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3 October 2004
The Searchers is not the most complicated Western film, not the most epic, certainly not the best-acted. Compared to gems like The Ox-Bow Incident or My Darling Clementine it is uneven in tone and quality, and at key moments incoherent. But it remains central to the genre because of that incoherency. As critics in Arthur Eckstein & Peter Lehman's new volume The Searchers point out, if the film explained itself better it would be a lesser experience.
For instance: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) spends much of the film searching for Debbie (Natalie Wood) so that he can kill her. She's the daughter of his beloved sister-in-law, and he is tortured by the certainty that Indians have violated and assimilated her. Yet when Ethan finally gets hold of Debbie, he spares her and takes her home.
Arthur Eckstein notes that the shooting script for The Searchers has Ethan telling Debbie that she looks exactly like her mother, and then sparing her (20). Director John Ford cut the line about the resemblance, leaving only Ethan's unmotivated decision to spare Debbie. It was a perfect decision. Having Ethan explain his actions would be like having Thompson find Rosebud at the end of Citizen Kane. We may "know" in some analytical sense why Ethan "really" does what he does, but the great virtue of The Searchers is that he just does it.
Eckstein, Lehman, and their contributors devote 350 pages to analysis of this reticent film. But most of the book is summed up in the 45 pages of Eckstein's introduction. Laying out the central critical issues in The Searchers, Eckstein ends up anticipating nearly everything the other 13 contributors will say. Or, they end up repeating him, and each other, which amounts to the same thing. The Searchers is about miscegenation, kinship problems, Monument Valley, racism, inversion of genre formulas, and incest taboos. Eckstein's introduction is followed by essays about all these things – sometimes more than one essay about them – and each of them manages to work in all the others. Even a substantially original piece like Kathryn Kalinak's work on music in The Searchers ends up retracing the same thematic material that appears in all the other essays. Perhaps the only other really innovative piece in the book is Tom Grayson Colonnese's crisp presentation of "Native American reactions to The Searchers," the first such essay ever printed.
Needless to say, this volume doesn't exhaust The Searchers or one's enjoyment of it. Words (and grainy black-and-white stills) can only go a little way toward defining the appeal of this great unsettling motion picture. Figure out The Searchers? That'll be the day.
Eckstein, Arthur M., and Peter Lehman, eds. The Searchers: Essays and reflections on John Ford's classic Western. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004.