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Most flattered movie of all time

A 50-year-old western has influenced directors from George Lucas to Paul Schrader

JAIME J. WEINMAN June 5 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Most flattered movie of all time

A 50-year-old western has influenced directors from George Lucas to Paul Schrader

JAIME J. WEINMAN June 5 2006

Most flattered movie of all time

film

A 50-year-old western has influenced directors from George Lucas to Paul Schrader

JAIME J. WEINMAN

This year is the 50th anniversary of John Ford’s film The Searchers, and with it comes a special-edition DVD (due from Warner Home Video on June 6). Viewers who have seen the film before can revisit the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and his five-year search for his kidnapped niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). But viewers who see it for the first time may mostly be thinking: “Didn’t I see this in Star Wars?”

George Lucas, by his own admission, borrowed heavily from The Searchers for scenes and plot points in the original Star Wars; one shot, where Luke Skywalker discovers the charred remains of his family, is an exact copy of a shot in The Searchers. And it’s not just Lucas. Director Ron Howard’s 2003 western The Missing played like a Searchers retread, while Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity have been described as “T/zc Searchers in space.” Writer/director Paul Schrader made a movie, Hardcore, that took the plot of The Searchers and transplanted it from the Wild West to the porn industry. (The transition was surprisingly easy.) If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then The Searchers is the most flattered movie of all time.

That wasn’t always the case. When the film was first released, it was mostly treated as just another movie from the prolific team of Wayne and Ford: “a ripsnorting Western,” in the words of Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, but no milestone. But as Ford’s reputation started to grow among film students and critics in the 1960s, The Searchers became his most-admired film. By the early 1970s, in the words of movie historian Nick Redman, it “went from being a solid Ford/Wayne effort to being one of the great auteur masterpieces.”

It also became the favourite movie of a new generation of filmmakers. The closing shot of The Godfather echoes the famous closing shot of The Searchers, where a door closes on John Wayne and the screen goes black. Steven Spielberg screened the film twice while making his own obsessive-quest movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And Redman points out that even the film’s structure has been adopted by many Hollywood movies since the ’70s. “The very idea of a distraught relative going into an alien world to bring out of it another relative or a friend—those movies have proliferated in the last 25 years, and all of them can be traced back to The Searchers in one form or another.”

Part of moviemakers’ fascination with it is that, instead of spelling everything out for the audience like most Hollywood movies, Ford’s film keeps many plot points submerged. The story depends upon the fact that Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife, but this is never mentioned, just implied in a silent sequence Ford improvised during filming. Like the ’70s movies it influenced, The Searchers doesn’t tell us what to think: “You have to work with the film to find all that [it] has to offer,” says Redman.

Another thing that made The Searchers so impressive to young, ambitious directors was the way it presented a hero who was unheroic,

and even scary. Ethan Edwards is an antisocial misfit who, it is implied, took to a life of crime after the Civil War. After his brother and his family are massacred by Comanches, he sets out to find his last surviving relative, Debbie, but he doesn’t want to save her, he wants to kill her for “livin’ with a buck.” The movie draws parallels between Ethan and his nemesis, the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), inviting us to see that both characters are equally vengeful and uncivilized.

That a commercial Hollywood western could matter-of-factly put a murderous racist at the centre of the story, and blur the distinctions between hero and villain, became an inspiration to directors who fought to tell stories that unsettle audiences instead of making them feel comfortable. Traces of Ethan Edwards appear in later anti-heroes like Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (written by Schrader).

The new DVD set includes the usual collection of reverential commentaries and documentaries. The highlight is Redman’s 1999 documentary A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers. In it, writer/director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) calls The Searchers “a seminal and primal experience.” Now that the film is back in circulation, we can get an idea of why so many directors feel that way, and why it has been so influential. Even if its best-known legacy is a film about Luke Skywalker and a bunch of robots. M