As recently as 2008, the American Film Institute continued along a path trodden by some of cinema’s most innovative creators in lauding fulsome praise on The Searchers as a consummate, epoch-defining ‘Western’ and a significant aesthetic achievement. Indeed, the unrelenting narrative simplicity and rich visual palette of Ford’s film do much to serve as a testament to all that the slickly manipulative power of Hollywood could achieve with character acting, subtly ingenious cinematography and the backdrop of a barren frontier landscape. Yet this fictional appropriation of Texan tumult in 1860s America can be read beyond the scope of its familial and cultural conflicts when we address its retrospective attempt to mythologise the still young nationhood of the United States, anchoring explicit themes of ethnic prejudice and masculine identity to a whole host of startling and ambiguous cinematic signs. These signs came to provide a central series of visual quotations in the Histoire(s) du cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, whose enthralment with the film is evident where he writes “when John Wayne finds Natalie Wood and suddenly holds her up at arm’s length, we pass from stylized gesture to feeling, from John Wayne suddenly petrified to Ulysses being reunited with Telemachus.’’
If Godard’s paean returns us from the particular iconography of Hollywood stardom to the mythology of the classical world, then one line from the film neatly encapsulates its ambition to reach a level of universal humanism beyond its raw and complicated historical specificity. “Just so happens we be Texacans,” pronounces Grandmother, before going on to add that “a Texacan is nothing but a human man way out on a limb.” On reflection, it seems possible to argue that the entirety of The Searchers as a production is out on the same limb of cultural uncertainty and viscerally violent confusion as the homestead that houses its main protagonists. The monologue of expectant nation-building that follows is held in thrall to a filmed landscape that is not in fact Texan, but that of Monument Valley in Utah. This mock-up of production is offset by the film’s success in accentuating the comforting fixity of the settler’s domestic arrangements to the nomadic contingencies of the Comache Indians throughout the film. In a literal sense, Ford’s depiction of frontier domesticity has ‘depth:’ the visual depth of field in the frame is repeatedly used to astounding effect to show different layers and nuances of family life within the one shot. Likewise, revelling in the new possibilities of widescreen, Ford uses stationary cameras to open up a totalising vision of the apparent stability of the Edwards’ home, contrasting this with the abrupt dynamism of camera movement on the trail and during the eventual attack on the Comanche encampment. Other details from subplots and episodic sequences hint at just how artificial and staged is the orchestration of these scenes. Although the dancing and folk musical accompaniment to the wedding party does much to contrive a coherent effect of the American outback as socially antiquated, one subsequent shot that takes in two acoustic guitar players and a stand-up double bass would appear to owe more to a nascent rockabilly set-up than the folk music of the forbearers of Elvis Pressley and Johnny Burnette.
For our purposes, most useful scrutiny can be made of Ford’s revealing structural choices and casting motivations. The ambiguous tension of Chief Scar’s stand-off with Ethan (John Wayne) is underpinned by the obviously Caucasian physiognomy of the actor Henry Brandon: Scar is perhaps the most obviously ‘fake Indian’ in Hollywood history. However, what intrigues here is the fact that his is the only identifiable and fixed look we are afforded at a ‘Native American’ until three-quarters of the way through The Searchers. When the encounter at the trading post shows seemingly authentic indigenous culture (including actors such as the serially cast Beulah Archuletta) in close-up, the issue of what a ‘real’ Indian looks like becomes no less muddied than the figurative question of what a ‘real’ American is. If the Comanche nurturing of Debbie (Nathalie Wood) can be read otherwise than as covetous perversity, then it is perhaps an act born of the revealing countenance of her captor, who is, if not an explicitly acknowledged ‘fake’ or renegade Chief, then certainly one with as chequered and unclear an identity as his archetypal nemesis.