I consider this to be the greatest film John Ford ever directed, and that is saying something because he made so many fine films. The visuals in this are stunning, from that opening shot of the door in monument valley, to the burning home(surely an inspiration for George Lucas when he made Star Wars? I’m thinking of the scene where Luke returns home to see his aunt and uncles home ablaze),to that close up of Wayne’s face looking in horror/disgust at a group of emotionally damaged white women rescued from American Indians.
The film is based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, which I’ve yet to read; apparently the ending of the novel is much bleaker than the film.
Ethan Edwards(John Wayne)returns home to Texas, after fighting in the civil war. He goes to his brother Aaron’s house(Walter Coy)and we pick up instantly(without any dialogue to tell us)that Ethan and his sister in law Martha(Dorothy Jordan)are in love, and they have been for some time.
Whilst Ethan is away one day with some neighbours, a Comanche raiding party led by Chief Scar(Henry Brandon)attacks the Edwards home, burn it to ground, kill Aaron, Martha and their son, and kidnap their two daughters, Lucy(Pippa Scott)and Debbie(Lana Wood). Ethan sets out to find his nieces with the help of part Indian Martin Pawley(Jeffrey Hunter)who was raised by Aaron and Martha as their son. Also along for the trek are the loveable Mose Harper(Hank Worden),fearless Reverend Clayton(Ward Bond)and Lucy’s boyfriend, Brad(Harry Carey Jr). Will they find the girls?
Many viewers call Ethan racist because of his attitude towards the Native American Indians he encounters, while it may seem so to us today, I do think it’s a bit more complicated than that. During the scene where Martha tells Debbie to hide in the family graveyard during the raid, make sure you pause the DVD just before she sits in front of a headstone; these graves are her grandparents(Ethan and Aaron’s parents)and under the name, birth/death dates etc it says that they were killed by Comanche’s. It took me a few viewings to pick up on this detail, but that now makes me think that is why Ethan hates them, he doesn’t hate them for who they are but for what they did; I think he would be just as hateful towards anyone who had done that to his family. It adds another layer to this film and to his character.
I have also always thought that Ethan and Scar may have had dealings before, the way they look at one another when they meet, and how Ethan’s hatred seems to lift after his confrontation with him; have always led me to believe Ethan hated him for what he had done to his family and perhaps for something else he had done(listen to what he tells Martin about the woman’s hair in his tent, how could Ethan know that unless he had been present?)
I love how so much of the violence and horror in this is suggested. The horror Ethan finds at his destroyed home, and the state of his families bodies don’t need to be seen because we can imagine all too well what has been done to them, and the reaction of Wayne and Hunter in this scene shows us how horrible the situation is. When we find out what happened to Lucy, again we don’t need to see that and the way Wayne describes what he found, and his haunted look tell us everything, two very powerful examples of how suggestion can be even more disturbing and effective as showing us in graphic detail.
The heart of the film lies in the desperate attempts to find Debbie(played as an adult by Natalie Wood) Martin fears for her, as he is starting to believe Ethan may kill her if he finds her because she will be so changed. But Ethan is unpredictable and perhaps Martin need not worry so much.
The entire cast are superb, Vera Miles provides good support as a strong daughter of the west who loves Martin. Wayne delivers a fine performance as a complex, bitter man who is needed to confront violence with violence, but has no place in the civilised world/society that remain after such acts have been finished, hence that famous final shot of the door closing on him.)
A thrilling psychological Western, featuring stunning visuals and a magnificent score by Max Steiner.
As ever, if you’ve seen this please leave your thoughts. If not, I hope you check it out sometime.