What is the Civil War to Hollywood? I couldn’t answer. To me, it is the backdrop for so many encounters with the western genre they looked to polish. I know little about the conflict that tore through America at this time (embarrassing since I studied it for two years), but from what I can gather through The Searchers, it was hardworking, bootstrap pulling Americans, securing their freedom in a landscape working against them. These bands of merry men were almost always led by John Wayne, and in this case, he does so with the gusto and smooth, slow charm he brought to all of his feature films. He makes the men shake and the ladies swoon, for it is Wayne, King of the West and everyone in it. That is, until director John Ford planted those first seeds of doubt.
The uncertainty here is brought on by dedication and time. As Ethan Edwards (Wayne) seeks out the missing niece who he believes to be captured by Native Americans, his moral purpose and motivation for doing so is questioned. Not just by audience and actor, but Ford and Wayne too. There are glimmers of weary confusion or fear gripping their camera and face respectively, and it is this raw energy they use so well. Wayne does not ditch the charm he would often elicit, but there are scenes of brief mania, where he loses himself to his sole mission in life. He is not, at the end of it all, the high-riding hero, but the wounded warrior who has done the job and reaped little reward. He is a staggering mess, and much of this is shown in the final scene. Edwards does not ride off into the sunset, he hobbles away slowly. Not quite the heroes end, not one Wayne would be expecting, anyway.
But that is the reason The Searchers works so well. It is one of the rare moments a western manages to shed some of the more conventional outlooks in the face of something surprisingly moving. As fun as the genre is, all the gun-toting action comes from moments of masculine tension, not emotional leads. Wayne would apply this to a slight degree in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but there he played the former hero that vanquished evil once more. In The Searchers, he is the wounded warrior retreating from his work as his conscience takes over him. It is the heart-wrenching end to a man audiences saw as a hero, and had done since the very beginning of his career. They were used to seeing him ride high and free, not ending up in a slightly worse personal battle than he had started. That is where The Searchers gets it right, it is just a shame that the moments surrounding this build-up are mired by the very problems Wayne manages to ditch.
The Searchers is a product of its time, and that is perhaps the most endearing part of it. It is the surroundings and vocals that bring this piece together. A product of its time, but meant as a compliment rather than a damning statement of its inability to move on. Does The Searchers really need to move on? What commentary it can bring is dated and tired, it was mused upon better elsewhere, before and after its release, but there is no denying the strength Wayne shows here. For all the narrative faults and stylistic lavishness, it is Wayne who cuts through it all with a performance like no other. Better than his flutters with nostalgia in True Grit, exceeding his back-and-forth tension with Henry Fonda in Fort Apache, instead presenting the man with emotion. Wayne pushes forward as the rest try and reign him in.