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BROOKS: Men on the threshold

  • John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers.” (Warner Bros.)

As every discerning person knows, “The Searchers” is the greatest movie ever made. It is loosely based on the real story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted from her East Texas home in 1836 when she was 9 years old by Comanche raiders, who then raised her and kept her for 24 years.

John Ford's 1956 movie focuses not on the abducted girl but on her uncle and adopted brother, who, in that telling, spend seven years tracking her and her abductors down.

The center of the movie is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne. He is as morally ambiguous a figure as movies can produce, at once brave, loyal, caring and honest, but also vengeful, hateful, dangerous and tainted by racism. As Glenn Frankel notes in “The Searchers,” his recent book on the movie, Ethan spends much of the film in pursuit of an old-fashioned honor killing. At least at first, he doesn't want to rescue his niece; he wants to find her and kill her to enforce his brand of racial and sexual purity.

Classics can be interpreted in different ways. These days, “The Searchers” can be profitably seen as a story about men who are caught on the wrong side of a historical transition.

The movie's West was a wild, lawless place, requiring a certain sort of person to tame it. As the University of Virginia literary critic Paul Cantor has pointed out, that person had prepolitical virtues, a willingness to seek revenge, to mete out justice on his own. That kind of person, the hero of most Westerns, is hard, confrontational, raw and tough to control.

But, as this sort of classic Western hero tames the West, he makes himself obsolete. Once the western towns have been pacified, there's no need for his capacity for violence, nor his righteous fury.

As Cantor notes, “The Searchers” is about this moment of transition. Civilization is coming. New sorts of people are bringing education, refinement, marriage and institutionalized justice. Crimes are no longer to be punished by the righteous gunfighter but by law.

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