The Searchers (1956) by director, John Ford is considered to be the benchmark of the American Western film genre. Encompassing key characteristics of the American Frontier setting, establishing shots of the landscape and a weary, stoic cowboy who must lick his wounds from the aftermath of violent encounters.
The conquest of the wild west is central to the narrative of the American Western genre, entwined with cultural separation of conqueror-centrist motives and divisive cultural norms. There is an emphasis on maintaining hostile relationships with the Indigenous people of the land, the pursuit of fortunes and an infamous American outlaw is ever-present.
The film’s protagonist, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), goes on a quest to find his niece, Debbie (Natalie Woods), as she was abducted by the local Indigenous Comanche people due to ongoing hostilities. Ethan’s character is that of a deeply troubled, racist and psychotic individual, who is full of toxic masculinity. As his search takes longer than expected, his frustration and hatred intensify towards the Indigenous Comanche people.
Violent confrontations ensue and when he finds his niece being integrated into the Comanche way of life, he is torn between civility and barbarity as he ponders on his conflicted conscience on whether to save or kill her in dishonorable disgust.
“The conflation of spaces and ideologies begins with an establishing shot, an image that visually represents a set of assumptions not just about the landscape and/or built environment, but also about the ways of making sense of such a world”Christian Long, Author
A particular scene is known as, “The Doorway Scene” is the concluding key scene of the movie that runs for approximately 2 minutes. It’s establishing shot begins with a mid-setting, static camera on a tripod with a contrast of a dim shade foreground across the patio of the home of the Jorgensen ranch, and a bright natural sunlight background setting that fills the wider screen. The non-diegetic musical score builds up the emotion of the scene. The ‘stunned’ expressions on the faces of the Jorgensen family, convey to the audience a feeling of the family’s anticipation of the homecoming of Debbie Edwards with the Hero, Ethan.
The next shot is one continuous shot that builds and maintains a sense of space, scale and anticipation. Director, John Ford’s cinematography of a wide-angled, deep space, long-shot of Monument Valley with majestic scenery and non-diegetic music mixing with the diegetic sounds of trotting horses and livestock from a distance, methodically encroaching nearer and louder, building intensity, anticipation and suspense. Ford rests his camera, using low angles to enhance the protagonist and the setting, leaving the image stationary for the action within the frame, conveying a sense of ranch life on the landscape to the audience.
In the last shot, the camera is static from deep inside the cosy atmosphere of the family’s home, peering out through an open doorway into the bright sunshine. The dim interior contrasts the outside sunshine, creating a portrait frame within a landscaped wide-angled frame. Inside that smaller space, the bright glare of the natural sunlight on the desert in the background produces a shadowed outlined appearance of Ethan, standing near the doorway and staring inside. This is a key moment in the film as the antagonist now finds himself in a pivotal moment of self-actualisation, coming to terms with the events of his mission. The emotional non-diegetic musical score has built up to its entirety and conveys to the audience a feeling of completion as a laborious quest is finally over.
This moment captures the sombre and weary cowboy reflecting on the situations that he has endured. Ethan’s addled mind reflects on his shameful prejudiced actions, how they could have easily resulted in a much dire consequence with a family in tatters at the loss of a loved one. The last glimpse of the scene is that of a cowboy walking away into the distance, coming to terms with the consequences of his actions in a hostile environment that he has contributed to. The director ends the scene with the hero getting banished forever in the frame as he is deemed not worthy to be in the vicinity of the Jorgensen family with his violent and barbaric attitude towards life.
Director John Ford’s benchmark film centering around John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, had set the standard for the American Western film genre. His cinematography and mise-en-scene elements were nostalgic to the early days of the expansive American frontier that influences the perspectives of the present.
As a final thought, it’s time for humanity to catch-up to the Globalized 21st Century.
Long, Christian B. The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema: 1960-2000. Intellect, 2017
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