John Wayne—a.k.a. the Duke, a.k.a. Marion Robert Morrison—was, as some wiseguy once commented, nothing more than a big guy in high heels and makeup. But to most of America, he was an icon, the silver screen's greatest cowboy star and the symbol of the old-fashioned "values" that, as conservatives never tire of insisting, once made this country great. Of course, in these parts, he's something else again; we named an airport after him, and, like Nixon and Mickey Mouse and other dubious symbols of this great land of ours, Wayne saturates the county's air, for good or ill.
Looking back on Wayne's movies, it can be startling to realize how nearly all of the characters he played were such utter pricks. Our attitudes about masculinity and heroism have changed a lot since Wayne's heyday, and his swaggering, chauvinistic louts now seem abrasive—if not offensive. Brooding, thoughtful tough guys like Bogie still feel almost contemporary, but there's little that's vulnerable or introspective about Wayne. What you see is what you get, and what you see isn't that appealing to start with.
And yet there was something weirdly lovable about the old fascist. Like Ronald Reagan, Wayne's acting contemporary and political doppelganger, you could sense a fundamental decency in Wayne even when his words or actions were grossly offensive to your sensibilities. Even when he was at his most contemptible, you could believe he was doing what he thought was right. And there is undeniable strength in that.
While most of Wayne's nearly 250 movies are historical curiosities at best today, a handful—mostly the films he made with director John Ford—still stand as worthwhile pictures in their own rights. Of these, The Searchers, which screens this Wednesday at Chapman University, easily makes the shortlist. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, it is an anomalous picture in Wayne's career—one in which the darkness implicit in all of his characters comes to the fore.
As the film opens, Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, arrives at his brother's Texas ranch still wearing a faded Confederate jacket three years after the war has ended. He has been adrift since the fall of the South, and it's hinted he has robbed a few banks, but his family embraces him with open arms. Their reunion is short-lived, however, when a brutal Comanche raid decimates Ethan's family, and Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan's sweet little niece, is abducted. Ethan begins a search for her that lasts for years. At first, he wants to rescue her, but eventually, he becomes convinced she's been "corrupted" by her years with the Comanche and must be killed. Debbie's foster brother joins the search, although he's not about to let Ethan kill Debbie. The two men are uneasy allies while the search is on, but they know that if they find Debbie, they will become enemies.
As Ethan Edwards, Wayne is surlier and more racist than ever, but for once, these traits aren't presented as virtues. Ford doesn't completely condemn Ethan's racism; the film depicts the Comanche quite unfairly as vicious savages so brutally wicked that they'd give anybody a reason to hate them. Ford also examines and critiques Ethan's hatred, even suggesting that in his all-consuming thirst for vengeance, Ethan is not so different from the tribe's leader, Scar (honky actor Henry Brandon, dipped in a none-too-convincing copper coating). Ethan was Wayne's first deliberately anti-heroic role, and he excels at it, turning in what is arguably one of the best performances of his long career. Like his sidekick (poor Jeffrey Hunter, who died young and is perhaps best remembered today as Captain Christopher Pike in the oft-repeated original Star Trek pilot "The Cage"), we are horrified, even frightened by this man, but we're forced into grudging admiration of his mad determination and bone-deep convictions.
The Searchers is a thoughtful and gorgeously executed film, full of silent shots that speak volumes while also being suitable for framing. The film's memorable close suggests that men like Ethan were necessary to "tame" the West, but they had no place in the modern world they helped to usher in. It was a point that would be picked up and expanded upon in the downer Westerns of the '60s and '70s, and the film's bravura style influenced directors as diverse as Scorsese and Spielberg. Several generations of filmmakers have stood in the shadow of The Searchers, and it could be argued that none of them have quite climbed out of it. The Searchers has remained contemporary in a way that few of Wayne's other films have; while they seek to praise him and what he stood for, The Searchers acknowledges the good in the man's harsh, limited worldview . . . and then, with all due respect, it buries him. The Searchers screens at Chapman University, Argyros Forum 208, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 744-7694. Wed., 4 & 7 p.m. Free.