Texas Book Festival — San Antonio Edition
Interview with Glenn Frankel
Published: April 10, 2013
John Ford, who directed the film, was notoriously tight-lipped about the deeper themes in this film. There’s a famous interview with Peter Bogdanovich that I’ve seen a few times where he’s basically saying “no comment” to every question Bogdanovich asks of him about the themes in his films. How do you think he approached The Searchers, why did his Westerns get darker over time, and did he ever drop any hints that you found about the deeper meaning of any of his films, especially The Searchers?
Oh, he recoiled from talking about deeper meaning. When I think of who I would love to have interviewed, I’d loved to have interviewed John Wayne, he was such a generous guy and a lot of fun to talk to. Ford, I’m not so sure, because as you say he could be pretty withering, even to Peter Bogdanovich, who he liked a lot. He did tell Bogdanovich that The Searchers was a “psychological epic.” He didn’t define what he meant by that, of course, he left it hanging there. But I think that’s exactly right. Ford, by the time he makes The Searchers, is in his early 60s. This is the work of an older, mature man. He’s had physical health problems, he’s a lifelong alcoholic, and he’s wrestling with that. His vision gets darker and more complex. So The Searchers, I would argue, is his ultimate Western. He’s very good at giving us all the iconic themes of the Western. He helped invent them, after all. The lone man, the iconic hero on horseback, who, using gun violence, tames the West, whether it’s killing the bad guys, or killing the barbarian Native Americans. All that’s there, and it’s a piece of its time. There are racist connotations to all of that. But at the same time, he’s giving you the hero, if you will, he’s also undermining the meaning of it, because again, as I mentioned earlier, this is a hero who does some terrible things. He shoots the eyes out of one Indian corpse, he scalps an Indian corpse, he shouts down a funeral service for the victims of an Indian raid, so he can get on with his vengeance and move on, and he’s going to kill his young niece, because she’s had sex with Indians. And so Ford is giving you the racism, there’s plenty of that, and yet at the same time he’s undermining it, and that’s the power of The Searchers, and it’s a mature work of a man who really is comfortable with ambiguity. You’re right, we don’t have many notes from Ford, and he certainly didn’t articulate much of this, but when you read the final shooting script of the film, and then you see what Ford actually shot, what actually is in the movie, you see him making a lot of interesting choices to eliminate dialogue, to eliminate exposition. The characters aren’t explaining themselves verbally as to why they do the things they do. Instead he’s telling it visually. It’s visual storytelling, and you have to make up your own mind as to why the uncle does what he does during the movie, and how it ends, and what it means. You have to decide, and that’s the kind of ambiguity that I would argue raises The Searchers from a pretty good Cowboys and Indians movie to something much more approaching cinematic art.