There is no genre as iconic or as American as The Western. While there certainly were stories of the American West before film, once it made its way to the big screen, it became clear the stories were perfect for film. The rustic landscape, thrilling action and iconic symbolism of the gun, the badge and the sunset all played perfectly into the motion pictures. The only problem is that the film was seeped in deep racism, questionable heroes and misguided notions of manifest destiny.
The Searchers certainly attempts to reconcile some of these pressing issues which make the Western a fundamentally troubling genre, and it’s a step in the right direction, but it lacks the boldness to daringly to follow through on the progress it begins to make. As compromised and complicated as the film may be, it takes the easy way out, still trying to please its audience instead of sticking to the material it presents.
The film follows journey of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a former confederate soldier who still holds a bitter grudge against Comanches, and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a young lad who’s a bit Comanche himself. The two must pair up to searched for a girl kidnapped by the Comanches after a house raid.
From the get go, the film places the two heroes on the higher moral ground as they’re out for revenge against those dastardly Comanches again. Racism against Native Americans has been a long standing issue with the genre, and this film does little to curtail those issues. They’re still those villains, untreatable rogues who go about attacking the white man with their underhanded ambush tactics.
However, Ethan’s reaction to the Native America complicated the traditional Western hero. He grits his teeth and snarls about how awful the Comanches are. When he gets the chance, he’ll do just about anything to kill one, even firing into the backs of some fleeing Comanches even though it’s against a Western hero’s code of honor. He even goes so far as to allow his racism to blind him against a love he once had.
While he certainly is a fascinating and complicated Western hero, and one could argue that he is the villain of the piece, leading Martin into a life of vengeance, his development as a character throughout the film is paltry. It wouldn’t be an issue if the Wayne character was set up as a tragic figure, but instead the film finds a way to work in an ending that feels unwarranted, artificial and crowd-pleasing instead of true to the story it’s trying to tale.
It’s a shame because there are some powerful moments in the film, moments in which the characters are forced into doing things they’d never want to do, and the film crafts an easy out for them. The film slides back into the easy place where it becomes clear to denote good and evil, right and wrong and see that in the end, those Comanches had it coming and by golly, good thing those cowboys showed up when they did.
It’s because of this regression even in spite of the progress the film attempts that I’d much rather revisit a film far more stilted and seeped in the western tropes like High Noon, because at least that film is consistent. I certainly appreciate that films like this began to complicate the Western, but if you can’t follow through on the setup, all the audience is going to remember is how great it was to get the happy ending and how Wayne can fulfill the hero role, instead of the ending that surprised them and forced them to reevaluate what they expect from the Western.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing