Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Heath Holland On...Finding John Wayne Through The Searchers

One Blu-ray player: $75. One copy of The Searchers on lu-ray: $7.99. Finding out you were wrong about John Wayne: priceless.

One of my very favorite genres in all of movies is the western. I didn’t grow up watching westerns, and when my parents had a western on when I was younger, I’d usually leave the room. I just wasn’t interested. But around the tail end of high school I discovered Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and a new western fan was born (spoiler: I’m talking about me).

Because that was my doorway to westerns, I tend to gravitate toward spaghetti westerns and those with more pop, violent sensibilities: I like protagonists that don’t wear white hats and have no qualms about shooting someone dead if they get in their way. I like the big, guitar driven scores of Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov and the Spanish landscapes that substituted for the American West. And above anything else, I love Clint Eastwood and his unshaven grimace. You don’t know what’s going on behind his eyes. He’s a mystery.

John Wayne has never held ANY interest for me. He represented a time in the western genre that existed before my beloved spaghetti westerns. Compared to Clint Eastwood or Franco Nero, John Wayne has always felt very old fashioned and irrelevant. His movies had lavishly-orchestrated scores with weepy strings and triumphant horns, and Wayne himself always felt like a cartoon character -- a dude who said things like “little lady” and “circle the wagons.”
Knowing that John Wayne hated some of what Eastwood was doing by taking westerns into a more violent, vengeance-driven direction didn’t help my opinion of him, either. There’s a story out there that after Eastwood made High Plains Drifter, the actor wrote a letter to John Wayne suggesting that they work together. Wayne sent back a nasty reply, protesting Eastwood’s view of the west and closing the door on the opportunity. What a goober! Didn’t he know that the West was a place of ambiguity and harsh violence? It was not a place for colorful neckerchiefs and ten-gallon hats.

So all these things have never tipped the scales in John Wayne’s favor when it came to how I viewed him. Keep in mind, all of these opinions came without ever once watching one of his films. I smell a hypocritical douche bag! Coincidentally, that’s a new fragrance sold exclusively at Urban Outfitters.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve softened quite a bit on many of my harsh opinions (particularly baseless ones that I’ve never bothered to confirm with research), and I find that more and more I am able to enjoy things from older eras of Hollywood. I’ve developed quite a passion for old '30s and '40s Warner Brothers movies, Charlie Chaplin and silent film, and yes, those old-fashioned westerns where Indians were stereotypes and the good guys almost always wore those white hats that I hated. Turns out I was wrong about a lot of that stuff. The only thing that had been keeping me from enjoying all those great movies all along was myself and my bad attitude.

It was with that new, seeking attitude that I viewed The Searchers from 1956.

The Searchers is one of John Wayne’s most highly regarded films and was directed by his frequent collaborator John Ford. Ford made some of the most important westerns in the history of film but I’d never seen any of those either. The Searchers was my introduction to both John Wayne and the work of John Ford.

The movie co-stars Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, and Jeffrey Hunter. Hunter acted as a bridge into the movie for me because I know him from his short but legendary appearance as the original captain of the USS Enterprise, Captain Christopher Pike, on the 1960s Star Trek television show. Seeing Kirk’s predecessor struggling to deal with John Wayne truly did serve me well on my initial viewing of this movie.
The plot, in brief, finds John Wayne coming back from the Civil War to his brother’s home to find some peace and quiet after seeing so much death. The family consists of his brother’s wife, several children, and Jeffrey Hunter’s character, who is half white and half Indian (I know Native American is the politically correct term, but I’m going to use the movie’s vernacular. Please address all complaints to Doug.) and was discovered by Wayne in the wilderness when he was a boy. He’s been living with this family for years and considers them to be his true family.

A Comanche raid wipes out most of the family, but there’s a chance that one or two of the children are alive, so Wayne and Hunter set out to find the Comanche who did the murderin’ and scalpin’ and rescue the kidnapped kids. Hunter is leaving behind a romantic interest; Wayne, ever the loner, is leaving behind seemingly nothing. Will Hunter return home to a happy ending and will Wayne be enough of a tough guy to defeat the Indians and rescue the kidnapped children?

I’ve seen my fair share of westerns from this period; I thought the traditional plot would unfold with a search into enemy territory, a big fight, and the hero saving the day. The Searchers has other plans, though, and things don’t exactly work out in the most expected way. What I was not anticipating was that the titular (tee hee) search would take YEARS of their lives. We see John Wayne develop gray hair and age before us. We see Jeffrey Hunter go from a young and inexperienced fighter to a seasoned tracker and survivalist.

