John Ford, 1956
“’Injun’ll chase a thing ‘til he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like heave never learns there’s a such a thing as a critter’ll keep comin’ on.’
“Is there any trait more distinctively American than our infallible ability to see ourselves as the underdog in every situation? I ponder this every four years during the Olympics as I watch moving vignette after moving vignette about the overwhelming odds that our athletes had to overcome to arrive at the starting line for their event. Which they are, inevitably, the overwhelming favorite to win. Somehow, the fact that it is completely and totally unsurprising that the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world should also be its dominant sports power doesn’t diminish our enthusiasm for any individual athlete’s victory.
“The Searchers invites us to consider the implications of this tendency. A society that prizes grit and determination above all other virtues will produce individuals who pursue them ‘too far,’ but tenacity does not ever cease to be valuable so long as it’s in service of an end goal that society condones, even after it crosses the line into obsession. How, then, do we solve a problem like Ethan Edwards? The same way Pittsburgh Steelers fans (like myself) dealt with Ben Roethlisberger two years ago: we separate the player from the jersey in our minds and tell ourselves we’re rooting for the latter. Because when failure isn’t an option, sometimes it’s our supposed values that we have to compromise.
“This mindset is the mirror image of the one that allows us to be moved by the resilience of one family of Texicans way out on a limb in spite of the historical inevitability of the conquest of the West, or to tear up when the Star-Spangled Banner plays after an event that the United States has won gold in more times than any other nation. Because the fact that the victor was probably going to be American doesn’t make it any less surprising that this particular athlete should be the one to win.
“The Searchers has, to be sure, less problematic virtues that I could extol. The looks that pass between Edwards and his brother’s wife may be the purest expression of longing ever captured on celluloid, for instance, and few other movies are as successful at capturing the immense size of the West. But to me any consideration of the film’s greatness has to start with its famous final scene: Edwards, his race run, turns to walk away and we shut the door behind him. But as long as there are people like John Ford around who won’t let us forget that printing the legend isn’t the same as erasing the past, it won’t be that easy: if we want to enjoy Edwards’ triumph with a clear conscience, we have to take ownership of the cruelty, racism, and cold-blooded relentlessness that made his success possible.” ~ Andy Horbal