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Dramatic Tone in The Searchers

04/05/2012

John Ford’s The Searchers has gone down in history as one of the most definitive dramatic westerns.  And yet, by today’s standard, parts of it feel remarkably camp and silly.  The heart of the film is rough, dark, and disturbing.  So much so that Ford resorts to broad comic relief in order to offset the depressing effects for his audience.  Movie-going audiences in the 1950’s would simply not have been ready for the thematic darkness that this film offers.

Comic relief has been a traditional means of supporting the audience’s willing projection into the character.  We escape from our world into the west with Mr. John Wayne.  Should that escapism become too disturbing, we will disconnect, and escape back into reality.

In the case of The Searchers, sequences of intense racism and bigotry are played against slapstick.  The comedy is the emotional reverse of the drama.  A modern audience will find that the broad comedy throws them out of the story, but we can tell how intense those darker scenes would have felt to the 50’s audience based on how incredibly broad the comedy is.  After only sixty years of cinema, audiences were simply not accustomed to taking in such subject matter.

For a few decades, the Hays Code was a stark censorship of film that prevented overt portrayals of violence and sexuality.  It protected audience’s sensibilities from cultural “indecencies.”  Thus, in The Searchers, director John Ford had to come up with a way to tell this darker story, subverting the traditional western heroics, without offending this code.  The most obvious way to do this was to soften the blow through comedy.

John Ford plays Ethan, a racist outlaw who seeks to find his kidnapped niece in order to kill her.  Her white purity has been soiled by a forced marriage to Comanche Chief Scar.  His only companion is Martin, a 1/8th Indian boy adopted into the family.  Ethan treats him poorly because of this small racial defect. And yet, he is never framed this way for the audience.  Instead is presented primarily as the vessel for comic relief.

When romantic drama starts to heat up, a bucket of water is poured over Martin’s head.  As the hunt goes on, Martin accidentally marries an Indian woman.  When Ethan returns home after a few years on the hunt, Martin gets into a fight with another comic relief character over the right to marry the village hot chick.  But what people really remember are the moments in between, of harsh racism and bigotry.

John Ford has described The Searchers as a “psychological epic.”  It traverses the landscape of the mind.  As Ethan’s outer journey discovers the darkness of man, so his inner journey uncovers his own darkness for the world to see.  His conflict culminates with him scalping the Comanche war chief, Scar.  From it, he is hardly redeemed.

At the end of the film, Ethan returns home with his niece.  The family opens up to her and welcomes her inside.  But Ethan himself does not enter.  He stands on the porch neither expecting an invitation, nor receiving one.  He would no more welcome himself into that household than he would be welcomed.  Instead, the door closes on him as he turns to face the sunset.  No community will last that is able to abide a bigot.

These tonal shifts represent a tremendous social commentary for the 1950’s.  Audiences were used to western heroes that they could root for.  John Wayne traditionally played the sort of hero that would defend women and children to the death.  This whole examination of racist psychology is a subversion of that heroic ideal.  A subversion that is so grading the normal viewer, that it must be contrasted with slapstick and other cheap laughs.  But a bucket of water on someone’s head is not sufficient to erase the image of John Wayne threatening to kill a young girl.

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