I also wasn’t expecting John Wayne to have dimension and depth. He’s a fully realized character with flaws, not the cartoon I was expecting. It becomes pretty clear as the movie develops that Wayne’s character is a racist and trusts absolutely no one. He makes decisions of questionable moral integrity and doesn’t necessarily always do the right thing.
Ford has also filled his movie with a diverse and colorful cast of supporting characters that are as much fun to watch as our two heroes. Hank Worden plays a guy that may or may not be playing with a full set of marbles. I can’t tell. Ken Curtis (John Ford’s son-in-law) plays a character with such an exaggerated southern accent that I can’t even understand him half the time. He’s hilarious, though, and I think he’s one of my new favorite people. I want to seek out movies he’s in just because of him. He found a regular role as Festus on the long-running series Gunsmoke, which I’ve never watched. I think I need to change that.

And as much as I love the Spanish country as a substitute for the American west, The Searchers was filmed in Monument Valley and seems almost too beautiful to be real. The score is equally epic and has the same feeling of importance, proving to me that musical elements other than jangly guitars and whistling can be just as iconic.

There’s a wonderful documentary on the Blu-ray that contains interviews with directors Martin Scorsese, John Milius and Curtis Hanson. They discuss the importance of the movie on their careers and its place in cinema history. Another documentary on the Blu-ray goes deep into the history and making of the film, which I thought was UBER-educational. It seems that this movie was the culmination of the long-time collaboration between John Wayne and John Ford. Watching the special features, I learned that Wayne and Ford didn’t have the best relationship for most of their work together. In the beginning, Ford was hard on Wayne, belittling him and making him try over and over again in repeated takes. Years later, when Wayne was a household name, he didn’t take much direction because he saw himself as an established star, which caused tension when he and Ford DID eventually work together again.

But the documentary on the disc points out that by the time of their collaboration on The Searchers, Wayne had aged into a seasoned pro who was perfect for the role of the grizzled, weary protagonist of the film. Their relationship had started out as a teacher/student, then developed into a tense rivalry, and finally into two seasoned veterans who had no longer had anything to prove and could work together without ego. The end product is stunning.

I’m not going to talk about the finer plot points of the movie or how exactly things end because everyone should see the film if they haven’t. Besides, that’s not the point of this column; the point is to say that I now LOVE John Wayne, and it’s all because of The Searchers.
This movie hasn’t just changed the way that I see John Wayne, but also other westerns. And without being too hyperbolic, it’s also changed the way I see other movies. I don’t view the end of The Godfather in quite the same way after seeing how John Ford ended The Searchers. The greatest gift a movie can give you is a different perspective for how you see other art.

In 2008, the American Film Institute named The Searchers the greatest American western of all time. It sits at number twelve on their “Greatest Movies” list. I have to say that I agree with the praise and accolades. The Searchers is really something. I’m glad I gave it a chance and I’m glad that it opened the door for me to John Wayne’s career. I’ve watched other movies of his since my first experience with The Searchers and I honestly haven’t had my mind blown like it was that first time. But that’s alright, because The Searchers set the bar pretty high and I don’t think much will be able to touch it.

Before I came to the other side, one of the criticisms of John Wayne that I had was that John Wayne didn’t act; he was simply himself in every role. When I was anti-Wayne, I used that against him. “He’s the same guy in every single movie!” But looking at it from the side of an admirer, I’ve decided that’s the mark of a true star. After all, isn’t that what all the greats do? Isn’t that why we love Humphrey Bogart, or Jack Nicholson, or Julia Roberts? The best actors, the actors we love to watch, often times don’t give us a creation; they give us themselves. If I’m being honest, that’s why I love Clint Eastwood.

And now that’s why I love John Wayne.


  1. The comparison to Clint Eastwood is apt. It is interesting to note that Wayne was originally approached to play the lead in Dirty Harry, and later regretted turning it down (he eventually made his own "Dirty Harry lite" movie called McQ). One of the things that makes The Searchers so interesting is the parallel between Ethan and Scar. They are both fearsome warriors embittered by the many battles in which they have fought. They have both lost family in those battles. They make similar quips ("You speak good Comanch - someone teach you?"). Scar at one point shows the many scalps he has taken. And what does Ethan do when he finds Scar's body? He scalps him. Dirty Harry does something similar by showing parallels between Harry and Scorpio (they are both loners and voyeurs, for example).

    The first time I saw The Searchers I really liked it, but was irritated by the Vera Miles character and her subplot. I thought it was extraneous and unnecessary. But when I saw the film later I realized what sneaky John Ford was up to. Vera is this tough but sweet frontier gal, who in her penultimate scene spews a horribly racist speech about how Debbie would be better off dead. Hearing such poison come out of this (supposedly) innocent woman is still a shock. Martin and Debbie are the hopeful bridges at the end between the hatred on both sides. And Ethan? He knows he has no place in either world, and walks off into who knows what.

