Ethan Edwards is a "mean sumbitch," as they say, his face craggy with hatred and age --- he resembles other humans not so much as he resembles a canyon, throwing deep shadows across the landscape except at high noon. The frontier seemingly resides at the end of his chin, at the upward curve of his hat, at the point on the porch where hastily constructed civilization ceases to exist and the vast desert behind him begins.
Such is John Wayne, né Marion Morrison, all glinting sun and terrifying darkness.
Such is, as they say, America itself. But we don't remember Ethan Edwards, really, nor Ringo Kid nor even Rooster Cogburn --- we remember Wayne in The Searchers, Wayne in Stagecoach, Wayne in True Grit; characters are almost superfluous.
Wayne's performances are his alone, an extension of the persona, a jutting out of the frontier. Perhaps that gets at the heart of the matter: the frontier, as suggested by John Wayne, is the borderland where America meets itself with an eruption of violence, order lost and tenuously restored. And perhaps that's why The Searchers is often considered not only Wayne's best film, but the best Western ever made --- it draws from American iconography and darkens the emotional palette, a kind of cyan filter of our collective memory.
In the film, Ethan Edwards returns from fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He soon falls victim to a Comanche raid that leaves most of his family dead and his niece, Debbie (Lana Wood in the younger years, Natalie Wood when Debbie is older), abducted. The rage Wayne musters is startling. Though his earlier films have elements of this roiling power, they also glide along at the pace of his glorious gait, best described as walking side-saddle, or flowing with the odd sweetness in his molasses-and-sand voice.
Not so in The Searchers, where brevity becomes the soul of disgust. "Living with the Comanche," Edwards says, "ain't living." Debbie, in living with and marrying among the Comanches, isn't better off dead. To Edwards, she already is.
Here are all the American themes, stacked like Russian dolls --- unpack one and you discover another denser element of the whole. Race, xenophobia, miscegenation, war, the West, revenge, destiny --- they coil like snakes, nearly impossible to unravel without getting bitten in the process.
The Searchers has always been, for me at least, a difficult film to watch, so total is Edwards' commitment, as he searches for Debbie over the course of five years, to killing her and her abductors when he finally finds them. (And you know, if you know what American cinema and John Wayne are about at root --- that is, fulfillment of the most basic sort --- that he will find them.)
More pertinently, it seems darkly instructive that John Wayne, the one man most closely associated in the public consciousness with the history of American film, is best remembered (by me at least) not as John Stryker, the gruff-yet-tender soldier who leaves his money with a bargirl in Honolulu in Sands of Iwo Jima, nor as the gallant Capt. Brittles of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, trying to negotiate peace with the Cheyenne, but as Edwards, American darkness coagulated into human form.
The beauty of America has always been, in promise if not in practicality, its do-or-die mentality, its element of risk. I no longer think it a coincidence that we use the word "experiment" to describe our foray into democracy --- it smacks of Alexander Fleming stumbling upon penicillin, resounds with the idea that going for broke, giving up everything to forge a new, better life, is what America is all about.
But we've tended to clear the path with fire rather than ingenuity. And here I am talking not just of our treatment of Comanches but of all American Indians, of Africans and African-Americans, of Cubans and Filipinos, of Chinese and Japanese, of "Slavs" and "spics" and "kykes" and "micks" and "Dagoes."
We've always been afraid of other outsiders joining our bande à part, of coming in and stealing away with our future. That's why The Searchers, more than 50 years old, and Wayne himself, who would be 100 if he were alive today, continue to make some sense to me as a historian and film critic, if not as a person. What Wayne represents --- for he is truly larger than life, no longer solely individual but also metaphorical, symbolic --- is this beautiful and terrible past of both pioneering and xenophobic impulses.
The fear that animates The Searchers hits me more strongly than the quiet heroism of some of his other roles, perhaps, because to me America is no longer the man in the white hat, riding in on his horse to save the day. We invade; we kill and capture; we abduct.
For a man whose name is important --- Marion Morrison, for whatever reason, will never be as compelling as John Wayne, and not just because we're used to the latter --- it seems instructive that The Searchers, in its title as in its content, is a kind of response to The Birth of a Nation: born of revolution and developed through codified racism.
Our nation is a tricky thing to discuss without feeling a little saddened by the mistakes of the past. But history is important here. If the racism of Griffith's epic suggests the darkness of the past, from slavery through to Jim Crow, then John Ford's film suggests something else entirely. The racism in The Searchers, set just three years after the Civil War and released just two years after Brown v. Board of Education is, thanks to Wayne's magnificent performance, something to focus on, to question, to feel uncomfortable about.
The Searchers is about, at root, just what the title says: spreading the searchlight across the shadows, convincing us to use our do-or-die mentality to achieve the American promise rather than hide behind our fears --- in short, to find the most open and pure frontiers we have yet to cross and extend the best parts of our experiment.
Who knows, we might discover something yet.