FILM COMMENT : John Ford’s Monument : ‘The Searchers’ may or may not be the greatest Western of all time, but it’s certainly the most influential one of our time

<i> Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic</i>

To know “The Searchers” is to love it. Or is it?

Directed by the venerable John Ford and starring John Wayne at his strongest and strangest, this, the most celebrated of Westerns (opening on Wednesday for a nine-day revival at Laemmle’s Monica in Santa Monica), was not exactly fawned over when it first appeared.

“The whole, finally, is not as great as the sum of its parts,” was the Los Angeles Times’ considered opinion after lightly praising “its vigor, its virility” in 1956, while on the other coast the New York Times was pleased but a trifle condescending, calling it “a rip-snorting Western, as brashly entertaining as they come.” And that journal of French auteurism, Cahiers du Cinema, was content to give the film a three-line unsigned notice.

But if that lack of reverence was an oversight, the nearly 40 years since have more than made up for it, as kudos for “The Searchers” have been stacking up like cords of firewood stockpiled for a particularly nasty winter.

“Perhaps Ford’s most perfect philosophical statement,” wrote British film critic John Baxter. Andrew Sarris called it the director’s “greatest tone poem.” Other critics rhapsodized about the film’s “unexpected density” and “muscular poetry” and threw in somber references to Shakespeare and Homer. One impressed gentleman, Robin Wood, went so far as to say: “The first 10 minutes alone seem, after several viewings, inexhaustibly rich in implication, every object, every action, every gesture carrying significance beyond itself.”

Adding the final touches to this process were the lists. Premiere magazine, in a recent juried roundup, made the film’s de facto canonization official by naming “The Searchers” as the best Western ever made. And the British Film Institute, which every 10 years polls the world’s film critics as to their all-time favorites, went that one better. The BFI’s 1992 survey listed “The Searchers” as the fifth best film ever made. Period, end of story.


But maybe not. For there has always been a high-powered opposition as far as “The Searchers” has been concerned, prestigious writers who are more or less fond of the film but far from bowled over. British critic and director (“This Sporting Life,” “If . . .”) Lindsay Anderson wrote that “the film’s ultimate inadequacy” is that “in the end it impresses rather than satisfies.” And Pauline Kael was even plainer, calling “The Searchers” “a peculiarly formal and stilted movie” before adding the coup de grace: “You can read a lot into it, but it isn’t very enjoyable.”

One reason thoughtful people argue over this film is that there is no disputing how influential it has become, not only among critics (who after all have been known to be easily led) but also among filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s as well. George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” with George C. Scott, for instance, have all been cited as films marked by “Searchers” allusions.

So this new and welcome revival (which is a prelude to a weekends-only Western festival at the Monica running through September) is more than a chance to re-experience a celebrated film and decide which side you’re on. It is an opportunity to examine an international phenomenon, to contemplate how it happened that this particular film reached its pinnacle of worship and acceptance.

If there is one thing everyone delights in about “The Searchers” (and which this brand-new print does full justice to) it is the film’s vivid pictorial qualities. Shot by Winton C. Hoch and second-unit director of photography Alfred Gilks partly in the director’s beloved Monument Valley, “The Searchers” makes memorable VistaVision use of the region’s eye-catching panoramas and rich colors. Even devotees of the film, if they’ve only experienced it on tape or through old, scratchy prints, will be impressed by its visual splendors.

Set in the frontier Texas of 1868, “The Searchers’ ” story can be fairly simply told. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a cantankerous Confederate veteran who has (inexplicably) taken years to reunite with his brother Aaron and his family after the end of the war. Though never explicitly stated, it’s clear that Ethan and his sister-in-law Martha were once and may still be in love, and that as a result Ethan is quite attached to his two nieces, Lucy and Debbie.

