John Ford directed almost 150 films. Many of them were Westerns, and more than a few are masterpieces. The Searchers is arguably the best, and easily the most iconic; a stone-cold classic from its breathtaking opening shot onwards, and ultimately an influence on everyone from Akira Kurosawa (one of Ford’s greatest admirers) to George Lucas (who lifted entire sequences from the film, shot-for-shot, in the first Star Wars) to Buddy Holly (who took the name of his first hit from a line in the film).
John Wayne appeared in 24 of Ford’s Westerns, a pairing as memorable as Kurosawa and Mifune, or Hitchcock and Cary Grant. Here, in what might be his greatest role, Wayne plays an iconoclastic former Confederate soldier who spends seven years searching across the American Southwest for the Comanche tribe that killed his brother’s family and kidnapped his niece.
What begins as a heroic epic ultimately takes on tragic proportions, as Wayne’s once-noble cowboy becomes increasingly obsessive and unsympathetic, and the film itself expresses uncertainty in the heroic worldview his anti-hero represents. The darker side of the archetype Wayne created and embodied had been explored before (notably in Howard Hawks’ excellent Red River), but never with as much pathos.
Every scene is finely crafted and full of subtlety and detail. But ultimately, what makes the film so indelible and worth revisiting is the fact that it’s not only ultimate Western, but also the first Revisionist Western: a self-aware criticism crafted by the same men who helped build the genre to begin with. Horse Operas, as they were called in the business, often were rife with problematic ideology, most notable in the prevalence of sympathy for the Southern Confederacy and the demonizing of American Indians. The Searchers does not correct these issues, but it does address them thoughtfully and honestly, from the same perspective that helped to shape them, and takes the first steps towards atoning for those problematic representations. Ford — whose political and social views were at the opposite end of the spectrum from Wayne’s — managed to make a reflective, self-critical re-assessment of his own life’s work, while simultaneously reaching the zenith of his craft.
Thursday, 2/20. Free, 7:30pm. The Packard Theater at the Library of Congress, 19053 Mount Pony Road, Culpeper. (540) 829-0292.