  2. Awesome write-up. Have you seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Heath? It's the movie that sold me (as a teen) on Wayne.

    1. I have not yet watched it, but I think it's on Netflix, isn't it? I believe I have it in my queue.

  3. Hey - I lost my John Wayne/John Ford virginity to The Searchers about a year ago - they were gentle, but it still hurts when I laugh!

    Though not inspired to write a great little essay about it, I did really enjoy it - much like you I had pretty much written off John Wayne - though not a huge Western fan in general, I figured I liked mine more Eastwoody, but then found him very interesting to watch. I haven't gone on to watch any others but I would! I wonder though, regarding other movies where he presumably plays an anti-Injun racist, is there a Jeffrey Hunter to balance things out and show that we're not supposed to agree with Wayne? Because the racism in The Searchers would have seemed a bit much without that.

    And Ken Curtis - I thought he looked vaguely familiar but didn't realize he was Festus from Gunsmoke! Back in my short-lived 2-channel days, the CBC carried the show and I used to semi-begrudgingly (I was about 5) watch it quite a bit. We should get together sometime and you know, paint our toenails, do each other's moustaches and binge watch the whole damn series! The fact that I kinda liked it then makes me think I'd really like it now.

    Nice job, Heath - I think I'll revisit The Searchers and those bonus features again soon!

    1. I really want to watch Gunsmoke. I'm bothered that it's not on Netflix nor is there a complete series collection. In fact, only 9 of the 20 seasons it ran are on DVD so far, so it definitely will take a commitment to get into it. Still, it's probably worth it. The Johnny Depp Lone Ranger movie brought me to the classic 50s series and I've enjoyed those a ton, so I bet Gunsmoke would be even better. Why? Because of the whores.

  4. Good review. The Searchers is an incredible film, no doubt and John Wayne is absolutely amazing. It's one of those performances that is probably in the Top 20 of greatest performances ever put on film. John Wayne acts with his eyes, just watch his eyes in The Searchers and you will truly appreciate how good he is. Right up there with Nicholson, Bogart, Pacino, Hoffman...whoever. The Searchers also influenced Star Wars and many other genres of films. It is like Beethoven's 9th Symphony is to music!

  5. Nice write-up as usual HHH, The Searchers really is a true classic. The AFI Silver theater here in Maryland just showed it on the big screen last month. Regrettably I could not make the show.

  6. Great column. I have The Searchers proudly sitting on my shelf and I decided to revisit it recently after I missed a showing of it on the big screen. It's one heck of a movie, and I love all the beautiful cinematography. I have to agree with the AFI that it's one of the greatest westerns ever made.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Although I, too, tend to prefer spaghetti westerns overall. I think Once Upon a Time in the West is my very favorite western.

  7. Dear Doug,
    Stop being so god damn racist all the time.

    Ps. Never been much of a Wayne fan or a Western fan, I think im still stuck in the phase you described in the first few paragraphs. Might give this a go though. Sounds good

  8. Great write up Heath. I have literally seen the trailer for this movie thousands of times (I used to work at the Great Movie Ride in Disney World and the Searchers is one of the movies) and while I'm definitely more a fan of the gritty Clint Eastwood down and dirty western, I still think a lot of John Wayne's movies are pretty good. He reminds me of Schwarzenegger who I think is a good actor but for whatever reason can't disappear into a character like Heath Ledger into Joker or Daniel Day Lewis into Lincoln.

    Wayne tried to do that when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, he is so out of place in that film and the clips I have seen are some of the most awkward ever filmed.

  9. After years of owning it (on HD-DVD, mind you, a format as dead as the western itself) I finally got around to watching "The Searchers" for the first time this weekend. It was everything Heath's column says it is, the type of work that after seeing you can't help but think of Wayne or Ford in a higher artistic plateau. I only read this column after seeing the movie because I managed to watch an almost 60 year-old movie spoiler free, and that really helped the movie land to me an even stronger punch than I already anticipated it would have. Though spoilers for older movies are expected nowadays (even on F This Movie) not knowing stuff like the Indian attack or the length of Wayne's quest to get his niece back, or even the fact his character was such a racist bastard (and not only sold it but made you forget he was John Wayne superstar) pulled a veil of artistic ambition in "The Searchers" that you just don't see in too many American mainstream movies of the 1950's.

    Between this and "Reindeer Games" I'm really popping my 'F This Movie' cherries this weekend. What else is there everybody here loves to talk about that I haven't watched? Hint: It's a Christian Slater movie that starts with "K" and ends with "ffs." ;-P