The ninth in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.
“Put an amen to it! There’s no more time for praying! AMEN!” – John Wayne as Ethan Edwards
I’ve been a fan of John Wayne movies since I was a kid. Back then, it seemed like every Sunday afternoon had one or two westerns on television, and his always seemed to be the ones that stuck with me. Across all my favorites, Rio Bravo, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, there was comfort in knowing that the Duke would always be playing some variation of the same character. Simultaneously stoic and sarcastic, he was always in control, calm on the outside but quick to draw his pistol when needed to defend himself or others. He valued honor and family above all else. He was a hero in every respect. What he never did was play the villain. Well, almost never.
I don’t remember The Searchers from my youth, though it might have been lost to the back of my mind because it didn’t fit with all the others. Oh sure, many of the John Wayne western tropes are here. It is, after all, ostensibly about a man’s search for his niece (Natalie Wood) who has been kidnapped by a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon). There are beautiful western vistas, gunfights, disdain for authority, and the ever-present John Wayne swagger. Ethan Edwards is nothing like any of Wayne’s other characters, though. From the beginning of the film, he is set up to be the most unsympathetic of leads. He’s a former Confederate soldier* who never officially surrendered and presumably spent the three years since the end of the Civil War committing crimes that have netted him a tidy sum of Union gold. He spends the better part of the film angry with everyone around him, yelling at, punching, and kicking friend and foe alike. He leers at his sister-in-law in a way that is so lecherous, I wondered if his nephew might not be his son. And let’s not tiptoe around the main issue; he is a horrible racist.
It’s not clear where Ethan’s hatred of Native Americans in general, and Comanches in particular, comes from, but it is strong and deep. Early on, he and a group of Texas Rangers come across a Comanche buried in a shallow grave. Ethan promptly shoots out both of the corpses eyes. Why? Not because he believes, as the Comanche do, that doing so will cause the dead man’s spirit to wander aimlessly forever, but because they believe it will. That’s some next-level hatred right there. By the third act, he’s advocating murder as a proper remedy for a woman who has slept with a Comanche. He not only views them as subhuman, but as able to infect white women with this condition. People who watched this in 1956 would rightly have been uncomfortable with the parallels between this and civil-rights era racism and lynch mobs. I only wish more had been done with this premise.
Sadly, the film spends 95% of its running time painting Ethan as a contemptible anti-hero, so much so it is implausible when he eventually has a change of heart. I think a more modern movie, focused on character development, would’ve shown a gradual progression as Ethan started questioning his beliefs for some external reason, became conflicted, and eventually saw the error of his ways. Instead, he is an absolutely horrible person with almost no redeeming value right up until the moment the plot requires him not to be, at which point he turns on a dime and never looks back. It’s not unlike the scene where Ethan’s nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) sneaks into a teepee at night only to emerge a few minutes later in broad daylight because that’s what’s required at the moment. Both were equally incongruous and jarring.
It was good to see John Wayne portraying a character different than what I was used to. I only wish he’d had more of a character arc rather than the abrupt turnaround with no explanation. Also worth mentioning is that this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Director John Ford really knew how to bring the majesty of the Old West to life. Watching this at home on Blu-ray was just striking. I’d like to see it on the big screen some day if it ever makes the theatrical rounds again. One thing I absolutely don’t understand is how this went from #96 on the AFI’s 1997 list to #12 on the 2007 update. That’s a jump of eighty-four places, far more than any other film on the list.
* Yes, Rooster Cogburn was also a former Confederate, but it he seems to have made his peace with their defeat in a way that Ethan Edwards has not.
Up next in the queue, 1967′s The Graduate, in which our hero finds out what so important about plastics.
Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.