John Ford's Western starring John Wayne, THE SEARCHERS, is a film worth reviewing. To ignore the simple reality of how this film impacted the production of TAXI DRIVER, STAR WARS, and many other popular Hollywood films is honest ignorance in regards to American film history. While there will be debates until the end of time about which was John Ford's best film, or which was the best role played by John Wayne, no one would challenge the claim that this was perhaps the best film the two ever made about the West with Wayne as the main character and Ford at the helm (THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE really is a Jimmy Stewart film that Wayne supports in).
There are obviously two ways to look at the film. In a plot sense, it is the story of the borderline sociopathic and openly racist anti-heroic cowboy Ethan Edwards and his obsessive quest to 'rescue' a captured niece, Debbie, held by Commanche Chief Scar, along with the younger Martin Pauley, who was raised as Debbie's older brother by Ethan's kindly brother Aaron and wife Martha. This quest, however, turns into a perverted blood hunt that is shockingly sexual and explicit for the era. When Debbie is captured as a little girl, the purity of Ethan's goal seems obvious. But as summer becomes fall and onwards for seven years, Ethan makes more and more clear that, because Debbie will now be a grown woman taken as a wife by Chief Scar, he intends to murder his own niece rather than have her 'polluted' by an inter-racial marriage.
But when the film was released in 1956, this was the America of Brown v. Board of Education. That Supreme Court case permanently ended school segregation in the Jim Crow South, and the underlying resistance to de-segregating schools had always, and remains, the entrenched fear in white America about multi-cultural marriages. It was always feared that African American men, demonized as over-sexualized, with loose morals and no capability of monogamy, would somehow pollute or destroy the Southern virtue of proper white girls, beginning at school dances. Just as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN a generation later would grapple with our ongoing national debate about LGBTQ marriage equality, this film was grappling with inter-racial marriage equality, in an era when some states still forbade such unions.
Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of TAXI DRIVER, is on the record about how he wrote that film as a modern re-interpretation of Fords, with the lonely Travis Bickle wandering not the valleys of red rock outcroppings in Monument Valley but between the equally cavernous concrete passages on Times Square. Indeed, Travis mirrors many of the behaviors of Ethan Edwards, and the certain angst elicited for some viewers by the end of that latter film is indeed akin to the emotions at the completion of the Ford film. This inter-texual commentary is unique in that you better appreciate TAXI DRIVER after watching THE SEARCHERS, and vice-versa. Harvey Keitel in fact plays a key role in the way a viewer thinks about the Scar character, and the Jodie Foster prostitute stand-in for Debbie takes on a greater meaning when keeping Natalie Wood's character in mind.
Visually, George Lucas has often quoted Ford's film. The shot where Luke discovers the burning Lars Homestead in STAR WARS is a mirror copy of when Ethan finds the home of his brother also given to a massacre. His dessert planet scenery oftentimes quotes the work of Winton Hoch, especially in EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES as the enraged Anakin searches for his kidnapped mother (a not-so-sly borrowing in that case). In the era of Obama, Trayvon, and the supposition that we have entered a post-racial society, this film still carries as much power as Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING, another film which has some elements of THE SEARCHERS in it. Perhaps recall the moment when the elder Sal, who thinks himself a tolerant man, refers to their minority population customer base as 'these people', revealing that Sal is in fact only objectifying those who he otherwise would not associate with, a slip of the tongue showing how truly racist he is. This is also a pertinent point in watching the Ford film; while beautiful, the pining Laurie, Martin Pauley's betrothed, makes such comments about the sub-humanity of Debbie. Throughout the film, of course, her bumbling Swedish father Lars is amicable, but there remains the burning question: who taught Laurie to talk like that? Those questions remain with our society, and this film is a brilliant guide to difficult quandaries about how to make America better.