[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
There are a hundred objections to The Searchers, none of which are as convincing as the film itself. It’s an easy target for criticisms of Wayne and Ford’s right-wing, chest-forward brand of American masculinity, and of pre-civil-rights Hollywood’s maltreatment of minorities. Its climax—when the Debbie character, apropos of nothing, just decides with a “Yes!” to join her brother and leave the Comanches—is among the least satisfying dramatic resolutions in canonical cinema. And its spiritual lynchpin, a man whose self-destructive, obsessive quest eventually consumes him, is one of the most overplayed character archetypes in American storytelling; as the temporal and stylistic connective tissue between Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Star Wars, one might expect the movie’s emotional impact to be dulled by familiarity.
These are fair points, though I have nothing but pity for the moviegoer who watches The Searchers and lets them overwhelm the sheer visual magnitude on the screen. There are shots in this movie that are so beautiful they make me gasp in gratitude even though I’ve seen them before. Some, like the reverse-silhouette doorway views that open and close the film, are rightfully famous. Others are seemingly inconsequential, like the seriatim appearance of each Edwards family member on the porch as Uncle Ethan makes his first approach across the desert. Or the long, plotless table scenes that unfold once Captain Clayton and his gang arrive in the first act. These are tiny masterpieces of framing and art direction, and they’re essential to that iconic final image’s resounding sadness as well. The Searchers builds up to that picture of wounded-looking Ethan pausing at the doorway and skulking off, uninvited—but it’s so powerful precisely because the audience knows what communal warmth and stability he’s deprived himself of. The ambivalence of this shot is no less extraordinary for being so endlessly analyzed: Ford leaves Ethan out in the stunning VistaVision wilderness, but the audience, having been guided through that same awesome scenery for the previous two hours, can only feel sorry for him as we retreat into the pitch black dining room. It’s some of the warmest darkness in all of art history.
So trot out your accusations of racism, sexism, narrative incoherence, excess machismo, over-acting, and the like, and watch them wither in the Monument Valley sun. This movie is bigger than any Cultural Studies criticisms one might lob at it from the safe distance of a half-century. More importantly, The Searchers is so purely thrilling and life-affirming on aesthetic grounds alone that its visual and emotional intensity are its own best defense. This is one reason why Alex Cox’s endearingly juvenile Searchers 2.0, a simultaneous celebration and interrogation of classic western/Hollywood attitudes, never really coheres into anything meaningful or substantive. Searchers 2.0, which comes out on DVD this week after floating around the festival circuit in 2007, is clearly intended to be a fun, half-serious send-up of a whole genre, but instead feels dead on the screen, a victim of its own inconsequentiality. It may be less fraught with extra-cinematic complications than The Searchers, but other than a last-minute leap into utter absurdism, nothing in Searchers 2.0 compares to its namesake’s depth and personality.
Cox would likely agree. It’s hard to pick on a film this scrappy and well-meaning, and a fair amount of Searchers 2.0’s many overt homages are directed at Peckinpah, Boetticher, and other He-Man titans of gritty western independence. But the title and the majority of its protagonists’ movie-mad dialogue make clear his reverence for the genre’s most famous exemplars. To its credit, the plot is the kind of hilariously simple story that might appeal to either extreme: Two unsuccessful, lifelong actors (Del Zamora and Ed Pansullo, both Cox regulars dating back to Repo Man) travel to Ford’s beloved Monument Valley to exact revenge on the screenwriter (Sy Richardson) who terrorized them as child performers. Desperate and poor, they enlist the nominally less deluded character’s daughter (Jaclyn Jonet) to drive them, and the three characters partake in an endless series of didactic conversations about the morality of Hollywood, the Iraq war, and the perils of movie worship. It’s all in good fun, but it’s all a slog. This is a curiously rhythmless film, and one where the only voices are those of plainly annoying movie nerds and, by way of awful counterpoint, a pro-war female conservative who reads only the Bible and Ayn Rand.
Like a funhouse reflection of The Searchers, Cox’s film has its own built-in armor against critical over-interpretation in the form of self-aware triviality. And perhaps not every viewer will watch Searchers 2.0 and the Ford original nearly back-to-back, as I did. The sensation is something like listening to Wagner and late-period Weird Al in the same sitting. It’s hard to object to the latter on principle, but it doesn’t even deliver as satirical fluff. Some people might dismiss Wagner on the same grounds that they dismiss The Searchers, but who cares? You can’t call yourself a classical music fan until you have an opinion on Das Rheingold, and you can’t say you’ve seen “enough” westerns until you watch Ethan Edwards shout, “Put an amen to it!” and assemble his vengeful militia.
That’s one of many memorable lines in The Searchers’s incredible script, though to be honest, the movie would probably be just as affecting without dialogue. Each scene is like a lesson in how to build emotion using music, color, and a dolly. The Comanche attack on the Edwards ranch is almost heart-rending in its tension, yet we only see one Native American, and he doesn’t even move. Instead, the scene is one of people vs. the sunset, as Martha hurriedly closes the wooden windows and the sky takes on a hellish, bloody hue. When the eldest daughter Lucy finally discerns the reason for her parents’ fear, Ford swoops in and catches her horrified scream as an uncomfortable close-up.
There a half-dozen other close-ups in the film, all of them framed monumentally, but none occur while a person speaks. The language of The Searchers is all raw, primal emotion, and when characters aren’t howling, yearning, or crying, Ford keeps a respectful, painterly distance. Sap that I am, this is why I excuse the broad caricatures and the plot gimmicks throughout; the drama of The Searchers plays out on a different plane, on a level of gut-feeling and historical awareness that swallows everything around it. Whatever its flaws, it makes other movies feel small—one reason why a purposely small movie about its complex influence feels not only dull, but unnecessary.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.