Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review - The Searchers - 19%

I watched The Searchers because it was ranked the number one Western on the AFI's new list of top genre films. So... do Native Americans have rights in the United States? I have a feeling that if this film had presented a different minority in the same way that it treated the Comanche there would be a mainstream outcry each time it was screened. I am shocked that The Searchers is spoken about without any caveat like the permanent introduction attached to screenings of Birth of a Nation: "this is a racist film important for its filming techniques". When I gave my rating of 33% I imagined I would accompany the screening in order to encourage a critical discussion.

Director John Ford was trying to make a movie that plainly showed the racist and genocidal tendencies on the frontier. Sounds interesting, neh? Unfortunately, while he crafts a wide variety of interesting, racist, white characters the Indian characters are shallow, stereotyped plot devices.

The Searchers starts with a Comanche revenge raid -they kill a family and abduct the daughter for assimilation. Thus begins the long search to rescue the youngest daughter from being raised as an Indian. It takes a while but they find her and John Wayne wants to kill her because 'she's gone Comanche' and he hates the Comanche. I liked the film for its darkness. John Wayne is perfect in his role as the racist, cold, frontier savvy tough guy. But don't go thinking that this film has depth. Despite the critics talking about its "deep layers" it's still the heavily sensationalized frontier simulacra so popular in American cinema.

This film has a degree of understanding akin to suburban kids singing along to gangsta rap. They know all the words but they're clueless. Perhaps it was remarkable for its time to include so many Native American words in the screenplay and that brief lament by one white guy about an innocent Comanche woman being killed (clearly the issue is whitey's epiphany and not the dead woman).

Consider this comic relief. A young white man "accidentally" buys an Indian wife in a trade. After trying to scare her off like a wild animal he tolerates her pouring him coffee. Then, upset that she has laid down beside him to sleep he gives her an exceptionally violent kick that sends her rolling down a hill. The music suggests that this is comical and John Wayne laughs.

The film does not cut to her.

The film follows John Wayne and the other white guy talking. In any film, when a character that the audience is trained to care about is injured we immediately cut to them to see that they are all right. She was left off-screen. It was a haunting sign denoting who I was being trained to care about. Amazingly, she is pulled roughly back into the frame as both men begin physically threatening her to tell them where 'Scar' is.

In the end, they go back and rescue the daughter. It's really startling to see her come out of Comanche mode and back to white girl mode as if they're two separate states of being. I'm sure she was instructed to "look like you're waking up from a terrible nightmare". Once again John Wayne wants to kill her for being raised by the Comanche. But he lifts her in the air, recalling a scene at the start of the film, and shows mercy. He shows mercy because he is reminded of her whiteness.

The film ends happily. Except for the Comanche who were killed in the climactic white man's revenge raid. I would have endless respect for this film if it ended with two Indians planning revenge for the senseless murder of their family thus continuing the violent cycle of the frontier but I daresay that this film felt, after all of the superficial criticism, whitey had earned his happy ending.

Sure you can study it for cinematography or storytelling technique but it's purpose is no more noble than sheer entertainment. In the end, The Searchers could only be popular in a state where Native Americans are second class citizens.

This essay gets it, why can't everyone?

1 comment:

Rob said...

I agree with you, Nemo. Here's my reaction to AFI's best Westerns.