The Searchers (1956) — Your boilerplate John Wayne western

“That’ll be the day.”

Lissa’s rating: I’ve survived far, far worse, and I made Drew watch Center Stage. I win!

Lissa’s review: Genderswap week, or whatever we’re calling it. It sounds like it should be a battle of wills, a fight to the death, or failing that, a really kinky experiment. And I’ll be honest, I expected some horrendously stupid action flick or something with sharks after inflicting Center Stage on Drew. But either Drew has a thing for ballerinas or the pre-matrimonial frenzy has him in a state of benevolence, because I got off really easy with The Searchers. But I’m not complaining.

I’m not much of a Western watcher. Cowboys have never really fascinated me all that much. I’m not sure why — they’re certainly an American icon and I get sick of whiny pretty-boys in teen-type flicks, or unrealistically emotional men in chick flicks. I sort of have this image in my mind of the saloon and the girl in the flounced skirt, and ten paces at high noon. So Drew’s choice for me was interesting — plus, is there a manlier genre than the Western? Especially when it stars John Wayne? I think not. I think this is the first Western I’ve watched all the way through, and it was interesting, to say the least.

The Searchers is classic “Cowboys and Indians.” There’s this cowboy Ethan (that’s John Wayne, which even a non-Western girl like me can figure out), and he’s coming home from the Civil War. “Home” appears to mainly be his brother’s family, complete with an orphan named Martin who is part Cherokee Indian. Ethan’s got a real issue with Indians, although I get the impression he’s got a real issue with anyone in general. When Indians attack his brother’s homestead, Ethan goes searching for his two kidnapped nieces.

It’s a good flick. The scenery is gorgeous, the acting is… well, it’s John Wayne, and there’s even some depth to the characters and plot. For all that the premise of the plot is simple, there’s some nice twists I wasn’t quite anticipating and some nuances to the characters that I didn’t give Westerns credit for. While the Indians are Standard Bad Guys™, Ethan’s character has a certain dark side that’s really pretty disturbing. He also had a dry sense of humor I really appreciated. In fact, I actually did find parts of this film very funny. I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. Preconceived notions, maybe? That would be my guess.

However, I did find it hard to actually like John Wayne. Now, I realize that there’s truth in the idea that the Indian tribes were brutal warriors, and that in their way they could be just as cruel as the rest of us. In fact, when Debbie hides behind her grandmother’s tombstone, you can see that the woman was murdered by Indians, which would make anyone extremely bitter. But I’ve been brought up in the time where people have a better perspective on what Native Americans suffered, which, while it doesn’t make brutal tactics right, makes them more understandable and less the act of savages. So to me, here in 2006, Ethan came off as very racist. (Add into that the fact that John Wayne wasn’t exactly Mr. PC Poster Child, and that becomes even more pronounced.) Now, I can root for a character with a dark side, but one of the flaws I find it hard to be sympathetic with is blatant racism. Personal pet peeve, and it may not bother you.

Side note though: I did keep remembering Nathan Lane imitating John Wayne’s walk in The Birdcage. I’m sure The Duke would really thank me for that.

The other thing I found objectionable was the characterization. As in, the lack of consistency in the characterization, most especially in Debbie. The first time they find her, she’s trying to defend “her people”. The next time they find her, she’s doing the damsel in distress routine. Both are believable, but not together. Which is it?

All in all, The Searchers was pretty much anything but what I was expecting. It’s not at all a shallow movie, and it’s a lot more complicated than I gave it credit for. The storytelling was well done, and the acting (with a few minor exceptions, mostly prepubescent) was very good. I’m not sure I’m turning into a Western fanatic, but I have to admit that I did enjoy this more than Drew thought I would. I also have the feeling there are other Westerns I’d like better. (I’m really looking forward to watching The Magnificent Seven.) In fact, he may have accomplished the purpose of this exercise and made me discover a new taste, so hats off to Drew. But most of all, I’m just very, very grateful there were no sharks. Thanks Drew!

Didja notice?

  • Younger siblings are just as obnoxious in the Old West as they are anywhere else.
  • Martin can really run fast, if he showed up at the ranch right on foot right behind Ethan on his horse.
  • The dead Indian isn’t so dead after all.

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