Why John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ is the Best Western of All Time

By  · Published on October 1st, 2012

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, Cole desperately tries to explain to a skeptical Landon why John Ford’s monument to Western filmmaking is the best of the genre. But even if The Searchers capably and wondrously checks all the boxes, does that make it the greatest of all time? And why (at #7) is it alone at the top?

Cole: So it’s really fantastic to get to our first Western on the Sight & Sound list because it’s the genre that I (like many) grew up loving. It’s a genre that allows a non-cinephile father a chance to bond over movies with his son, and mine definitely did that along with a hefty dose of movies like Guns of Navarone and Bridge on the River Kwai. There’s also great reason to consider The Searchers the best Western of all time.

Landon: What are some of those reasons? Because, I have to admit, I’m not entirely convinced of the singular greatness of The Searchers.

Cole: I’ve got three broad ones for you, then, if we can leave the concept of subjectivity behind for a moment. First, it embodies all of the ideals, aesthetics and genre notes of The Western: a loner hero consumed by moral right, the unyielding suffering of the open plains, a conflict drawn by rifles and violence, and an accidental marriage thrown in for good measure.

Second, it was directed by, and is arguably the best work of, a man known specifically for Westerns. And third, it stars the icon of The Western, John Goddamned Wayne.,

Landon: Let’s start with the latter first because I’m feeling back asswards today. So in the case of the Ford/Wayne collaboration, why is The Searchers on this list and not Stagecoach? Wasn’t Ford and Wayne’s earlier collaboration more influential? Sure, The Searchers might encapsulate all the defining aspects of the genre, but it does so by the very people who, in a way, started it.

Cole: Earlier work may be more influential, but it can also be improved upon. There’s a silliness to Stagecoach that is wholly absent from The Searchers – a bleak and difficult movie. That’s part of breaking into the sound era versus being well-established. But, it’s interesting that you point that out, because genre filmmaking is maybe the only place that you could get away with that. And I recognize judging it by epitomizing the genre falls right into that trap.

I’ll scalp you for this.

Landon: Not if I hit you with my rhetorical poison arrow first.

Okay, that came across a bit more phallic than I intended.

Cole: Typical.

Landon: So, anyway, pen, playing with guns…

Cole: Are you saying there’s a lot of phallic imagery in Searchers/Westerns in general?

Landon: Not so much in The Searchers, but what’s great about repetitive genre formulas is that convention is a great place to take films to other places. The Searchers, for instance, has often been credited as a film about the dark truths of America’s genocidal history during the time of western expansion. And High Noon, my favorite western, is credited an an allegory about the Red Scare. Like the gangster film, the Western provides a welcome space for exploring what America and American history means while also being entertainment.

Cole: But you still see Monument Valley and can think of nothing but sex organs.

Landon: Except that one plateau that looks like a hand.

Cole: Interestingly enough, The Searchers is one of those Westerns that takes the genocide of Native Americans head-on – with some complicated emotional vistas. It can serve as an allegory for any large-scale murder, any situation where revenge eclipses core human needs, or any story of any immigrant trying to integrate into a new culture. It’s not an easy story, regardless of how angelic hindsight has made us.

Landon: That’s true, and I’ll admit the Stagecoach question was a bit of devil’s advocacy on my part. While Stagecoach certainly established many of the tropes of the sound-era Hollywood western, it’s a little stale now specifically because it’s so conventional and it hasn’t aged well because its racial politics are very different.

The Searchers, by contrast, seems to call the whole Cowboys v. Indians myth into question. But not in a way say radically unconventional as, say, the films of Sergio Leone.

Cole: It’s difficult to portray something real and terrible on screen.

What do you think of The Searchers being virtually alone on the S&S list? There’s not another Western for miles. Rio Bravo doesn’t clock in until #63 (which means we’ll cover it on October 20, 2014).

Landon: That’s the one thing I’ve been curious about. Why this and not High Noon or Shane? I think it comes down to one thing we haven’t fully discussed yet: is The Searchers the ultimate encapsulation of the Western (i.e., does it bring all the elements of a redundant and familiar genre formula together in the best way possible) or it it more subversive (does it use the formula to say/do something remarkably different)?

Cole: It seems clearly to be the first, although it’s portrayal of racism is starker than almost any other. Cards on the table, The Professionals is my favorite Western. But The Searchers is the Western Actor being directed by the Western Director in a pure Western Epic. Yes, it has some incredible cinematography and storytelling, but it mainly hits all the bullseyes.

