John Ford

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.

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is The Greatest Show on Earth Better than The Quiet Man? (1952)

The Quiet Man

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are The Greatest Show on Earth (Best Picture) and The Quiet Man (Best Director), the winners from 1952. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: The Quiet Man, the story of Sean Thornton (John Wayne) and his move to Ireland to recover his family’s land. Thornton is a boxer from Pittsburgh, and even as a fish out of water story it’s still really damn strange. John Wayne is John Wayne all the time. He’s a hard-drinkin’, no backtalkin’, absolutely-no-bullshit American who rides a horse everywhere and punches men who are rude to women. He buys the land by outbidding the cartoonish Squire Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) and then tries to marry Danaher’s daughter Mary Kate. Danaher is a big, absurd bastard who feels stung by the loss of property and he refuses Sean’s request. They disagree loudly in pubs for about an hour. Mary Kate is barely consulted and mostly just stews and screams at Sean, but the real trouble sets in when Sean discovers that customs are different in Ireland. Some of it is a reasonable source for culture clash comedy, but some it is more along the lines of “Why won’t this crazy lass just marry me… after all, I’m John Wayne!”

The Best Director director: John Ford, who won four Best Director awards in his career but only won Best Picture for the disappointing How Green Was My Valley. Apparently was a bit of a lunatic.

The Best Picture film: The Greatest Show on Earth (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked 74th on my list of all the Best Picture winners. A lot of lists rank it even lower than that and it feels tremendously dated. It’s the story of five people who fall in and out of love with each other as they try to run a travelling circus. Jimmy Stewart runs from the police as Buttons the Clown, though he’s actually a murderer (kinda, it’s tough to explain). Charlton Heston grimaces and barks at people when they fail him. For 10 actual, real-life minutes a group of men take down a circus tent. There’s a literal trainwreck. It’s a really tough watch these days.

The Best Picture director: Cecil B. DeMille, the first person to direct a full-length feature film in Hollywood. A legend among legends. Made The Ten Commandments. Less of a lunatic, if only by default. Apparently the biggest circus fan of all time.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? Nope! The Greatest Show on Earth is a genuinely bad movie for a ton of reasons, but chief among them is the pacing. While primarily a love story, Greatest Show often takes time to feature 20-minute circus acts. It’s nearly three hours long and feels even longer. I am not at all kidding when I say there is a scene where the narrator explains the process of taking down and folding a circus tent and that scene is 10 minutes long. The Quiet Man is a very strange movie, but it’s tighter and has more to say. It’s also remarkably funny even today. The climactic brawl gets to Looney Tunes-levels of absurdity as the participants stop to have a beer in the middle of a fistfight, but the performances are solid and the stakes feel real. The tone goes all over the place, especially with regard to poor Mary Kate, but the result is definitely worth your time.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashNo. The Quiet Man is a pretty good movie — even if John Wayne is supposedly an Irish guy from Pittsburgh in it.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.