The Searchers ★★★★★

It’s this country killed my boy

it’s most likely just because i watched them both so recently, but while watching this i couldn’t help but think about how Ford’s treatment of landscape works in relation to Hitchcock’s own in The Birds, a film in which landscapes function as backdrops for artificial terror—empty signifiers in comparison to Ford’s mode of excoriation through topography. Hitchcock paints the surroundings of Bodega Bay as listless and deliberately unremarkable in spite of how well they’re photographed, wholly in tune with the vacancy embedded into Hedren’s character as well as the horrifying triviality of how the would-be apocalypse is actually delivered unto the world. the attacks appear to be happening all over, but to the rest of the world Bodega Bay might as well be hermetically sealed: an isolationist community trapped within miles and miles of endless expanse which, upon Hedren’s arrival and the concomitant bird attacks that come with it, finds itself antagonized by the environment itself. psychic erosion pollutes the air like a virus, and everything beyond the threshold of domesticity is out to get you. The Birds details a landscape turning in on itself, becoming the witting host to its own annihilation. 

nobody wants to go outside in The Searchers either, though for clearly different reasons. for Ford, the western american landscape is itself the embodiment of the fear and hatred at the heart of the nation’s inception. watch how people look out onto the land in this film, always with fear or anticipation on the part of the homesteaders, knowing that their homes are under constant threat of being rightfully reclaimed by an Other who they treat as fundamentally unknowable—but still taking to heart the ideals espoused in manifest destiny, of the expanse as limitless potential. this is how nearly every american in the film views the outside world, save of course for John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, who instead looks outward with nothing but vengeance and bullheaded determination in his heart. when Edwards looks out into the vast emptiness of the Texan wilderness and Monument Valley—already metonymic to the conception of “The West” in american media at this point—he sees nothing but himself. Ethan and Martin’s searching takes years away from their lives, years spent getting lost in and succumbing to the landscape (very pointedly to no avail) as it slowly plots out the death of the cowboy. it’s fitting, then, that Wayne is so frequently framed in openings here, so clearly apiece with the land and so clearly delineated as an interloper in others’ lives on the range. among acres of valley and snow, Edwards still finds himself always on the outside looking in, so Ford places him against these thresholds during the moments in which he is decisively forced to either embrace or confront his own convictions: first, when he sees his brother’s family killed in their home by Scar’s gang of Comanches (framed from inside, which we are not privy to); later, outside Scar’s tent where he finds that Debbie has become one of his brides (driving him to want to murder her instead of having to bear witness to what he sees the abomination of miscegenation); then, outside the cave where he chases her and uncharacteristically finds it in himself to “forgive” her and take her back in*; and finally, in the famous last shot in which he watches the Jorgensens delightedly welcome Debbie into their home, leaving him alone outside, still looking in, alone in his shame and defeat. 

Ford reasonably portrays Ethan as nothing short of a monster throughout the runtime of the entire film, but of equal interest is the fact that he also portrays him as a man who ironically also views himself as an Other in the eyes of his fellow americans. he is a man who cannot move past the fact that the confederate army lost the war, who thus feels as though his image of the nation has abandoned him. he views his place in the country as fleeting, as having been taken from him, so he positions himself as an eternal rebel to the state, an outsider. naturally, his only recourse is to leave, to make this quest for revenge his only living purpose, to exist outside the law. (we can assume that this is more or less already what he was doing between the end of the war and the opening of the film, given that he avoided coming home for three years and pays his brother in what appears to be freshly-minted coin.) at this point, it becomes evident that Ethan latently sees much of himself in the Comanches. he has more than a passing familiarity with their language and customs, and sees his “people” (southern white supremacists) as similarly defeated if not crowded out by Union forces. Scar takes Ethan’s civil war medal; Ethan takes Scar’s scalp in return. Ethan is merely a vehicle through which Ford delivers a polemic against manifest destiny, the glorification of evil so frequently seen in Hollywood westerns, and masculinist white supremacy. even so, he is a vehicle so perfectly designed for the task (in a film so perfectly designed to house it). 

*and then there’s the ending. over the past two days since i watched it, Edwards’ change of heart towards Debbie remains the aspect of the film which eludes me above all others. it’s totally out of step with Ford’s choices throughout the rest of the film, and totally disrupts the film’s tone. in this sense, it feels like an inversion of what he does in The Quiet Man, where what appeared to be a genuine (and to me, welcome) shift towards sentimentalism for most of the film is undercut in its final section and revealed to merely be part of what is ultimately a satirical attack on unjust social structures and how easy it is to be complacent with them. in The Quiet Man, the reversal didn’t work for me at all, though i could at least understand its purpose. the opposite appears to be the case here, where i don’t fully understand Ford’s intentions with the gesture, but it somehow works for me anyway. (i can only assume for now that it was basically a decision made by the studio to make the ending “nicer.”) from the film’s beginning to end, Ethan’s refrain of “That’ll be the day” in response to anything that goes against his beliefs or self-image serves as a constant reminder of his overwhelming conservatism, so tethered to a past that is fading away from him with every passing day. and yet by accepting Debbie, he ostensibly wills that “day” into fruition. 

as with many of his pictures, Ford adopts a dialectical approach for the majority of The Searchers runtime, which makes it even stranger that it all culminates in such an overtly errant display of goodness, Ethan apparently coming to terms with his own hubris and hatred. perhaps this change is telegraphed more distinctly than what i was able to see, but it nonetheless stands in such contrast to how sincerely and wholly emotions are realized in the rest of the film. his change of heart feels incomplete and disingenuous, but it’s false in a way that the film’s final shot deeply acknowledges. he remains trapped outside while torrents of closure and joy pass him by. this narrative finds its conclusion just out of (his) frame and he is left to wallow in his unbelonging. 

Hitchcock ends The Birds on a note of devastating precarity, where there is no real reason why the apocalypse is circumvented and survival is purely arbitrary. the landscape is wrought with divine indifference and there is no other choice but submission. but the landscapes in The Searchers remain untouched, ambivalent not in the sense that god has forsaken them but rather in the sense that the image of an ideated America has no place amongst them. Ethan Edwards doesn’t believe in surrenders, so he ventures (retreats) back into the desert, unwanted and unforgiven. 

Some day, this country's gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come

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