Looking Ahead/Moving Back in “The Searchers”

This academic paper closely analyzes the first and final shots of John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) to situate the film as an old and new Western. In doing so, the paper sees the film as representative of the Mid-to-Late 50s – marked by the end of the studio system and the rise in popularity of Television.

Spoilers galore.

Having been stifled by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) for supporting subversives who promoted Communist ideologies post-World War II, Hollywood, in the early to late Fifties, faced new challenges that threatened its very existence. One of them carried forward from the late Forties. The fallout from the Paramount-Decree Act of 1948 meant Big Hollywood Studios were no longer in charge of production, distribution, and exhibition. Most were into distribution, some still made big-budget productions, but none were allowed to control exhibition. This division created a new conflict between independent exhibitors and established producers and distributors about profit-sharing. However, the primary question was not about who should get the most money. It was simply – how to get the money?

Television’s gradual rise in popularity directly impacted moviegoing and making in the Fifties. Ticket sales dwindled. People now preferred to stay home and watch things they would otherwise watch in cinema halls. Primetime programming included soap operas, news, and re-releases of pre-1948 theatrical films. So, the movie industry had to tweak its established templates to encourage people to venture outside again. Either Hollywood would offer something grander – primarily, widescreen spectacles – that the Television screen could not fit inside its boxy aspect ratio. Or it would offer something maturer that went beyond the casual thrills of Primetime Television.

Of all film genres, the Western’s foray from the big screen to the small screen most overtly symbolizes this tumultuous transition. Recognized as an inherently filmic genre, the Western, by 1959, became a mainstay for primetime Television. Majority of these Television “horse operas” adhered to the Classical template. They foregrounded their Anglo-Saxon protagonists as macho men who used violence as means to solve their world’s “simple dichotomies.” The role of women was subordinated; other cultures were either erased or vilified.

To compete with this newly-televised-old Western, Hollywood Westerns offered new variations. In theory, Revisionist Westerns upend the established template entirely. They not only question the simplified point-of-view of the Old West by calling attention to its artifice but also actively reimagine it. They tell these stories from entirely different perspectives otherwise ignored by the classical template.

In practice, however, the Revisionist Westerns of the Fifties are less willing to commit to radicality. Like Hollywood at the time, these films, too, are caught up in wanting to appeal to the Television audience of the Classical fare and sophisticated moviegoing audiences wanting more from their spectacles. So, they attempt to combine the Old and the New, the gunslinging action and character interiority. Primarily, these films focus on Anglo-Saxon men who must rely on violent means to defeat the stereotypically “savage” Native Indian villain. However, they also self-critique the black-and-white morality of the Classical template. The hero is no longer the opposite of the villain but a mirror image. His violence has consequences; his duties at home and the frontier clash. Yes, by the end, there is somewhat of a reinstation of good and evil. However, it remains open-ended, encouraging as much critical reflection as it evokes genuine emotion. 

John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is the quintessential late Fifties Western that captures this central tension of looking ahead while wanting to walk back. In that, it reflects Hollywood’s desire to hold on to a simple past – minus Television and Revisionist narratives – they are forced to acknowledge no longer exists.

This paper will closely analyze the mirroring opening and ending shots of the film to demonstrate this unresolvable tension between the Old and the New. It will argue that these two shots operate on both a Classical and Revisionist level, simultaneously imposing traditional expectations and puncturing them. So, signifiers of the traditional Western – the man with his horse in the wide-expansive land, the woman waiting inside her house, the clear division between the two – persist. But so does the film’s ability to draw attention to this very division via deep-focus compositions that place the archetypical hero in the middle and background to encourage critical evaluation of its setting and his ambivalent position within it.

TOWARDS THE EXPANSE: THE OPENING SHOT OF THE SEARCHERS

The Opening Shot (19 seconds)

The Searchers’ opening shot is deceptively simple. It runs for nineteen seconds, involves two significant camera movements, and features a characteristically sweeping background score. However, it consists of no dialogue or extensive character introductions. It is an extended establishing shot that also happens to convey everything that the rest of the narrative will continue to do. That is, to situate our protagonist, Ethan, between home and frontier, interior and exterior, and most self-reflexively, TV and Cinema.

