Sunday, January 07, 2007


Ethan (Scar).
Inextinguishable blood (extinguishable whiteness).
An oath (just words).
Home (just a building).
Beauty (evil).

It took me about four viewings to finally "get it"--to appreciate The Searchers at a level generally commensurate with its reputation in John Ford's body of work. I think it took me this long to really pay attention to what was at work here, which is a case of opposites and negations.

This film is not exactly an indictment of racism. It offers a profound eulogy for outward hatred, compulsive/propulsive hatred; but it keeps a lot of its empowered prejudices intact. Ford had his progressive points, which we should never forget, but in a film like The Searchers, and many of his others, we're left with an uneasy taste in our mouths at scenes like the ones with Look, the Indian woman mistakenly bought as a bride. Ford's value in cases like this is as a portraitist; not merely reproducing some of the ideological conflicts of his time & place & position in society (as any artist can do), the point here is that Ford's aesthetic always offers a way out. We never need to "get caught up" in Ethan Edwards' frenzied search to recover/kill his niece from the Comanche--we never need to identify with him (in fact we learn quickly to keep him at arm's length in this film), we never need to identify with any of the characters to follow the threads, see the machines operating, to be able to recognize and name beauty when we see it (the acceptance of eccentricity as in Old Mose), community when we see it (the closed and open bar at the wedding), evil when we see it (Ethan's obsessive and oblique sadism toward the indigenous--picking off their buffalo herd, shooting the eyes out of a warrior in his grave). For everything the film offers, we can see its negation. The off-spaces are present in the portrait. We need be psychologically complicit with nothing in the film.

In a lot of late Ford, there's a plausible (not verifiable) backstory one can piece together: in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance it's that John Wayne may have lied to Jimmy Stewart after all; in The Searchers it's that Ethan's hatred may have stemmed or been spurred by the death of his wife (?)--and Martin's mother (?)--years ago; that in fact the "orphan" he gave to his brother to raise may be his own son, after the Comanches raided his home; that Ethan's inability to protect the precious white women in his life pushes him further into consumptive hatred of those warriors who elude him.

Both Ethan & Scar's first appearances are marked by white women observing their arrival--Ethan in the film's opening moment, Scar when his shadow rises over the young Debbie, who looks up and sees the man who will be her captor and husband. Both would be these women's protectors in some form; both are also very dangerous to these women, as violent men, as patriarchs.

Dominant colors: orange & blue (complimentary), the sky and the land (of Monument Valley) during the daytime--and also of the exteriors (dark blue) and interiors (the hearth) at night.

(Ross Gibson on The Searchers.)

Why do they sing "We Shall Gather at the River" in numerous Ford funerals? The river may be a metaphor for time, the constant overwhelming presence in Ford's films, whose destination for each individual (death) is the specter haunting each figure.

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