American Film of the 50s- The Searchers, by Aaron Pinkston
The first thing I learned in the first film class I took in college is that films set in the past are really about two different times — the time in which they are set, of course, but also the time in which they were made. This is true of The Searchers, which I believe is the only film in this series not set in the 1950s. Being a part of the series obviously shows that there is something that makes it a film of its time, though I’ve never really thought of it as a “50s film.” That may be some association I have with the film’s genre, director, star, or perhaps just my ignorance. Seeing The Searchers again, watching it specifically in this context, there was a definable imprint made by the decade. So while the very first image tells us we’re in 1868, much of the film’s politics and attitudes lie about 90 years later.
Even if they don’t directly speak to the 1950s, The Searchers features a number of “old-fashioned” elements. The Western genre was one of Hollywood’s first, with a number of silent shorts establishing the tropes of the cowboy, riding horses through the plains and deserts, shooting their guns at Indians (and sometimes directly at the camera). By the 1950s, the American Western had hit its peak, with major film directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks using the genre to build the American myth during one of the country’s most turbulent times. We still have Westerns today, but shortly after the 1950s the tones and moods of the genre began to change, with revisionist films made by more radical directors and with more political themes. Moreover, the music and acting styles feel severely outdated. Film acting was pretty naturalistic at this time, and newcomers like Brando and James Dean were going to be pushing the performance into new range, but most of the acting we see in The Searchers is quite canned, very “old-timey.” Most of the more ridiculous performances are obviously played for comedic effect, but some of the actors seem to be talking and moving in ways that real people don’t talk and move — I’m not willing to contribute this to an overall trend of the 1950s, but all of these things certainly feel like dinosaurs from a “classic” era.
More importantly, many of the attitudes toward minorities and women feel old-fashioned, as well. Coming off of Touch of Evil, this is the second film where racial tensions play an integral part, with the perspective of racist lead characters. A lot has been written about horrifying way the characters in the film relate to the villainous Native Americans, but, just like Touch of Evil, it is a complex situation. Ethan Edwards is the hero of the film, assuredly, but there is no reason for the viewer to think he is a strong moral character. The film, in fact, sets him up time and again as a loner, not someone we are supposed to admire, even as he’s being ultra-cool in tense situations. John Wayne’s performance is pretty legendary here, and aids in the character’s complex world-view while making him more unlikeable on the surface. No one would call Wayne a polished actor (you may not even call him an actor at all), but Edwards is a compelling character because of the performance. Wayne is a frightening presence, and whenever Edwards is mad or confrontational, or when he’s throwing out his racial slurs, you feel the tension as if you were in the room with him. Once we know his true intentions for the end of the title search, it’s a horrifying act, one charged with racism and hate. If this film was set in the 1950s, you could easily transplant Ethan Edwards into the inner city and his rhetoric and ideology could remain pretty similar and feel pretty clear. Though, of course, you probably wouldn’t have been able to make that film in 1956, as it may have felt too much like a social commentary. I really don’t think that Ford was trying to make any comment on the racial turmoil of the 1950s though, and part of me wants that while part of me realizes that would eliminate some of the complexities of the character and would make a much different film.
What I do find absolutely connected to this time is the attitudes toward women. Westerns don’t typically have a lot of female characters, usually just one to play a romantic interest, but The Searchers actually has a few major characters and other minor characters who all fit under this umbrella of 50s misogyny. This reminds me of the Patton Oswalt bit where he confronts a woman for getting huffy about all the women doing everything to pamper men. Oswalt humorously opines on the fact that the film is set in the 1860s, and that’s how it was back then — he doesn’t mention what I learned in college, as this attitude definitely reflects the 1950s, as well. A woman’s role in society (in the home) for this depicted time seems strikingly similar to the lives of women who would have seen the film in 1956.
The female with the most screen time, Laurie (played by Vera Miles), has a fierce temperament on the surface, but really just wants to find someone to marry and wait on hand-and-foot. The importance of her being married is highlighted in a strange way with a number of mostly comical scenes stuck in near the back end of the film, which have very little to do with anything elsewhere in the plot. From what I remember, it comes directly after some of the most emotionally intense moments, which gives a weird transition into scenes that could be chopped out of the film without much consequence to the overall story. In an earlier scene, when her love Marty comes back from the long search, her only role seems to be to care for him — make him a bath, fix his clothes, etc., as if he was a businessman returning from a long day of work. Laurie’s mother, who is probably the most independent and intelligent woman in the film, is mentioned to be a former school teacher, as if this is some sort of justification for her playing a more active role in the family. One particular side character, a young Indian squaw who gets sold to Marty while on the search, is a more pointed representation as the women in the film serving as a function of the male characters. She is both a wife figure but also a slave. The film only cares about her in her relation to Marty — once that relationship ends, she is killed.
And then there’s Debbie. For those who don’t know the film, Debbie starts as a young girl, captured by a Comanche tribe when the rest of her family is killed during a “murder raid.” The title then refers to the group of men, particularly Ethan and Marty, who set out on the wide spaces of Texas and spend many years in the hopes that she may still be alive. Once the group tracks down the villainous natives, they find Debbie, now a 15-year-old woman and wife of the tribe’s war chief, Scar. She has been fully assimilated into the new culture, and while at first resistant to the search party, she quickly comes to, knowing that the film needs her go with the “good guys.” Her role in the film makes me think of two very 50s-centric ideas. We’ve probably all heard stories of young girls who became pregnant, out of wedlock, in the 1950s — the mythology of the decade marked that it didn’t go so well for them. No matter their social standing, these girls would quickly become social outcasts, probably yanked from high school or taken to a new city altogether, in hopes of covering up their misfortune or poor choices. In a way, this is what happens to Debbie, as once she is taken she can no longer truly live in the same social sphere as Ethan. Would Ethan have the same antagonistic reaction if it was a young man taken by the Comanche? There is certainly another reading that works more smoothly, but I think there is a parallel here between her gender and the feelings men have. Obviously, though, the stronger reading comes with interracial marriage. Though the film never shows us anything of a sexual relationship between Debbie and Scar, they are a couple and presumably have had sexual contact. So, while Ethan’s reaction toward Debbie are on the surface directed toward her assimilation into this different culture, you can read it as Ethan detesting the sexual aspect of the interracial relationship.
Though my first thoughts of The Searchers never really considered it a product of the 1950s, it undoubtedly is. Not only is this shown in the film’s ideologies of racial relation and gender dynamics, but it is also of the decade through its technical qualities. Unlike Touch of Evil which was shot in black and white and in standard aspect ratio, The Searchers shows off vibrant colors and landscapes through VistaVision, a wide-screen competitor of CinemaScope. And this certainly wouldn’t be regarded as highly without these technical advances that I’m sure will be touched on more later in the series.