The first image is of a silhouette opening the door to half-reveal the Western landscape in its full Technicolor glory. For the first five seconds, the camera observes this figure (we now assume it is a woman because of the shape of the outfit she is wearing), standing in between the interior and exterior. In other words, the camera captures her resting her hands on the door, sandwiched by the foreground’s pitch blackness and the background’s vibrant colors. Gradually, she moves outside toward the wide-open horizon. The camera follows suit. Its push into this exterior space literally extends the frame because the door’s outline no longer confines it.

Then, the camera stops tracking the woman, gently panning left to right to see her looking out into the West. This image retains the separation between the interior and exterior even after the camera moves outside the house. Primarily, this is because a barely visible horse-riding (or walking) figure now occupies the image’s middle ground. He is the one sandwiched between the foreground – whereby a woman looks towards him from her house’s porch – and the background – occupied by swathes of empty land.

In a way, the film’s reliance on these extreme contrasts is Ford tipping his (cowboy) hat to Classical Westerns. It alludes to the existence of the Old West, filled with “simple dichotomies.” Right from the opening image, the home appears inhospitable relative to the Western landscape. The film paints it in total darkness, devoid of any possibility. By contrast, the Western horizon is bursting with rich browns and blues. The home restricts space and movement. The West allows it.

However, as alluded to in the shot’s description, the opening image’s framing draws attention to this clear division created between these two spaces. In doing so, the film highlights its construction, opening the filmic image, set in 1868 Texas, to 1950s America. So, the interior/exterior dichotomy becomes as much about the Television versus the Hollywood Western in the 50s. In that, the silhouette inside the house feels literally squished by the door’s outline, which may not precisely replicate the Television’s 4:3 aspect ratio but does mimic its boxiness. The film’s critique of the televisual image’s inability to provide an expansive view of the West becomes most evident as the camera moves from the house to the porch. It highlights the filmic camera’s ability to break through these margins that stop the viewer from experiencing the West in its widescreen glory.

Once we move past this frame-within-a-frame composition, we return to focusing on the film’s 1858 setting. Now, though, two seemingly contradictory elements co-exist within the ongoing first shot. The first, most readily noticeable element evokes the Classical Western. The image of the woman looking out from her house to someone (presumably a man) on a horse coming towards it relies on archetypes. It alludes to the woman’s role as a homemaker and a supporting character. Conversely, the horse-riding man appears to be the film’s gunslinging protagonist. 

While the film does not challenge the woman’s traditionalist role in the Old West, it takes a revisionist approach to depict the man at the film’s center. The movement and placement of the horse rider in the image’s middle ground inform this shot’s second critical focus. The camera places the man far from the audience, lost between home and frontier. It lingers on this wide shot of him slowly approaching the house. His lack of dynamism is striking. So is the film’s decision to make him almost invisible to us. The lighting does not highlight his presence. Hence, making him appear as an incidental detail within the frame.

RECEDING FROM THE EXPANSE: THE CLOSING SHOT OF THE SEARCHERS

The Ending Shot (53 seconds)

By the film’s final shot, Ethan does take center stage. At least somewhat. He has avenged the Native Indian chief, Scar, who murdered his family and kidnapped his niece, Debbie. He is the one who carries the now-grown-up girl back home in his arms. However, both these acts – of violence and rescue – are complicated. Ethan is not the one who kills Scar. It is Martin Pawley, Debbie’s adopted brother. He is one-eighth Cherokee, making him a “half-breed” for Ethan, who initially deems him not worthy of sitting at the same table as him and his family. This racism infects his pursuit of Debbie too. Seeing her as one of Scar’s wives, wearing Comanche attire, he believes she has become like them too. So, he believes it best to kill her than let her live an “inferior” life. Again, it is Martin who must step in to push our archetypical protagonist away.

