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Books & Culture

The Great American Movie

Watching John Ford’s “The Searchers” in the Trump era.


- August 27th, 2019
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Among American cinephiles, there is a shortlist of movies that usually serve as the fitting answer to the question: What is the greatest American movie of all time?

No matter the answer, respected connoisseurs of cinema invariably will mention John Ford’s 1956 classic Western, “The Searchers.”

Featuring one of the strongest performances of that most iconic of Americans, John Wayne, “The Searchers” is the quintessential American film.

If “The Godfather” is a story about becoming American, “The Searchers” is a story about being American.

Further, it is one of the most beautiful, brilliantly crafted, well written, of the most influential films in cinematic history.

How odd, then, that the grande dame of what used to be conservative journalism, National Review, published a piece in the late, which (unsuccessfully) attempted to excoriate Ford’s masterpiece on every level.

In the presumptuously titled, “Everyone is Wrong about ‘The Searchers,’” National Review’s Kyle Smith paints Ford’s 1956 film as “mediocre for most of its run time.”

It is difficult to see what prompted Smith’s vitriolic attack on a film that not only defines the Western genre but has provided a template for more than 60 years of how a film should be made.

Smith’s distaste with the film springs, at least partially, from the fact that “The Searchers” has “became the Left’s favorite cowboys-and-Indians allegory, a metaphor for Vietnam, McCarthyism, and the civil-rights era.”

Smith is correct to reject the New Left reading of the film as a parable about social equality; however, what perturbs Smith most about the ideological underpinning of “The Searchers” is that it’s too unapologetically tough and, perhaps, in that sense, too “conservative.”

Smith points to the lack of moralizing in the film—especially the film’s refusal to condemn the harsh and brutal actions of the main character.

Exploring the tale of the stoic and brutal but indomitably loyal Ethan Edwards—a role in which Wayne fits like a revolver in a well-worn holster—“The Searchers” is a story about the price paid for making America American.

The Edwards character returns from the Civil War to his homestead in Texas only to find his brother’s family murdered and his nieces abducted by the Comanche. The conquest of Texas, like so much of how the West was won, was a bitter and often brutal tragedy, and Ford is not afraid to depict the great cost and the moral complexity of this tragedy in his masterpiece.

Rather than being a racist celebration of colonization as Smith suggests, “The Searchers” shows in all its ferocity what the struggle for life and land was really like between American settlers and American Indians.

Ethan Edwards is little different than Scar, the chief of a tribe of Comanche who had kidnapped the nieces of “Uncle Ethan.”

Scar kills American settlers out of vengeance for what was done to his family as Uncle Ethan fights Indians in response to their attacks on his family.

Both men are intelligent, strong, and even witty—one of the most humorous and charming scenes in the film is when Scar compliments Ethan on his ability to speak Comanche after Uncle Ethan had condescendingly asked Scar if someone had taught the Comanche chief to speak English.

Like Hector and Achilles in Homer’s great Greek epic, the Iliad, Scar and Uncle Ethan are the best of their people and each wields his strength in defense of kith and kin.

The central problem with the film, however, is how this kind of strength can be civilized without diminishing its power.

Scar is killed in the film not by Uncle Ethan but by Martin Pawley, a man with both European and Cherokee blood whose family had been killed by Scar. That is to say, Pawley is a man with split natural loyalties who must choose the better between them.

After returning his niece Debbie to her family, Ethan tellingly is left outside of the home and walks off into the wild Texas desert. His usefulness is utilized on behalf of that civilization but not exactly welcome to live within it.

The message is clear that no matter how necessary Uncle Ethan’s cool strength has been for the creation of America, he is not really a civilized man and must always lurk on the dark, liminal boundaries of American life.

Seemingly unable to grasp John Ford’s complex and serious message in the film, National Review’s slight to “The Searchers” is symptomatic of the wider crisis of American conservatism during the Trump era.

All Americans of good will and character are disgusted by the horrific propensity to violent rhetoric and even actual violence that seem now to burst into the headlines on a daily basis from both the Right and Left sides of the political spectrum.

This seething undercurrent of violence, however, is by no means the kind of heroic strength that made America great—for the violence of mass shootings, riots, and assaults ultimately comes from a place of cowardice and weakness.

What is needed in our country and in the conservative movement are heroes of strength, poise, and modesty.

We need the heroes that made our country great and will make American great again.

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