Is The Searchers the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

My favorite John Wayne performance is in The Quiet Man, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a gruff cowboy going to Ireland and falling in love with a fiery woman. It’s a strange movie, but it’s also not all that much more complex than that line would lead you to believe. Whatever you feel about John Wayne, it would be tough to say he has “range” as an actor, but he pulls off the comedy of that story (and True Grit, obviously) well. John Ford won an Academy Award for directing it and it’s a certified classic as a spin on a few different genres. The climactic fight really needs to be seen to be believed.

John Wayne works best when everyone around him is as little like John Wayne as possible. The idea of American masculinity at the time (and still today, in a lot of ways) is wrapped up in what John Wayne showed on the screen. In most John Wayne pictures, he shows up and gets exasperated at people who want to talk and plan. He acts. He’s effective because you don’t need to spend a lot of characterization to understand what he wants or how he plans to get it. Just as Peter Lorre visually transmits a completely different idea, Wayne requires very little storytelling for an audience to understand “good guy cowboy.”

The Searchers doesn’t completely bend that idea, but it does complicate it. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a proud Confederate soldier who comes home to Texas years later after the war is lost and the world is changed. The subtext of The Quiet Man allows for some space where a brash American wandering into another culture and making a mess of things is actually a bad thing, but John Ford’s The Searchers is careful to tell us this hero of American masculinity and strength is actually an American terrorist. The audience in 1956 wouldn’t have used that term, but Wayne’s character is openly hostile to the figures that represent order and what we’d consider “the good guys.”

This is a really fascinating place to start. It would be one thing to introduce Ethan as a character always at odds with authority and someone we should view as a rebel, but Ford goes beyond that. Ethan makes a joke late in the movie about Union soldiers retreating, which is extra fascinating in the context of who they both are and what they represent. The Union solder is the son of a commanding officer and is clearly young and green and offers a contrast to Ethan’s experience and earned respect. Even still, every mention of Ethan’s background is grounded in his defense, even after the loss, of a racist rebellion that was quelled.

We live in a much different time, both than when this movie is set and when it was released. It’s not productive or even useful to try to ask what The Searchers means to a modern audience. This is becoming a theme in these reviews, though, because it’s how you will consume the movie. Ethan was supposed to read to the audience as a rebel, literally, but also as someone tough and resourceful. At the start of the story, Ethan has been through a tremendous, difficult journey, but one that, if examined, we wouldn’t agree was worth it.

This is important. Ethan is the main character, but he’s an evil, relentless bastard who takes every opportunity possible to extend cruelty. We aren’t supposed to hate him, exactly, but we aren’t supposed to agree with him, either. He comes home to a world slightly changed, but one where everyone still thinks he’s a hero and a symbol of virtue. Ward Bond plays the local lawman (and reverend) and he’s the only one who offers resistance to these ideas. Even he says they’ll sort it all out down the line and eventually sides with him, anyway.

Ethan’s family is murdered by Comanche and he vows to save the two women they abduct. He gives chase and stays on their trail for several years, with only his adopted nephew by his side. Martin Pawley, the nephew, is one-eighth Cherokee and Wayne’s character consistently uses slurs and insults him through the movie. It would be worth commenting on, but it’s pretty small in comparison to Ethan’s larger ethos.

Ethan believes the Comanche are soulless murderers, subhuman beyond discussion. When he encounters a dead Comanche warrior, he shoots the eyes out of the corpse explicitly to prevent the warrior from entering the afterlife. It goes well beyond establishing Ethan and the Comanche as antagonists and well beyond any rescue mission idea. Obviously the plot is a murder-revenge story, so Ford’s story tells us there’s a reason for this belief structure, but Ethan is explicitly racist, even in contrast to other characters.

It becomes clear early on that only one of the two women might be saved. Ethan vows that he will save her or kill her, and it’s really not all that important which it is. The rest of the cast is horrified, and this is really central to what Ford is trying to tell us about Ethan. It would be one thing to paint this as a reasonable response, but The Searchers is about the open war between the white settlers and the Comanche as much as it is about the fading humanity of Ethan Edwards. John Wayne usually saves the day, but here he no longer cares if the day gets saved or not. He’s going to finish this task, day be damned.

There’s a critical consensus around The Searchers as the best Western of all time and it’s easy to see why. The shots are gorgeous, even during a weird diversion in the snow. The side characters fill out the world, with a few memorable oddballs that give that trademark Western so-bad-it’s-good performance that is required to make the West feel different and specific. Natalie Wood is especially strange with the impossible task of the “converted” Comanche that Ethan and company need to save.

In 2021 it’s an extremely hard sell to watch John Wayne as a racist, psychotic Confederate soldier as the hero. But he’s not, and he wasn’t even at the time. There’s a lot of people who probably saw it all as justified and we’re definitely led down that path, but John Ford wants us to reject that. I don’t know that the story pushes hard enough on that idea for me to say that I love it, but I see what people see in it. It’s influenced dozens and dozens of iconic directors and films. John Ford and John Wayne made a million of these movies, but nothing really exactly like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think there’s a legitimate defense of Johnny Guitar as a better Western than The Searchers, but I like it more. It’s not a better movie, I suppose, and Wayne’s performance has a much higher degree of difficulty than what Crawford and Hayden turn in for Johnny Guitar. This is one of the highest rated movies of all time by just about any metric you choose, but I struggled with it even though the lens of what it’s supposed to be. When I first saw it years ago I didn’t care for it much and while I liked it a great deal more and found it more complicated this time, it’s still just not for me.

Is it the best movie of all time? I don’t even think it’s the best John Ford/John Wayne movie, so no, it’s not. I also don’t think it’s better than Badlands, another story about an evil protagonist that we find hard to identify with during murders. Badlands works a trick of making the unacceptable seem benign, while The Searchers asks how unacceptable different characters find truly unacceptable things. There are similar ideas here, but I’ll come back to Badlands more often.

You can watch The Searchers on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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