‘We will never come again to the Utah border – Oh, look, look so you never forget!’
In 1912 Zane Grey, a dentist from Ohio, invented the Old West. His pulp novels like Riders of the Purple Sage crystallized in the American psyche the mythos of the frontier; all courteous bank robberies and mannerly gunfights, where brutality is kept in check by chivalry and rough-hewn integrity. Six years after Riders’ publication it was sold to Hollywood, to mine the wallets of a public newly enraptured by their shared fictive history. It was poorly received, and is now forgotten, but working on the film was a young stagehand named John Ford. Twenty years later he would make Stagecoach, the first great western picture, and eighteen years after that, perhaps the greatest.
The Searchers turns 50 this year. For half a century now, it has been something of a shibboleth in certain filmic circles, cherished by window-smashing French dissidents and Hollywood intellectuals, but mistrusted and unloved by agnostic pop critics. Jean-Luc Godard, on his virgin screening, wept, later asking of Wayne’s lead Ethan Edwards: ‘how can I hate him… and yet love him so tenderly?’ Scorsese has repeatedly named it his favourite movie. Such exaltation is puzzling, on first reappraisal. The locales are magnificent, sure, but the acting is weird and passé, the plotting fitful, and there are constant intrusions from an unwanted and unfunny sidestory that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Edwards himself is a racist, but not in the oblivious way expected of movie cowboys – he’s an ideologue, his hatred of Native Americans stemming from knowledge rather than ignorance. Unnervingly, Ford never seems to quite know how to treat him. Is he one of Zane Grey’s Stetson-clad heroes, or an obsessive monomaniac whose white-supremacist zealotry is sated only by murder?
However – bear with me – it’s arguable that The Searchers’ real achievement lies in metanarrative. It was made in the dying days of the Zane Grey western, when movies were beginning to come to terms with the great absences at the heart of the genre – women, minorities, and the decimation of Native Americans. We live now in the era of the revisionist western. No one makes films like Rio Bravo anymore: instead, we have Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josie Wales, which depict the real insanity of the frontier, the criminality, and the genocidal axioms that underwrote its expansion westwards. These films all sprang, in a sense, from a well dug by Ford and Wayne. The hesitant portrayal of Edwards is really an apocalyptic ambivalence about the west itself. This isn’t to say that the film contains a hidden script of social commentary: Ford and Wayne could never have made a mythbusting exegesis like The Wild Bunch. Instead, the entire film is imbued with a sense of melancholia and moral equivalence entirely new to the genre. The Comanches are vicious, but after killing their leader, Edwards scalps him. Ford was exposing, with some unease, the real code of the west – the racism that justifies colonial expansion.
In Robert Altman’s anti-western McCabe and Mrs Miller, the genre is capsized – its classic tropes are literally inverted. It’s an elegiacally sad film, a lament of a frontier that never was and never could be. ‘I got poetry in me!’ McCabe protests ruefully, facing his impending death. No matter. This isn’t a place for poetry. The frontier, we are reminded, was built by criminals, not the pioneers and patriots imagined by Zane Grey. Corruption, racism and genocide are not separate from the romanticized west, which hangs so tentatively in The Searchers: they are its latent underbelly, the un-hidden un-secret upon which it depends. We know this now, of course. It seems obvious. But The Searchers told us first.
Image: Petrusbarbygere; wikimedia commons