The film’s last shot happens after Ethan’s miraculous decision to listen to him and save Debbie. His transformation, then, is predicated not on revenge but on acceptance. The static camera captures him in a wide shot carrying his niece in his arms, walking towards the porch. He and Debbie occupy the frame’s center, with a paternal and maternal figure on either side. As they approach the two, Debbie embraces the woman. Contrastingly, she gives the man on her left a quizzical look. The focus, however, remains mainly on Ethan as he stands in the center, seemingly emotional at the sight of bringing Debbie back home. All this while, the film’s theme song, “Ride Away,” has lyrics like “his peace of mind, he knows he’ll find” to evoke the feeling of a happily-ever-after ending.

However, the song’s following line questions the twelve seconds’ established certainty. As the camera recedes to track Debbie’s entry into the house, the lyrics mournfully echo Ethan’s confusion, “But, where, oh Lord, Lord, where?”

Ten seconds later, the camera mirrors the first shot of the film. There is a noticeably clear division between interior and exterior, New and Old, TV and Film. Ethan is in the middle of all this, taking a cue from the lyrics still ringing in his ears. Meanwhile, Martin and his partner, who occupied the background throughout this shot, overtake him to enter the foreground. Ethan stands still in the center of the frame as the camera watches him unblinkingly. The only cue he gets comes from the song that now repeatedly tells him to “Ride Away.”

And he does. The final ten seconds of the film see him walking away from the house as the door closes, not only on him but also on the audience.

The film’s extended final shot – fifty-three seconds – is most striking because of how much it carries through the same unresolved tensions introduced in its first image. The first twelve seconds provide a Revisionist arc to Ethan’s character while reinstating his Classical heroism. His acceptance of Debbie and Martin denounces his simplified hero image. Wayne expresses this through his humbled expression as he carries Debbie back home. However, his grand gesture – of having Debbie wrapped around in his arms – evokes the Classical hero. The slow walk towards the house accentuates this, painting him as the only one responsible for saving Debbie. It relegates Martin to a supporting character; the woman, again, is there just to be saved.

The subsequent camera movement – tracking back from exterior to interior – does clarify the division between the New and Old without simplifying Ethan’s (in)decisiveness towards it. The home – now signified by the outline of the door as in the first shot – is where Debbie and Martin can live and, more importantly, be respected. It is where they and the White Americans become silhouettes, undistinguished by their differing physical appearances. However, the negative connotations associated with this frame-within-a-frame composition from the first scene also carry over. Visually, this interior space evokes Television and its inferiority to the cinema. Looking from the outside in for Ethan, it still represents a space that would make him feel restricted. It still is darkened space that renders him indistinguishable from the others. So, he stands still, creating a greater distance between him and the camera that counters the previous moment’s intimacy, hinting at their mutual incompatibility.

The final ten seconds of this last shot are declarative in that sense. Ethan listens to the film’s non-diegetic soundtrack telling him to “Ride Away” rather than act on his impulse to enter the door. His turning his back on the New signals his inability to let go of the Old. In other words, he has decided to live the frontier life on his principles, rejecting a permanent reform.

There is no triumph in this, however. The film conveys it as simultaneously mournful and contemptuous. The sight of Ethan walking away from the camera, combined with the gentle humming of “Ride Away,” produces an operatic effect. It laments his existentialism, his desire to continue to search the land for answers even when they lie right in front of him. However, his increased distance from us also allows for a critical lens. We return to the first image. Again, the foreground is pitch black, the door’s outline signifies the division between it and the middle ground, and the West’s Horizon is Technicolor. Rather than moving with Ethan, the camera remains fixed within the house. The camera’s refusal to follow makes him appear small. Lastly, the door, initially welcoming, also respectfully closes. Like Ethan, this New World of mutual understanding, too, can exist without him.

SOURCES CONSULTED

  1. Elkin, Frederick. “The Psychological Appeal of the Hollywood Western.” In The Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 24, No. 2, 72-86. American Sociological Association, 1950.
  2. Lev, Peter. The Fifties: Transforming the Screen – 1950 – 59. University of California Press, 2006.
  3. West, Elliot. “Television and the Western Myth.” In Montana the Magazine of Western History, Vol. 38, No. 2, 72-76. Montana Historical Society, 1988.

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