Kirk Bane: Review of "The Searchers" by Edward Buscombe (BFI, 2008)
[Kirk Bane is professor of history at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas.] On May 31, 1956, the Los Angeles Examiner gushed, “The grandeur, the beauty, the sweep and the tragic horror of the newest John Wayne-John Ford classic of the Old West…cannot, with justice, be detailed by mere words. Its scope is simply tremendous. Its motivation spine chillingly grim. Its setting the most starkly beautiful ever seen in a Western film.” Ladies and gentlemen, “The Searchers.” Fifty years on, reviewers and cinephiles still venerate this epic motion picture. In the 2002 Sight and Sound critics’ list of best movies, “The Searchers” ranked number eleven, tied with Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” And in his exceptional study The Searchers (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), film historian Edward Buscombe calls it “a touchstone…one of the great masterpieces of American cinema…one of those films by which Hollywood may be measured.”
Director John Ford’s masterwork featured an outstanding cast, including John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey, Jr., and Hank Worden. Set in the Lone Star State in 1868, the plot concerns an Indian-hating, scalp-taking former Confederate, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), who spends years tracking the Comanche warriors who brutalized and murdered his family and kidnapped his young niece, Debbie (Wood). Joining Ethan on his obsessive quest, which covers hundreds of miles across Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, is mixed-blood youth Marty Pawley (Hunter), the “moral centre of the film, the one who, while all around him are driven by their prejudices, sees clearly that Debbie can and must be saved.” Buscombe contends that “there is a powerful irony in the fact that Marty is the one person in the film of mixed race, a ‘half-breed’ in Ethan’s casually insulting term; worth considering when charges of racism are thrown at Ford—or at the Western generally.”
Ford’s screenwriter, Frank Nugent, based his script on a 1954 Alan LeMay novel, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post as “The Avenging Texan.” LeMay probably used the ordeal of Cynthia Ann Parker, a little girl seized by Comanche raiders on the Texas frontier in 1836, as the inspiration for his story. A novelist, screenwriter, and “something of a Western specialist,” LeMay also authored The Unforgiven and worked for Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh.
Buscombe views Ford as a “genius.” By 1956, “he’d become the most respected director in Hollywood.” Ford received four Best Director Oscars, winning for “The Informer” (1935), “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), and “The Quiet Man” (1952—starring Wayne). But by the middle of the decade, Buscombe admits, Ford’s “drinking was getting worse, and there were violent rages, one of which resulted in a fistfight” with Henry Fonda on the set of “Mister Roberts” in 1955.
Buscombe also lauds Wayne, who “is a dominating presence on the screen…[he] bestrides ‘The Searchers’ like a colossus.” Certainly, Ethan Edwards remains one of Wayne’s most unforgettable characters. Evaluating Wayne’s talent, Ford observed that “the sonofabitch could act.” And Wayne revered his director, calling him “coach.” Buscombe declares that “with the possible exception of Henry Fonda…no other leading actor was such a force in Ford’s cinema.”
Buscombe relishes the scenery in Ford’s movie. “The Searchers” was filmed in Monument Valley in VistaVision, with Winton Hoch serving as Director of Photography. “No Ford picture, indeed no American picture, makes such sumptuous use of landscape,” Buscombe declares. Indeed, “there are many times in ‘The Searchers’ when one is begging Ford to indulge us just a little more, to let our eyes feast on the stately towers of red sandstone standing mighty against the azure sky.” Buscombe discusses the importance of music in “The Searchers.” Max Steiner, whose credits included “Cimarron” (1930) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939), composed the score. Steiner also used an abundance of traditional material in the film, including “Lorena,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Skip to My Lou,” “Garry Owen,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” the hymn, Buscombe points out, “that was practically Ford’s personal anthem.” Stan Jones, best known for “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” wrote the movie’s memorable title song, performed by The Sons of the Pioneers: “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?”
Buscombe fills his volume with numerous fascinating facts. For example, Texas rock and roll star Buddy Holly saw “The Searchers” at the State Theater in Lubbock and was obviously impressed by Ethan’s catch-phrase, “That’ll be the day.” Wayne, whom Holly esteemed, delivered that line several times over the course of the film. Holly’s song, “That’ll Be the Day,” a genuine rock classic, reached number one on both the pop and R&B charts in 1957. Buscombe also notes the tragically premature deaths of Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood, both of whom died before the age of fifty. Hunter’s most famous role came when he played Jesus in director Nick Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961), and Wood earned Academy Award nominations for “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955—also directed by Ray), “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), and “Love With the Proper Stranger” (1963). Hunter died in 1969 after an accidental fall. Just twelve years later, Wood drowned off the California coast. Her death, Buscombe avers, “has never been satisfactorily explained.”
Buscombe explores the tremendous effect of “The Searchers” on later motion pictures. Such films as “Big Wednesday,” “The Wind and the Lion,” “Hardcore,” “Taxi Driver,” “Mean Streets,” “Ulzana’s Raid,” “Major Dundee,” “Year of the Dragon,” and “Dances with Wolves” show an influence. “Yet even this can hardly be an exhaustive list,” Buscombe argues. Furthermore, director John Milius “has something of an obsession with the film, naming his son Ethan and constantly working references into his work.”
Buscombe teaches at Southampton Institute and is the author of Stagecoach, an examination of the 1939 Ford-Wayne screen classic. He also edited The BFI Companion to the Western and Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. The Searchers is impressively researched. Buscombe consulted such studies as Harry Carey, Jr.’s Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, Dan Ford’s Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Jacquelyn Kilpatrick’s Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film, and Garry Wills’s John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity. Moreover, he conducted research in the John Ford Archives at Indiana University and the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California.
Buscombe’s The Searchers is part of the British Film Institute’s Classics Series, which is “intended to introduce, interpret and honour…the masterpieces of world cinema.” Other texts in the BFI collection include Peter Cowie’s Annie Hall, Phillip Drummond’s High Noon, Lester D. Friedman’s Bonnie and Clyde, and Richard Schickel’s Double Indemnity. Sight and Sound calls the BFI Classics Series “remarkable,” and The Observer maintains that it is “the best movie publishing idea of the [past] decade.”
The Searchers lacks an index, which is disappointing. Buscombe also makes an unfortunate geographical gaffe, stating that Adobe Walls was located in “southwest Texas.” Actually, the buffalo hunters’ post was in the state’s Panhandle, northeast of present Amarillo. Still, pop culture historians, particularly those interested in oaters, will applaud Buscombe’s perceptive, limpidly written study. “Ride away, ride away, ride away.”
Lewis Bernstein - 3/8/2010
I'm not sure I understand the purpose of the piece - was it to get me to read the book or see the movie? I've don the latter many times and now will have to do the former.
Indeed, The Searchers is a landmark and in my view it is probably one of the best movies ever made and certainly the best western. There are some that would dispute that arguing for Shane, but no matter. Art is a personal matter.
Ford's conception of and Wayne's and Henry Brandon's depiction of hatred is almost frightening to behold. The way Ford depicts the Army also changed from She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. I cannot say too much that is good about this movie. I look forward to getting my hands on the book.
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