Yesterday, I finally got around to watching The Searchers. It’s a classic Western that frequently ranks highly in “best film ever” charts.
The Searchers contains many of the elements you expect from a classic Western. OK, so there’s no showdown, but you can’t have everything rip off High Noon, or all films would start to look rather similar. Everything else is present and correct (or politically incorrect, as the case may be, but it is a ’50s classic, and it’s set in the 1860s) – lone hero, post-civil war backdrop, “Indians”, guns, horses, desert, a revenge motive, you name it.
The plot is a familiar one (spoilers for early parts of the film follow). A group of Comanche raid a farmhouse, killing the occupants, burning the building to the ground, and kidnapping a young girl, Debbie. Debbie’s uncle Ethan (John Wayne) and her adoptive brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) join forces to rescue her and revenge themselves upon their family’s murderers.
What is interesting about this film is the way in which it handles race issues. Ethan, on face the hero, is initially somewhat hostile towards Martin because Martin is one eighth native American, and is shown to hold the Comanche in contempt, doing all he can to diminish their number. Martin, by contrast, is a much more traditional hero in terms of morals. He is determined to rescue his sister from the Comanche known as “Scar”, and concerned that Ethan’s hatred of all things native American will cause him to put Debbie’s life in danger.
OK, so the Comanche are still vilified, but it’s not clear that Ethan is in the right either, although he does get a moment of redemption, and remains a sympathetic character. In this way, he’s something of a deconstruction of the classic Western hero.
Visually, the film has aged well, although the fight scenes may look a bit silly to viewers raised on Star Wars lightsaber-duelling, The Matrix and Jackie Chan movies. There is some hilariously hammy acting from Ken Curtis as Charlie McCorry, but whether intentionally or not, the result is funny enough to avoid getting on one’s nerves (much).
For me, the film’s key strengths lay in its portrayal of families, and in the epic scale of the adventure. This is a film which will provoke emotions.* You really do get drawn in by the drama, which is what makes it such a good film. If you haven’t seen it before, I would definitely recommend checking it out.
I already think I understand the popularity of Westerns. Sooner or later, I’ll be watching revisionist Western Unforgiven (fingers crossed, anyway), and I’ll be able to write a comparison and see what elements are universal to both films. Of course, that’ll be after half-term.
*If watched in the ideal environment, which is perhaps not a media studies class.
Current listening: Deep Purple, “Super Trouper”.