Essay, Pages 5 (1047 words)
The Searchers (1956, John Ford) explores themes of family, community, and morality on the edge of the uncivilized Western frontier. The story takes place several years after the end of the Civil War in a remote region of Texas, where the Comanche are a constant and mortal threat to the few settlers on the thinly populated frontier.
The film uses the conventions of the Western genre, but employs notable exceptions to the traditional components of the genre to reshape the audience’s perception of reality.
The film begins with a masterpiece sequence of auteur filmmaking, using location, cinematography, evocative music, and nuanced acting to shape the audience’s perception of the story’s universe. The audience observes Ethan Edwards, a nomadic, renegade ex-warrior with a clouded past, returning to the comparative safety and comfort of his family home. His brother is emotionally reserved at Ethan’s return, but there clearly are unspoken and muted emotions between his brother’s wife, Martha, and Ethan, hinting at a hidden past.
In one revealing scene of auteur style that confirms Martha and Ethan’s past, Martha takes Ethans greatcoat and privately and lovingly folds it and places it in a chest.
The three Edward’s children are excited by Ethan’s return, but clearly do not remember much about him. Ethan is generous to them, giving gifts, including giving his cavalry saber to his nephew, some sort of military medal (as jewelry) to his niece, and giving his brother a small fortune in gold, avoiding his brother’s questions about how he got it.
When his brother’s adopted son arrives, Ethan’s demeanor changes and the theme of racism is first introduced in the story. Teenaged Marty is half-white and half-Indian and his very presence evokes a degree of hatred and resentment in Ethan. This is complicated when the audience is told that it was Ethan who found Marty as an infant abandoned on the frontier and rescued him.
When Ethan’s brother and his wife and two of his children are murdered and the youngest daughter kidnapped by raiding Comanche, the plot kicks into high gear. Ethan swears to find his niece and goes on a five-year chase, with young Marty, to find her. Their subsequent search and companionship explores the theme of Ethan’s hatred towards all things Indian.
Traditional Westerns juxtapose opposites, usually featuring a good guy protagonist and a villainous nemesis, a good community or group preyed upon by social or cultural outlaws. There are horse chases, violent gunplay, and a happy ending with the villains receiving justice and the heroes triumphant.
The Searchers deviates from some of these conventions in ways that transform the genre and elevate the film. While it is something of a traditional morality story, the protagonist is a dark, brooding character, full of hate, who has been estranged from his family and community. The wildness of the Monument Valley location is juxtaposed by the comfort and affection Ethan find’s in his brother and Martha’s home. Ethan’s racial bias towards the native Americans is juxtaposed with his growing trust of Marty. Eventually, Ethan even makes Marty the beneficiary of his will. The drama of the revenge plot is juxtaposed with the humor of the wedding subplot.
Perhaps the greatest shock to the audience’s expectations of the film as a genre Western comes when they realize that Ethan doesn’t mean to rescue Debbie from the Comanche, he means to kill her. Later, when he changes his mind, it is a relief when the audience sees that he has grown and has changed his mind about killing Debbie. The opening scene of Ethan being welcomed by his family in the opening scene is juxtaposed with his exclusion in the final scene. All of these simple and clear polarities are hallmarks of the traditional Western that have been transformed by an auteur director to create a unique work of film art.
One of The Searcher’s profound deviations from the simplicity of the traditional genre Western is in the complexity of it’s cast of characters. Among these is a character that represents civilization’s key elements of law and order, and religion. He’s both a Texas Ranger Captain and a Reverend named Sam Clayton (Ward Bond), and he has very complicated mixed feelings towards Ethan, suspicious that he may be a fugitive criminal, but respectful of his abilities as a fighter and frontiersman.
Another key supporting character, partially comic relief, is Mose Harper (Hank Worden), who had been kidnapped by the Comanche and feigned being crazy to escape. He is apparently actually crazy, but is embraced and cared for by the frontier families. He does, however, ride with the Rangers, Ethan, and Marty, to rescue Debbie and seems to be a fully capable member of the posse. These two characters are examples of the artistic auteur touch of John Ford that elevates this movie above the standard genre.
The Searchers reality mode is very different from a fantasy mode such as in The Wizard of Oz. For instance, it uses character differently from Oz. While both films rely on characterization to establish and advance theme, The Searchers is populated by recognizable, realistic genre characters, where as Oz is populated by expressionistic characters, not meant to be perceived as realistic. Oz uses black and white film and color, sound, an exotic cast (oh, the little people!) and a fantasy journey, while The Searchers uses a realistic, if stylized, environment, authentic characters, and other realistic and conventional genre elements to tell it’s story.
We’re asked to define and describe modes of screen reality, which I would define as the cinematic manipulation of screen time, the framing of scenes, the direction of character behavior, and the purposeful craft of camera and sound to create the illusion of reality in which a story unfolds. All genres and many non-traditional film types utilize familiar representational realities, each of which is a sort of short-hand means of clueing in the audience to which movie formula (in the broadest sense) to expect.
Movie modes can be reality based – i.e. plausable, such as Saving Private Ryan, expressionistic – i.e. manipulative of conventional film elements such as Psycho, fantasy – i.e. metaphoric, or fantastic – i.e. metaphoric and implausable such as Edward Scissorhands, or cinematic self-reflexive – a creation by internal logic only, such as Animal Crackers.