The Searchers: A Look at the Western Genre
Just how un-politically correct can a film be? The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) certainly stretches the limits with its degeneration of Native Americans, its stereotyped Hispanics, its unequal portrayal of gender roles and its cruelty to animals. From this current-day context, I'd be surprised if any audience member could walk away without being offended after seeing this movie. I absolutely hated The Searchers, as was expected. It pressed all my buttons with its precise adherence to the formula of a Western. Yet I also realize that to make any sense out of this movie we must analyze it in its own context, within its genre.
To view The Searchers from the structuralist perspective is effective and necessary. This John Wayne film certainly fits into a distinct genre -- it is the epitome of a Western. In the book, Hollywood Genres, Thomas Schatz outlines some characteristics of this genre (lumping it with the comparative gangster and detective stories). A film of this genre contains the following "rites of order": a male hero who maintains his own individuality without assimilating the community's values or etiquette; violent conflicts that disrupt social order; and an ambiguous resolution (34). All of these elements are evident in The Searchers, justifying its strict classification as a Western.
The Searchers begins with a line of conflict (the Indian raid) that determines the actions of the rest of the story (the search for Debbie), which follows the recipe of most typical Hollywood movies. As Graeme Turner outlines in "Film Narrative," a standard narrative focuses on the binary system of two clashing forces (74). The Searchers establishes this opposition between the white, domestic, Christian homesteaders and the "red," pagan, savage Indians, an antagonism that is the foundation of the whole plot and the structure of the movie. Turner writes, "A pattern of opposition, once set up, produces both structure and discourse -- the movement of the plot and the specific means of its representation in sound and image" (76). Indeed, opposition with the Indians is at the root of Marty and Ethan's long search and bloody battles, which comprise the bulk of this film*s plot.
When viewed with a mindset of realism, The Searchers' narrative has many holes in it. Would Marty really be running around outside without a shirt on if it supposedly snowed the same day? Why don*t we ever see anyone reloading their guns? What was Ethan doing during those years when everyone thought he was at war? How can Debbie be so happy to see Marty (as her tribe is being slaughtered) when she had refused to leave "her people" a few scenes earlier? Isn't it pretty amazing that so few homesteaders get shot by the huge group of armed Indians following , ferociously behind them, only feet away? How could Ethan bequeath everything he owned to Marty after cruelly berating him for so many years? Well, Hollywood obviously isn't interested in these mere details of authenticity if the mass audience does not expect much verisimilitude from a Western. Turner points out that while Ethan's act of killing Scar is a successfully resolution in the movie, it wouldn*t work too well as an ending in real life. Yet "that is narrative's function -- to resolve symbolically what cannot be actually resolved" (75). These gun-totin', horseback-ridin', Indian-scalpin' characters are just putting on a show.
All of the characters in The Searchers are very two-dimensional (which ironically helps them fit into their spheres of action quite easily). This is especially true for the women roles, each passively flat and obnoxious in her own way. Martha is always a bundle of nerves at the end of her rope, snapping at anyone who starts to say something inappropriate, God forbid. Lucy isn*t too bright (lighting the lamp when those Injuns are right outside), but she sure knows how to give a good scream. Marty's wife gets kicked down a hill by her husband, which only makes Ethan laugh. After seeing such insipid passivity in these women characters, it is almost refreshing to see Lorrie display her assertiveness with Marty, as manipulative and immature as it is. This film gives men all the true power, for patriarchy is a vital requirement of the Western genre.
How did the audience react to The Searchers in the 1950s, I wonder? After seeing other similar Westerns, I'll bet that this storyline wasn't much of a surprise -- many young boys probably wanted to grow up to be cowboys like the brave John Wayne. Hollywood has the power to create dreams and influence reality. That is why the standards of various genres would ideally be flexible enough to set aside constricting stereotypes. That'll be the day.