Ethan’s feelings about the family’s adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) are more complex. Though it was he who found Martin as an infant and brought him to the family, Ethan is apparently put off by Martin’s part-Cherokee background, fiercely snapping at the youth when he merely attempts to thank him for the rescue. “It just happened to be me,” Ethan barks. “You don’t need to make any more of it.”

When the men of the settlement, including Ethan, are decoyed out of the area by a cattle raid, an implacable band of Comanches attacks the Edwards house, brutally killing Aaron, Martha and their youngest son and carrying off Lucy and Debbie. Ethan, first aided by a posse and then with just Martin and Lucy’s beau Brad (Harry Carey Jr.) as companions, sets off on a relentless years-long attempt to save the two girls from a fate that he more and more comes to think of as literally worse than death.

Though you might not know it from a synopsis, and especially not from its more admiring notices, a good many of the peripheral aspects of “The Searchers” will feel awkward and dated to current audiences. Crusty in person, Ford was a hard-core sentimentalist on film, and though that part of his vision was critical to the artistic and popular success of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Was My Valley,” it could from time to time get out of hand. “The Searchers” was one of those times.

Cases in point abound, ranging from the film’s caricatured treatment of the Jorgensens, Brad’s homesteader family, to its leaden touch where a romantic triangle between Martin, Brad’s sister Laurie (Vera Miles) and a preposterous alternate suitor is concerned. And Ford, who would have had a seizure at the very notion of political correctness, does not portray women in a way that will make anyone to the left of Nancy Reagan very happy.

Given this, why are we paying attention to “The Searchers”? Because, irritating as they can be, all the film’s problems are at its edges. The core remains perhaps the most remarkable of any Western film, a study in character development that if anything feels more provocative today than when it first came out.

Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is not seen riding into the frame, he seems to materialize out of the Monument Valley landscape, a perennial outsider who looks about as at ease in the family parlor as his horse would. A bitter racist, quick to anger and take offense, the implacable foe of all tribes but especially the Comanche, Edwards is one of the most astonishing portraits of unapologetic, unmotivated fury ever put on screen, an unvarnished, frightening glimpse of the darkest side of the men who subdued the plains.

Perhaps influenced by all those critics, John Wayne liked to say that “The Searchers” was Ford’s best Western, and it is certainly the actor’s best performance, required viewing for anyone who still thinks the big fellow was a stranger to real acting. Not only in his malevolence, but also in his expression of almost inexpressible sorrow at key moments in the film, Wayne pushed himself further here than he ever did or was to do again, and the results are riveting.

It was not only Wayne’s performance and the uncompromising nature of his character that made critics take notice of “The Searchers.” It was that this film came from the hand of John Ford. Ford did not invent the traditional Western, but, completely at his ease in the mythic, he made the most lasting use of it. To have this man, the most hidebound of the Old Guard, use many of his favorite collaborators (including screenwriter and son-in-law Frank Nugent) to unleash this monster and brutally question some of the most dearly held pieties of the West still feels like very much of a shock.

One of “The Searchers” most powerful emotional images is much quieter and hardly shocking at all. It occurs in the film’s final frames, but it gives nothing away to talk about it and in fact without the necessary backstory the moment would pass completely unnoticed.

Though he is not much remembered today, Harry Carey, who died in 1947, was one of the great cowboy stars of the silent screen, and a significant mentor to both Wayne and Ford. The director, who was not in the habit of forgetting friends, put both Carey’s son Harry Jr. and Carey’s wife, Olive (who played Mrs. Jorgensen), into “The Searchers.”

But, feeling the emotional charge of the film, Wayne was apparently determined to do more. In his final seconds on screen, standing alone framed in a doorway, Ethan Edwards slowly moves his right hand to grasp his left arm, the signature movement that Harry Carey had made famous in dozens of Westerns.

It is mark of how much “The Searchers” meant to Ford and Wayne that they chose to end it with this potent tribute to their closest friend, and a mark as well of how persistent the myth of the West remains, a myth that this film makes a novel and lasting contribution to.