas Ranger, Capt. Clayton) as he and the local ranchers are singing at the group funeral for Aaron, Martha and their son Ben. Time to find those girls and get them away from the indians before they’re “of an age” to… In 1956, they couldn’t come right out and say it but that’s the idea – he needs to find his nieces before they’re forced to “marry” their Comanche captors – that’s the nice way of putting it. There’s no sugar-coating it. He hates the Comanches and constantly picks on Martin (who is an eighth Cherokee). He was like an adopted son to Martha and Aaron. Martin, vows to find Lucy and Debbie too. He considers them his sisters. Ethan never fails to miss an opportunity to point out that Martin’s not really family. Also along for the Search is Brad – who is Lucy’s boyfriend. He’s incredibly fragile – has to be calmed down several times. Understandably so – the girl he loves was kidnapped by men who raped and killed her mother. He has a hard time but he needs to be a part of the search.
The search takes many different twists and turns – they follow any lead they get but the Comanches are a wandering tribe and they know they’re being followed. Now, this is where I need to stop sharing details or I’ll ruin it. What you can know now is, the search lasts years. Ethan will not give up. As he says at one point…
“Injun will chase a thing till 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.”
While watching The Searchers, Ethan can be hard to like but it’s almost impossible not to respect him. I think that’s to John Wayne’s credit in particular. Ethan says and does some nasty things but he still manages to be the hero. Martin, who searchers with Ethan, is the voice of moral reason. He’s like the conscience we’re not sure Ethan has. Again, Ethan’s not all bad – it’s just he doesn’t quite think the same way an insider in society would think.
Other than the actual story – this film is beautiful. Orson Welles once compared John Ford’s directing to poetry and it’s easy to understand when you see this film. Much of it is shot in Monument Valley – the sky couldn’t be more blue and the monuments (rock formations) almost glow orange in the sunlight. It’s gorgeous and it really makes me want to go visit someday. And then there’s the music. I’m having trouble describing it actually without simply saying, it’s perfect. The score searches on along with Ethan – follows him through all the setbacks. And then there are a few songs that are sung. I’ve learned to pay attention to the lyrics. They’re so fitting. Especially the song played during the credits – it’s about Ethan.
I know I’ve been vague at times and that I’ve rambled on for quite a bit now. But, my reasons are this – for me, this is one of the best films ever made. On one hand, I’d like to discuss every bit of it but on the other, it’s a great movie to figure out on your own. There’s a lot to it and, for me, I think it gets better and better each time I see it. I always notice more and I think everyone should see it, at least once.