Sight & Sound List #7: The Searchers (1956)
THAT’LL BE THE DAY
by Anaïs Escobar
If my grandmother gave me musicals, my mother 1930s screwball comedies, and my father 80s action movies, then my grandfather gave me westerns.
He would let me climb up on his lap and we’d watch John Wayne movies, Bonanza, or spaghetti westerns on those early-release days from school. I asked a lot of questions at first but soon learned that it was better just to watch, basking in the TV’s glow, taking it all in until my parents came to get me after work. He would open the locked file cabinet in his office and get out three Hershey Kisses for each of us before locking it back up, never taking more; I didn’t dare ask for more than that.
My grandpa is tall, taller than everyone else in my family despite having shrunk a bit in his old age. He has hazel-green eyes and light skin and snowy hair; he looks a lot like Leslie Nielsen, actually. His parents were Spaniards and he was their last child and only son, born and raised in Havana. My grandma told me how she brought a coworker home for dinner once and pointed out my grandpa who was across the yard. He nodded and barely waved. The woman leaned in to my grandma.
“I thought you said your husband was Cuban.”
“He is.” My grandma looked confused.
“But he’s a tall German man!”
My grandfather isn’t a friendly man but he can be warm, albeit distant, to animals, to his daughters, and to me, his only granddaughter. I don’t know if he was ever friendly; my grandma says he was serious from the day she met him. Kind, direct, and serious. He always seems to tell a joke as if he was reading the stock exchange aloud. There are few things that bring me greater joy than being the only one in a room to catch his jokes, to grin at him and catch a glimpse of that rare smile. It’s worth the wait.
My grandpa has little patience for cruelty and violence. He was fourteen when he finally stood up to his alcoholic father, who had the nasty habit of beating his beloved mother and older sisters. He told me that he wouldn’t hit his father until he was sure he’d stay down—and that first and last time, he did. He sent his father packing and worked in a nightclub busing tables to help his family out, going to high school during the day, sleeping on the bus to work. He picked up drink orders fast and became a fifteen-year-old bartender in a swanky club. This is how he put himself through college, this is how he saved money to make sure his family would be okay when he left home. This is the kind of man he is.
I don’t romanticize this kind of man. This kind of man sees everything in binaries of black and white, right and wrong; there is little room for anything in the middle, anything that makes things messy. He is the kind of man who never understood when I tried to explain depression and anxiety to him.
“What’s wrong though?” He would urgently ask over the phone when I was away at college. “What’s hurting you?”
“I don’t know what it is, I just feel awful.”
“What can I do then?”
He wasn’t asking me as much as he was asking himself. Give him a problem and he’d fix it; an enemy, he’d tear it apart. We don’t talk a lot because of this, not because he doesn’t want to but because he just doesn’t know how. I talk about everything, I have to talk about everything. I go to therapy, I am fascinated with my own emotional life, I question everything. I picked a man to marry who is far from my grandpa, a philosopher as interested in the grey of life as he is in both of our interior lives. Times have changed, we all have. Or at least, a lot of us have.
I tell you about my grandpa not because of his love for westerns but because this is who he was and is. The Searchers is easily the most epic western ever made. John Ford captured a landscape so spare yet gorgeous that I couldn’t believe it was real the first time I went west of the Mississippi. I called my grandpa from my motel room the night after I first visited the Grand Canyon.
“It looks just like we thought it’d look.”
“Really?” There was wonder and restraint in his voice all at once. He couldn’t even imagine.
The movie centers around Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, of course), a man back from the Civil War with gold coins and suspicion around him. He arrives at his brother Aaron’s home, his nieces, Lucy and Debbie, older and his sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan) still giving him long looks which he returns. The girls’ ⅛ Comanche adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) is around as well for Ethan to scowl and mutter racist things at. A neighbor’s cattle is stolen, sending the men on the trail for the Comanches responsible only to soon realize that this is a trap. The men arrive back to the homestead to find it in flames, Aaron and Martha dead and the girls taken. Lucy is later found murdered.
This all happens quite early on in the film. The majority of the plot instead focuses on Ethan and Martin’s quest to find Debbie (played by Natalie Wood later in the film). This is a good and noble quest for Martin, who wants to find his adopted sister—but for Ethan, it’s an obsession. He is a lonely figure, a man who has been at war and now has no place to fight whatever fight he seems to have left in him. You almost start to feel for him, and then he opens his mouth. Westerns tend to paint Native Americans in a negative light but Ethan Edwards makes my blood boil. He is openly racist and it’s disgusting. It’s something that’s never made sense to me, prejudice, and I can’t imagine how it happened in a movie set in the 19th century or through overtones in a movie made fifty years ago and I’m not sure how it still happens now.
For all the love I have for him, my grandpa is one of those people now, prejudiced from a different time, softened perhaps, but prejudiced nonetheless. My mother doesn’t excuse it, but she reminds me that he is from a different generation. It doesn’t stop my blood from boiling; we never speak about politics during election years. It makes me a combination of angry and ashamed, unsure of how to talk to someone who won’t talk about anything. It’s the kind of man he is but I don’t know if that is an excuse when it comes to things like this.
He couldn’t talk to me because I was depressed but he also couldn’t talk to me about the fact that I had tattoos at the time; he definitely couldn’t talk to me about the fact that I was dating a girl. He told me I was better than that over the phone and then handed it back to my grandma. We had never really talked a lot, as was his way, but we didn’t talk at all for several months after that, for the first time in my life. The rest of my family told me he asked about me every day but it didn’t really matter, he made it clear how he felt about my choices and, by extension, me.
Debbie (Wood) is eventually found living with the Comanche, as one of the chief’s wives, and asks that they leave her there to continue on living with them. Ethan’s reaction is to try to shoot her; better dead than an Indian, as he says. Martin protects her from the gunshot while a Comanche shoots Ethan with an arrow.
After regrouping, Ethan and Martin go back, this time with a direct attack, and Martin finds Debbie eager to see him. Ethan scalps the chief and then sets his sights on Debbie. He is so close and I remember being a little girl sitting with my grandpa and gasping, sure he was going to kill her, when he picks her up in his arms and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.” My grandpa smiled and patted my arm; he always knew.
I don’t think of Ethan Edwards—or any man, for that matter—as a hero. A hero implies something larger than life and I don’t know that that’s accurate. There are no heroes, not really; there are heroic moments, but even more than that, there are complicated ones. A man can save the day but he can still be vile, he can still be unhappy, he can still be unable to say the things he might feel to the ones he loves. Ethan couldn’t tell Martha how he felt about her. My grandpa can’t come out and say how much he needs. It’s a lonely masculinity.
The next time I saw my grandpa after we stopped talking, I was in a hospital bed. I’d had a seizure due to a bad reaction to medication and ended up in the ER. My whole family came to the hospital, hovering over me wan in bed. I was fine but woozy and asked them to clear out for a bit, to go eat something. My grandpa had been hanging around the door and he didn’t go with them. I knew he was still there even though I couldn’t see him without my glasses on. He walked over to my bedside, hospital gown drooping, tattoos out and clear. He looked down at me and I could see him smile the smile he gave me when I was the only one who got his jokes. He started to say something that I suspect was “I love you” but he didn’t; I don’t know if it was enough, but it was something. No one is perfect and not everyone can give the same amount, for whatever reason, but maybe they give what they can. And maybe that’s enough, despite everything else, despite the ugliness, despite it all.
Anaïs Escobar is a writer more often than she expects these days. She is also a damn fine hair stylist. You can read more of her work at Nude Wave.
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