Film_2_Searchers_as_Odyssey

Film_2_Searchers_as_Odyssey - 11 Arethusa 41 (2008) 11–49...

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Unformatted text preview: 11 Arethusa 41 (2008) 11–49 © 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press “WHAT MAKES A MAN TO WANDER?”: THE SEARCHERS AS A WESTERN ODYSSEY 1 KIRSTEN DAY What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam? Opening theme from The Searchers 2 INTRODUCTION D espite its fifth place ranking among the best movies ever made in a 1992 Sight and Sound critics’ poll, 3 John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers is surpris- ingly unfamiliar to the general public, even among Western film enthusiasts. The film’s critical appeal derives not only from its dazzling cinematography, all-star cast, and polished direction, but also from its innovative treatment 1 This article grew out of a paper presented at the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Associa- tion / American Culture Association conference in 2002. I am grateful to Geoff Bakewell, James Clauss, Kyle Day, and David Fredrick for their comments on this essay in various stages of revision. Thanks are also due to Martin Winkler and anonymous Arethusa read- ers for their valuable suggestions. 2 Lyrics by Stan Jones, performed by The Sons of the Pioneers. 3 The Searchers ranked tenth in 1982 in the Sight and Sound critics’ poll, and in 2002, it ranked eleventh on the critics’ poll and twenty-fourth on the directors’ poll (British Film Institute 1982, 2002a and b). The film also influenced the work of directors of later West- erns, such as Howard Hawks, Clint Eastwood, and Sergio Leone (Cowie 2004.207), and directors working primarily in other genres, such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas (Eckstein 2004b.33–35, Cowie 2004.207), inter alios (see Scott 2006). In other media, artist Douglas Gordon has created a video installation piece, entitled “The 5 Year Drive-By,” in which projection speeds have been slowed to the extent that the film takes five years to view; this art event has been held in the California des- ert (Lehman 2004a.xi) and, as one Arethusa reader notes, in both Berlin and Fornebu, 12 Kirsten Day of traditional material: it focuses on a psychologically complex protagonist who demonstrates a moral ambiguity unusual in the Western genre 4 and it uses conventional subject matter as a vehicle for challenging the viewer to re-evaluate ideologies current in 1950s America. Ford’s protagonist, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, is in many ways a typical hero on a standard heroic journey, 5 a mythic formula whose roots go back to the foundational texts of Western literature: Homer’s eighth- century b.c.e. Iliad and Odyssey . While The Searchers’ Homeric qualities have not gone unnoticed, 6 Ethan’s kinship with Odysseus and the structural parallels between The Searchers and the Odyssey have yet to be explored in depth. Like the Odyssey , Ford’s film uses characters and events from the mythic-historical past 7 to weave an epic tale that is both entertaining and didactic. Like Homer’s protagonist, Ford’s Ethan Edwards is a wanderer on a long and difficult quest to preserve the integrity of a woman and a...
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Film_2_Searchers_as_Odyssey - 11 Arethusa 41 (2008) 11–49...

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