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Old Embers

Old Embers for New Torches: The Searchers
By Fritz Spencer
Dec 4, 2008 - 1:15:05 AM

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The Searchers
Not one person in ten-thousand can identify the man who said the following.

"The Communists realized that they couldn't start a worker's revolution in the United States since the workers were too affluent and too progressive. So the Commies decided on the next-best thing, and that was to start on the schools... And they've managed to do it. They're already in the colleges, now they're getting into high schools. I wouldn't mind if they taught my children the basic philosophy of communism, in theory and how it works in actuality. But I don't want someone like Angela Davis inculcating an enemy doctrine in my kid's minds."

No, it wasn't the head of the John Birch Society, Pat Buchanan, or any other right wing commentator. These words of warning came from Marion Morrison, better known to the world as John Wayne.

John Wayne was the iconic American hero, a tower of strength, a paragon of individualism and unflinching dedication to God and country. So important was the Duke to the cause of American conservatism, that the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, tried to have him killed. The Duke always maintained that two Soviet agents were dispatched from Moscow to assassinate him on the set of the film "Hondo." Nikita Khruschev told Wayne personally in 1958 that he cancelled the order; and recently disclosed documents from secret Soviet archives prove that Stalin did indeed plan to kill John Wayne.

Stalin was a fan of American Westerns, though he often angrily criticized the same films on ideological grounds. The movie Stalin would have hated most was "The Searchers," a goldmine of paradoxes which shed light on hidden aspects of human existence. A story about a quest for brutal vengeance, it teaches a deep lesson on the value of human tenderness. The last of an old-fashioned genre, the Western, it continues to influence filmmakers today, including the directors of Taxi Driver, Open Range, and Star Wars. A meditation on a politically incorrect subject, it is the favorite of many liberal directors, among them Steven Spielberg, who called it the greatest movie ever made.

Based loosely on a true incident, "The Searchers" tells the story of the abduction of a young girl after her parents were massacred by marauding Comanches. The girl, played by Natalie Wood, becomes the object of a relentless search by her uncle, an embittered Confederate soldier. The viewer is left to guess why her uncle is so dogged in his pursuit.

The movie, in true John Ford fashion, is cryptic about what motivates the other characters. But one thing is clear: each person pursues something he believes will bring happiness. Ford understood that man by nature is a seeker, although he is never permanently satisfied with what he finds. Disillusionment sets in, and another search for happiness starts immediately.

The universal appeal of the movie is that each character does find something which is permanently satisfying, a personal solution to the question "What is the meaning of life?" The great power of the final scene is that a doggedly persistent loner has endured cold, starvation, and countless wounds to answer the riddle of existence in a way each viewer knows instinctively is true.

"The Searchers" is the twelfth movie Maine's own John Ford made with John Wayne. Both were at the height of their creative and artistic powers. There are many characteristic John Ford touches - lilting folk songs, thundering cavalry charges, and serenades between young lovers. Some may think these cliches detract from the movie, but the message is so startling and profound that these minor shortcomings are easily overlooked.

The movie has been praised by many directors as nearly perfect in all respects. The acting, direction, and cinematography combine to achieve a level of filmmaking which has never been surpassed. Part of the backing for the movie came from the Technicolor Corporation, which was eager to have a showpiece for its new technology. Indeed, the colorful views of the Southwest are far better than anything in the movies today.


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