“We’ll find ‘em, just as sure as the turnin’ of the Earth.”
That line, spoken by John Wayne in the 1956 film The Searchers, is pure, classic “Duke.” From that moment on, you just know that he is going to keep on pursuing the Comanches that kidnapped his niece until the very bitter end — and God help those Indians when he finally catches up. Recently re-released on DVD in a special 50th anniversary edition, The Searchers makes for one hell of an adventure at times.
A lot of people think the film is even better than that — including the type of high-brow film critics who aren’t otherwise big John Wayne fans. As Stephen Metcalf recently wrote in Slate: “[I]t is widely considered, by the initiated [i.e. serious film scholars], at least, to be among the four or five best movies of all time.” (Emphasis added)
He’s not exaggerating. Among other accolades, it was among the first films chosen for the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board in 1989, designating it a “national treasure.” That’s awfully high praise for a western shoot’em up.
But why this particular horse opera and not any of the scores of others that Wayne starred in? Few of the Duke’s fans have thought to ask this. Most have been content to echo the praise. If the pencil necks think The Searchers is as good as all that, who are we to argue, they ask? It’s nice to have them recognize the Duke’s greatness for once.
Well, the Duke’s fans should be a bit more wary of this particular film. There’s a fairly simple reason why The Searchers is so highly rated by critics. Whether by accident or design, it is ultimately a liberal telling of the settling of the western frontier.
Specifically, the film’s theme is race. It portrays the settling of the west as an explicitly racial struggle for dominance between the Indians and the whites. More to the point, it subtly but unmistakably subverts Wayne’s heroic image by making his character’s motivations all about race. Which is exactly why liberals love it.
As the Village Voice put it, The Searchers is “a perverted odyssey of xenophobic self-hatred and waste, with Wayne at the center in arguably the most profound portrait of macho monstrosity ever delivered by an American movie star.”
Roger Ebert has more mixed feelings regarding the film but agrees with the Voice’s basic assessment: “Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it.”
The Washington Post’s resident lefty columnist Harold Meyerson picked up this theme in an op-ed yesterday, seeing the film as a metaphor for the Iraq War.
Wayne’s character, Meyerson argues, is “possessed by a raging hatred of Indians…his hatred culminating in a shot in which he scalps the Comanche chief he has tracked for five years….”
“Defend civilization by becoming as barbaric as its enemies, [The Searchers] suggests, and you are no longer really part of that civilization,” he wrote.
FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T seen it, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in the film, a veteran Indian fighter and former Confederate officer. A few years after the Civil War he rides west to visit his brother and his brother’s family. They are the only family Edwards apparently has.
“Ain’t seen you since the surrender,” remarks the local reverend, played by Ward Bond. “Come to think of it, I didn’t see you at the surrender.”
“I don’t believe in surrenders,” replies Edwards. “Nope, I’ve still got my saber, reverend. Didn’t beat it into no plowshare neither.”
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