Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Searchers

An odd film to schedule at tea time. My mother was watching it- or rather was facing towards a TV that was showing it and I was carrying dishes in and out- and stopping to watch the occasional scene. Sometimes, I think, you get more of the essential flavour of a movie by watching the odd scene than you do from sitting through the whole thing. I missed the initial massacre and its aftermath- and came in for the chucklesome scene in which Ethan and Martin brutalise Martin's inadvertently acquired Native American wife. As soon as my mother went up to bed I turned the TV off. I didn't want to be half watching The Searchers, or have it playing in the background like muzak- it's, too demanding, too horrible. I can't think of a movie that so remorselessly drags a steel comb through one's tender 21st century sensibilities.

It's a story about bigotry and cruelty made by a bunch of guys who- to use a phrase Ford liked to apply to himself- were "hard-nosed" about those sort of things. The landscapes are beautiful- mostly Utah pretending to be Texas- but the things that are going on in the foreground are foul. Violence and rape- the memory of them, the fear of them- are never far away.  They get frosted over by lumpish attempts at humour- which, like the equally lumpish humour in Shakespearian tragedy- only serves to point up the ghastliness. Ethan Edwards- with whom we can't help identifying- (and please don't tell me John Wayne couldn't act- because this is one of the greatest performances on celluloid) comes with the bigotry baked in- and acts accordingly; his sidekick Martin is just as cruel- but out of insensitivity and ignorance (his treatment of women is abominable.) Ethan knows too much, Martin knows too little. Together they cut a swathe across the West but at least Ethan knows what he's doing- and why.

I didn't watch the ending this time round but I remember vividly how the preacher and his vigilantes go tearing through the teepee village, killing indiscriminately- and how Ethan scalps Scar and finally walks out of the knees-up at the end, clutching his arm, having returned Debbie to the chintziness of Mid-Western civilization.  The wilderness reclaims him. The door swings to behind him.  He's helped make America and it wasn't pretty and those who can stomach it can keep it. 
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