“Ford is a director with whom things are either right or wrong”: Lindsay Anderson’s review of The Searchers

In our Autumn 1956 issue, the future director of If.... and O Lucky Man! was disappointed by John Ford’s now-classic western.

17 April 2024

By Lindsay Anderson

The Searchers (1956)
Sight and Sound

Great men who fail habitually achieve more than lesser men who succeed; and films by great directors that miss their mark are often more interesting – more meaningful – than spotless but commonplace successes. We saw this recently with Mark Donskoi’s new version of Mother, a film obviously worked on with the greatest care by a fine director, with beautiful and characteristic things in it. Yet the parts did not coalesce and the essential theme never came alive. How so? we ask; and in asking we come to understand Donskoi better: and perhaps the cinema as well.

It is the same with The Searchers. As Donskoi’s return to Gorki whetted our expectations, so does Ford’s return to the West, to Monument Valley, to those beloved mesas which dominate the landscapes of Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. We are back again in that beautiful but daunting world of isolated frontier farms, marauding Indians, hardy pioneers. Surely Ford has only to be set at liberty here for him to give us something memorable, something heartening, another glimpse of that unique vision? The Searchers certainly begins with a promise: the camera tracking out of the dark homestead interior, following the hesitant figure of a woman, out into sunshine, a vast sandy desert world, blue sky, distant rocks, and an approaching horseman. As the lonely rider draws nearer, the whole family emerge and stand watching with anxious curiosity: how many weeks – months – is it since they saw a stranger? The scene is presented with Ford’s familiar incisiveness and dignity of composition, made vivid by human detail: the panting mongrel dog, the wind blowing the women’s skirts, the hand held up against the glare of the sun. And yet somehow, curiously, the effect is cold…

The Searchers (1956)

It is a difficult effect to analyse; and perhaps impossible. Absence of feeling, of inner conviction, is just a fact, whatever the cause. Again and again in The Searchers there are moments, incidents even, that recall past splendours: the Jorgensen family grouped in front of their farm stand like Muley’s family in The Grapes of Wrath before the tractor comes crashing through. The shadow that falls across the child hiding from the Indians by her grandmother’s grave recalls a similar shadow falling across Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. There is a farcical fight that takes us back to The Quiet Man. But a lack of intensity in all these echoes reminds us that it is not enough just to set Ford down among the mesas with a large budget: he has to have a story or at least a theme. And the story of The Searchers (based on a novel by Alan LeMay) does not turn out to be a good one for him. In the first place there is too much of it. The pictures Ford has himself produced in the last ten years (and they comprise all his important work since My Darling Clementine) have relied less and less on narrative, concentrated more and more on mood. The Searchers is a long and complicated story, spread over eight or nine years. Moreover its hero, Ethan Edwards, is an unmistakable neurotic, devoured by an irrational hatred of Indians, shadowed by some mysterious crime. His search for his little niece who has been abducted by Comanches seems, indeed, to be inspired less by love or honour than by the obsessive desire to do her to death, as a contaminated creature. Now what is Ford, of all directors, to do with a hero like this? One is reminded of his previous failure, in Fort Apache, to make anything of a story centred on a bitter and obsessed character. And here similarly disjointed rhythm and uneven playing betray the director’s unease with his subject.

The only way, one would have thought, that Ford could give such a story significance was to make its hero not Edwards but Martin Pawley, the adopted son of the slaughtered family, who doggedly accompanies him on the search, determined to save the girl’s life. At least here is a character who stands for something, and it is likeably played by Jeffrey Hunter; but the direction gives the boy no stature. It is John Wayne, as Edwards, who stands firmly at the centre of the film; and his performance lacks either complexity or consistency. Instead of complexity, we get occasional nastiness alternating with guarded but essentially genial humour. The moods of the film are equally uneven. The drama of the girl’s discovery is followed by a slapstick fight which completely destroys any tension in the situation or characters. Pawley’s Indian “wife”, delightfully introduced, is suddenly sent rolling down a hillside by a violent kick in the back (a particularly, and unnecessarily, coarse touch). Any excitement there might have been in the climax is punctured by a lot of good-natured, quite unserious fooling with a green young cavalry officer (played by John Wayne’s son). The acting is very up-and-down: Vera Miles is a spirited but rather modern heroine, Hank Worden as the pathetic half-crazed Mose is frankly amateurish, and for the first time (to my knowledge) an Indian chief in a Ford picture is played by a white actor in make-up. The only really authentic performance is that of Olive Carey as a brave and hardy frontier wife.

The Searchers in fact shows very clearly how Ford is a director with whom things are either right or wrong. When the feeling is true, it is also deep, powerful and suggestive. When belief is lacking, not all the technique in the world can hide the fact. There is even a certain pride in him which refuses to simulate: when his story reaches a point where only dishonesty can conceal an essential falsity – he simply films it, throws it in our faces, saying, “If this is what you want – take it!” All the climax of The Searchers, with its preposterous rescue and Edwards’ unbelievable change of heart, is like this. ‘The extraordinary thing is that he gets away with it. “The finest Western since Stagecoach”, someone writes; or “Joins Stagecoach and Shane in my list of classic Westerns”. The Old Man’s smile must be rather wry if he ever reads his press cuttings.