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ISSUE 121 VOL 17 PUBLISHED 4/18/2008

'Searchers' shocks viewers with forgotten prejudices

By Emily Koester
News Editor

Friday, April 18, 2008

Devoting a Monday evening to St. Olaf's Classic American Film Festival series is a powerful reminder of how fast the twentieth century has moved -- and how far Americans' perceptions of themselves have come in the past few years. Be advised to leave your 21st century sensibilities at the door; the festival's last selection of John Ford's 1956 "The Searchers" is one that, while stunning audiences with the beauty of the open southwestern sky, will also shock them with stark prejudices of past centuries.

Uncle Ethan, played by the legendary John Wayne, is the classic cowboy: tough, aloof and on a tenuous relationship with the law. After fighting for the Confederacy, he returns mysteriously to his brother's homestead three years after the Civil War ended with no explanation for his absence.

Real trouble begins when the local Comanche Indians raid the homestead, brutally killing most of Ethan's family, burning the house, and abducting two of the girls. Ethan's hatred of Comanche, already apparent in the earlier scenes, is set ablaze as he and his small party of survivors set out to retrieve the missing girls. The small and untrained rescue party proves to be absurdly adept, finding that the five of them on foot can defeat dozens of attacking, war-painted Indians on horseback. The film paints an unfairly "good guys" versus "bad guys" scenario, where the "good" seem destined to win in the end.

For a Western, however, there is more moral complexity than a simple division between an innocent white homesteader and a savage, ruthless Indian. Ethan's only companion that accompanies him to the journey's end is Martin, the adopted son of Ethan's brother who also happens to be part Cherokee. It is not until the close of the film that Ethan finally accepts Martin as family and an equal.

The film is as much about the tragedy of revenge as much as a battle for the frontier. Scar, the Indian chief of the Comanche they are pursuing, initially surprises Ethan by speaking fluent English. Scar then claims that he, too, is the victim of brutality at the hands of the white settlers. He too has lost family members to violence. He then dangles a row of white men's scalps in front of Ethan and Martin to show the evidence of his revenge.

Though the film's focus on scalping and other stereotypes drew a few murmurs of disapproval from the St. Olaf audience, the message of the moment is clear: both the whites and Indians are to blame for violence. Even in the pop culture of the 1950s, racial sensitivity was beginning to play a role (though minor). Ethan is so blinded by his hatred of Comanche that he tries to kill Debbie -- the surviving abducted daughter -- when he finds that Scar took her as a squaw. Martin gallantly saves the beautiful Debbie and helps her to escape (leaving plenty of room for feminist commentary on her general helplessness, of course, but that must be saved for another time).

Whatever you might think about the dubious social commentary "The Searchers" sends about the Comanche people, it undoubtedly is a testament to a forgotten frontier and the romanticism that surrounded it. Zoomed-out film shots show a starkly beautiful southwest, with towering rock formations and seemingly endless desert. A profound sense of vulnerability and loneliness pervades the film. Homesteaders go weeks without seeing anyone except for their own families.

No one speaks more to that frontier loneliness -- now such a distant memory to members of the 21st century -- than Martin's sweetheart Laurie. She pleads with Martin not to leave on a long journey to save Debbie -- Laurie is all too aware that she can't find anyone else to marry; after all, there simply is no one else around for miles. Loneliness almost drives her to marry a comical -- and obnoxious -- man twice her age.

It comes as no surprise, of course, that the film closes with Laurie happily at Martin's side (with her only complaint being that he only wrote her one letter in the five years he was absent) and with Debbie safe and sound. The plot was predictable within the first 20 minutes or so of the film. But that doesn't mean that there's no reason to see it. It's a film that, today, is worth seeing not for its gripping plot but for a glimpse at a forgotten perspective.

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