Many people long for the days when movies were simple and unambiguous. There were good guys and bad guys, and you knew who was who. Those were the wonderful days when John Ford was making pictures starring John Wayne. If that’s what you think, you’ve missed The Searchers, one of the classic Westerns made by Ford with
When a band of Comanches kill his brother’s family and take his nieces as prisoners, Edwards and the Rangers go out after them. Soon, the others go back, but Edwards pushes on, with the companionship of Martin Pawley, a young man who Edwards rescued as a baby.
We soon see that Edwards’s motives in this quest may not be retrieving his nieces as much as it is revenge for what the Comanches have done. When he and the Rangers come across the body of a Comanche, he shoots its eyes out so the warrior can’t go to their version of heaven, but have to wander among the winds forever. When they come across a band that may have the girls, he is ready to attack, knowing the girls will be killed if they do. We discover that Edwards is as barbaric as those he pursues.
For five years Edwards and Pawley search from
The Searchers has become the template for revenge films. An important part of a good revenge film is the presence of a conscience (like Martin Pawley here). The real conflict is not so much Edwards and Pawley against the Comanches (and other adversaries along the way,) as it is between the two of them over what is right to do in the situation.
A recent film that reflects the issues of The Searchers is Steven Spielberg’s Munich. As the film begins, all those involved believe in their mission of killing terrorists and understand it as righteous. As time goes on doubt begin to arise. First among the various members of the assassin team, but eventually the conflict plays itself out within Avner, the central character. I think there can be parallels drawn between the two films. For example, Edwards shooting out the dead warrior’s eyes is similar to the humiliation of leaving a victim’s nude body for all to see. But most of all the issue of how we retaliate against violence is central to both films.
You see, even those Westerns from simpler times may not be as simple as we think.