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This one’s emotional for me. I first saw John Ford’s masterpiece when I was just a young child, maybe eight or nine years old, when I watched it with my father on the first night of my life when I was allowed to stay up late. It was the feature on one of the local networks’ late show broadcasts that evening (we only got two channels!), called Night Owl Theatre or something like that. It was scheduled to end well after midnight, but Dad figured I really ought to see it, and it wasn’t as if you could get movies on demand back then. You watched them whenever the local TV station decided to play them, and you might not get a chance to enjoy your favourite, the one that you’d seen previously only once or twice when it was still playing in the theatres, for years and years, if ever at all. So it was a question of priorities. The showing didn’t even begin until it was way past my bedtime, but Dad wasn’t about to pass up a rare opportunity to introduce me to The Searchers. An exception was made (I guess it wasn’t a school night), my bedtime was suspended for just that once, and we sat together into the wee hours, just him and me, with our little black and white TV. A treasured memory.

The Searchers is usually regarded as not just the greatest Western ever filmed, but one of the greatest movies of any genre, beloved by august organizations like the American Film Institute, respected critics like Roger Elbert, and legendary directors like Martin Scorsese. Part of that reputation is based simply upon the way it looks, especially on the big screen; its cinematography is exceptionally beautiful, with many scenes set against the spectacular backdrop of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, the amazing geological wonderland on the Utah-Arizona border rendered iconic as the terrain for so many of his films. To this day, for those of us of a certain age, our conception of “the West” continues to be a landscape like this, just like the one where the Coyote chased after the Roadrunner:

This actually isn’t a lot like anywhere any well-advised settlers would want to put down roots – not the sort of place to raise your kids, as Elton John once sang of the only somewhat more hospitable surface of Mars. No water, no arable land to speak of, and not a hell of a lot of shade anywhere you aren’t likely to vanish under a rock slide, but boy, did it look good on the silver screen.

The Searchers was released in 1956, when the traditional mythology of “cowboys and Indians” still prevailed. It was a mind-set that didn’t begin to change until many years later, when revisionist pictures like Little Big Man began to portray the often ruthless, brutal colonization of the West in a more accurate light. The White settlors encroaching on tribal lands are here depicted as decent folk minding their own business, having done nothing to provoke any righteous aggression from the natives. If not exactly peaceable, they’re at least assumed to be acting well within their rights, even if they know that to get what they want, they might wind up having to fight the locals to keep it. It is what it is. They mean to defend what’s now theirs. Nobody’s doing any soul searching.

Yet the film doesn’t whitewash the essential ugliness of wresting the frontier from its original inhabitants, the violence required, or the doubtless regrettable, but subjectively necessary pitilessness of those who’ve long since resolved that there wasn’t enough room out there for both populations, what with their incompatible ways of life, and therefore one of them had to go. Ethan Edwards, the central protagonist played with astonishing nuance by John Wayne, is a quintessential anti-hero, a hard man who fought on the wrong side of the Civil War, and returned as damaged goods, emotionally scarred, his steadfast, heroic resolve tainted by bitterness and racism. His plainly searing hatred of the native peoples is depicted as frightening, twisted, and every bit as savage as anything he imagines of those he despises. There’s one scene in which Wayne plays Ethan as close to unhinged, and many others where he’s unapologetically hateful. It’s this antipathy that creates the dreadful tension of the narrative, which revolves around an epic, years-long quest to recover a young girl taken as a prize in an Indian raid on the homesteaders, because we aren’t really sure what he’s going to do when he finds her. It depends. There are episodes that lead us to believe that if, over the years, she’s forgotten who she is and where she came from, and has gone native with her captors – if she’s been brainwashed, defiled, and ruined, as he sees it – well, he’s going to shoot her dead straight away, and think of it as a mercy killing. Damned right he will. We’re sure of that much right up to the movie’s climax.

The final scene, attached above, is one of the most celebrated in all of cinema. An exterior shot filmed from the interior, almost exactly like the shot that opens the movie, it emphasizes the stark contrast between the safe, warm, civilized confines of the family home, and the harsh, unforgiving wilderness where Ethan had been searching without respite for all those years. The better angels of his nature have prevailed. He delivers the girl, who had gone thoroughly native, back to her loving kin, all thoughts of killing her having vanished as soon as he set eyes on her. In a way, then, he’s been redeemed, but in another more powerful way he really hasn’t, not at all, and he knows it. As all the other characters flow around him into the cabin, he stays outside under the scorching Sun, where he knows he belongs. There’s no place for him in polite company. He isn’t fit for anything approaching domesticity or civil society. We can actually see him reach a painful moment of decision, through a small but telling little physical gesture, before he turns on his heel and goes, the door shutting behind him.

Everybody who’s seen The Searchers remembers the wounded, sad, and now legendary pose Wayne strikes in those final seconds, grasping his right elbow with his left hand. It’s an anxious, melancholy little bit of body language that leaves him looking lost and alone, nothing like the big, strong, stoic hero everybody had grown used to, when we all thought he was just playing himself. At that moment he’s not John Wayne any more. He’s Ethan.

The opening shot

Our last look at Ethan

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