Friday, November 12, 2010

More Top Films: The Searchers

Ford’s classic is considered by most to be the best western ever made. It is probably the best film Ford, one of the best directors in film history, ever made. So much of the story is told cinematically. For example, the back story between Wayne’s character and Martha, the sister-in-law whom he obviously loves, is told without a word of dialogue to clarify things for the viewer. It is all done with silent acting, the way the shots are framed, and a similar parallel story told with the characters Martin and Laurie.

The story told here is one that was apparently based on a real case, and in fact there were a lot of cases where children were taken and raised by Indians. By all accounts, any such children would completely identify with their captors after just about a year and, even when rescued, never fully reintegrated into their birth culture. The events in this story are terribly tragic and hard to imagine. It does, however, carefully examine the clash that occurs between two cultures when so much wrong has been committed. It is particularly illuminating for today’s world, where we see such an intense global clash of cultures.

Wayne always thought that the character of Ethan was his best role. He is not a character to be admired. He is a man full of hatred and bitterness. It is understandable when one considers that this man’s mother (notice the grave marker), the woman he loved, and one of his nieces (daughters?) have all been brutally killed by Comanche. The racism that Ethan has is all consuming. He hates the Indians so much that he has ironically gotten to know their culture very well. He even speaks their language. Ironically we learn that the enemy, Comanche chief Scar, is Ethan’s mirror image. He is motivated by a hatred fed on revenge as well.

Ford does a good job of showing the tragedy of such hatred. Ethan is an eternal outcast. His hatred has made him become the thing he hates and he has no place in his birth culture. He is a killer and a man of violence. He is Cain, forced to wander and never settle—he has no home.

“What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away.”

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