A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1956 – The Searchers
All right. I’ll admit I’m compromising a little bit. But not so much. If I really wanted to pick a film that represented the country culturally in 1956, I’d have picked The Girl Can’t Help It. But, The Searchers is one of the greatest films ever made, is iconic, and still also represents 1956 in every other way except pop culturally. So it fits.
Pretty much, at some point in the 50s, you’re gonna talk about Cinemascope. Technically Rebel Without a Cause was shot in Cinemascope, so I guess that covers it. Other options for 1956 are Giant, Around the World in 80 Days… Written on the Wind has a shot. It’s a good year for choices. But The Searchers feels like it has it all.
I also skewed a bit light on the westerns, so this will cover everything that’s happened with the western thus far.
The western, as we all know, is America’s genre. It’s the genre that was about American history, allowing filmmakers to both revisit the past and commentate on the present at the same time.
At the beginning, westerns were all about “taming the wild west.” People setting out for adventure, going into the unknown, man vs. wild. Going up against nature, and savagery. Those Injuns. Manifest destiny. Settling the west and making it safe for the women and the children. A place to start a family. Because that’s how America saw it. And you had varying degrees of this type of movie, but ultimately, that was the kind of movie you had. Some might glorify the outlaw, some might be about the cavalry, or specific figures, but ultimately, the westerns put forth an idealistic view of what the west was all about.
And then the 50s happened. Post-World War II. America gets a bit more jaded. People start realizing what actually went on when we settled the west. We basically stole a lot of land from the natives and killed them. So, you started to see a lot more revisionist westerns. Ones where the whites were actually the bad guys. Where the natives were sympathetic and not just bloodthirsty savages who attacked stages and scalped pregnant women.
And the great thing about it was that this was a way for social criticism to make it into the movies, by using the tropes and the mythologies already created by the genre, and peeling the skin away to reveal what was actually going on underneath.
What makes this movie as good as it is, is the fact that John Wayne is playing Ethan Edwards. Because by now, John Wayne is John Wayne. And this movie takes that notion of the hero as you know him – the western hero. So… John Wayne – and it shows you all the stuff actually going on inside him. You used to think the man of the west loved the west so much he had to go out on the call to adventure, even if it meant leaving his woman back home… well, the truth is, it’s something much darker than that. As you see with him flirting with his brother’s wife. And you think that he’s this noble man, but really, he’s much more brooding and hateful character. You see the hatred he has inside him. And it comes to the point of obsession and murder.
This is a movie about a man whose niece gets abducted by natives, and he goes out to find her. And eventually, he’s trying to find her so he can kill her, because now she’s been with them. It’s about miscegenation. Ethan Edwards is a deeply flawed man, and is a racist. And that’s just astounding for a film in 1956 to be able to talk about. Especially something in this genre.