BP’s Top 100 Challenge #17: The Searchers, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
This was my second viewing of The Searchers. I love western but this is not a favorite of mine. It is a beautifully made and historically significant film but it is also very problematic. Director John Ford was an impressive filmmaker and his stance to show the incredible racism towards Native American is in equal measures brave and difficult. What happened to the native tribes in North America is a scar on our nation’s history and The Searchers explores how that could have happened but it is not a very pleasant thing to watch.
This is the only John Wayne film I have seen. I do not find him compelling or talented so he is not a figure whose works I have explored. He is fine in The Searchers as racist Uncle Ethan but to me he is very one-note and one of the least interesting performances in the film. Wayne himself is a difficult person to get behind. For me he brought little to the film.
Ford, on the other hand, brings a great deal to the film. If you leave out the story and acting The Searchers is a gorgeous film. Ford captured the beauty and vastness of the American west. I am not very knowledgeable about the technical aspects of filmmaking but it was shot in VistaVision and the colors and depth of field are captured wonderfully, especially in the landscape shots.
So, let’s talk about it. The way Native Americans and specifically the Comanche are depicted and treated in the film is terribly out of date and uncomfortable. One of the most shocking scenes to me is when Ethan and Martin come across a huge herd of buffalo and Ethan starts shooting and killing them indiscriminately so that the tribes will have nothing to eat when the winter hits. I’m sure that sort of thinking was prominent as white men pushed further and further west, but it was disturbing to hear it out loud. Ethan’s willingness to shoot his own niece once she has become accepted by the Comanche’s is also extremely disturbing. To paraphrase Ethan, he believes it is “better to be dead than a Comanche.” At the very end when he chases Debbie down into a cave and grabs her I was certain he was going to kill her even though he spent the last five years of his life chasing her down. At least Martin sees that view as wrong. He fights to protect Debbie from Ethan and knows his sister is still in there despite her adoption to the Comanche ways.
I will say the one bright point for me in the film is Vera Miles as Laurie. She brought so much life and energy to the screen that I was so happy to see her every time she was on screen. I like that Laurie was a no-nonsense, straight shooter. She wanted what she wanted and she went for it. Her willingness to marry that buffoon when she wanted Martin felt a little out of character but I think it mostly served to get Martin to fight for her.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy The Searchers very much. I respect Ford as a filmmaker and I think he did his best to show a realistic view of how settlers felt about the Native Americans but it is still a tough film to watch with modern eyes. I think it is good when films challenge you and make you think about uncomfortable things but I don’t think I will revisit The Searchers again for a while.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
The Searchers ranking: Submarine