Released in 1956 in an America still bruised from the effects of WWII, The Searchers is far from a normal patriotic film of the western genre. One of the earliest examples of a revisionist western, John Ford’s film is critical of America’s chequered past and places Hollywood icon John Wayne front and centre as a venomous defender of the country’s troubled ideals. It is for these narrative complications that defy the genre’s usual limits that make the film a favourite of the master filmmaker, Martin Scorsese.
“The Searchers has been more or less officially recognised as a great American classic. But I have to admit that I never really know what that kind of recognition amounts to. The film turns up on many 10-greatest-films-of-all-time lists, including my own,” Scorsese notes in an archived interview with the Hollywood Reporter. Explaining his fondness for the film, he elaborates on the film’s questioning themes, examining the popular national attitude toward native Americans. As Scorsese comments, “Like all great works of art, it’s uncomfortable. The core of the movie is deeply painful. Every time I watch it — and I’ve seen it many, many times since its first run in 1956 — it haunts and troubles me. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema”.
As he further examines in an interview with the American Film Institute, “You sit there, then suddenly this character, this lonely character comes out of the desert and he’s absolutely terrifying…He literally acts out the racism, the worst aspects of racism of our country, it’s right there and you can see the hate”.
Continuing, the director states, “He’s a poet of hatred and he just shows us the worst part of ourselves coming out of the late ’40s, early ’50s, he just brings it right up to the surface so we have to deal with it”.
A previous confederate soldier during the American Civil War whilst also fighting in the Mexican revolutionary war, the protagonist, Ethan, is an all-American man, a vehicle for the country’s history who is burdened with its peppered troubles. Reaching the long-desired goal of ‘rescuing’ his lost niece from the hands of the Comanches, Ethan is not relieved or in joyous rapture; he is broken and seemingly ashamed, his moral purpose thrown into the winds of the west.
As Scorsese observes to the Hollywood Reporter:, “You’re left with a mystery. In this case, the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realises his goal, brings her back and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note”.
Without the purpose of perpetual hatred, John Wayne’s lead character is a lonely searcher and a relic of old America, as Scorsese concludes, “In its final moment, The Searchers suddenly becomes a ghost story”.