The question is why Shane and High Noon aren’t listed on S&S nearby.

Landon: I’ll try to speak to that point in a roundabout way, because I’m feeling tangential today. I didn’t grow up with the same relationship to these films as you. As a kid, even as a Texan I thought Westerns were boring. It wasn’t until college when I was forced to watch them for class that I really liked them.

The problem is, I really liked them for their allegorical potential, like High Noon’s supposed statement on McCarthyism. But that’s pretty disingenuous, because that means that “being a Western” wasn’t enough. It had to have some meaning outside the story to be “good.”

Cole: A standard criticism of genre filmmaking.

Landon: That’s why The Searchers feels like a singular, unique Western even as it has so many of the familiar beats of the genre. It can be both, and that’s more than enough. But besides any statement on racism (and it is fascinating to see how Westerns change over the decades), The Searchers is a well-crafted piece of genre entertainment.

In fact, it’s easily the most “Hollywood” film we’ve discussed so far.

Cole: It feels like you’re lobbying for High Noon because it subverted the genre completely. At least it pissed off Howard Hawks and John Wayne…

Landon: Well, the problem I’m seeing now with High Noon is that it doesn’t work quite as well as “just a Western” as The Searchers. It’s entertaining, yes, and it’s real-time structure is bad ass, but it feels like a message movie because of Gary Cooper’s righteousness. John Wayne seems wholly uninterested in making a statement, even if closeted lefty John Ford did so despite him.

Cole: It really is the most Hollywood on the list so far, and it’s also genre distillation. It’s the purest possible moonshine – which, to extend the metaphor, makes it the strongest. But you raise a really good question. How do we feel about celebrating a movie led by a star interested more in playing himself as a flat icon than acting a role?

Landon: Up to this point the S&S list seems really interested in subversion in relation to Hollywood. We had Jimmy Stewart actin’ a creep, Orson Welles saying “fuck you” to the status quo, a genre-less silent film directed by a German Expresssionist, and an anti-narrative sci-fi film

So yes, it seems a bit strange that S&S would champion a movie that is, on the surface, so straightforward. Praising John Wayne for The Searchers is like praising Jimmy Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington instead of Vertigo.

Now I’m wondering what movie where John Wayne plays Genghis Khan isn’t on this list.

Cole: The Conqueror is #1 in all of our hearts.

But I wonder if what we’re hitting on – the boxes ticked off so astoundingly by Ford – is part of the thinking when voting on the best movies. I wonder how many critics thought, “Do I really have room on my Top Ten for TWO Westerns?” while populating the other 9 slots with lauded dramatic fare.

Landon: There’s no conventional gangster film on the list (unless you count Au Hasard Balthazar). In fact, The Searchers might not just be a stand-in for all Westerns, but maybe all genre films for S&S.

And that will not be my last Au Hasard Balthazar joke.

Cole: I hope not. Everyone loves a great Au Hasard Balthazar joke.

Landon: Some Like It Hot is a screwball comedy, and Singin’ in the Rain is a musical, but neither of these feel like formula at its purest in the way The Searchers does. So yes, I think The Searchers checks off a box that includes more than The Searchers.

Cole: So it, like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, may stand alone. Or walk away from the cabin alone in one of the best shots of all time.

I hate to keep reducing genre work, but I think I finally have a response to your earlier devil advocating Stagecoach jab. If you want to see someone pass a test with 100%, don’t you want to ask the guy who wrote the test to take it?

Landon: As someone who writes tests as part of his job, that prospect is terrifying. But good point – Stagecoach was the inception, and The Searchers was where it evolved to and peaked. After all, a few years later the genre would all but die. And now the sexual metaphors go into circle-of-life territory

Cole: Sex metaphors usually give birth to life metaphors.

I can’t imagine I’ve convinced you that The Searchers is the best Western of all time, yet, huh?

Landon: Almost. If only the film co-starred a troublesome donkey…

Cole: Or two mules and a put-out Clint Eastwood. At any rate, if it’s not really “the best” (whatever that means), it’s at least easy to figure out why a large amount of critics would place it in the beloved token genre slot of their top ten.

Landon: Either way, John Wayne is somewhere not giving a fuck.

Cole: And John Ford is somewhere not giving a fuck with an eyepatch.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.