Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Searchers

John Wayne was in so many great films that it's impossible to name a "best" film. But if you threatened to throw me off a cliff unless I picked one, I'd probably go with The Searchers from 1956. 

This is perhaps the Duke's darkest role. His character--Ethan Edwards--hates Indians. I mean he really, really hates Indians. When his young niece Debbie is kidnapped by Comanches (after the rest of his family is killed in a raid), he spends five years obsessively searching for her--and plans on killing her when she's found because in his eyes she's no longer white.

Accompanying Ethan is Martin Pawley, Debbie's adopted older brother. He knows what Ethan plans, but works with him as the best way of finding Debbie. They can kill each other when deciding her fate when she's found. That they work well together and gain respect while developing something of a father/son relationship only complicates matters more.

That brief summary doesn't do this brilliant film justice. The intensity of the emotions involved; the performance by Wayne; the beautiful location shots and director John Ford's visual artistry all combine to make this a true classic. 

Like most movies in the 1950s, The Searchers got a comic book adaptation published by Dell Comics. It appeared in Four Color #709 (June 1956) with art by Mike Roy.
I suppose when a comic book adapts a movie that good, it's bound to suffer in comparison. Roy, for instance, is a very good artist, but there was nothing he could draw that would match the visual magnificence of Monument Valley as filmed by John Ford. 

The story is reasonably faithful in telling the story, covering all the major plot points. The main difference, though, is something that I think probably relates to Dell's pledge to parents that their comics were "good" comics--that nothing they publish would ever be objectionable.

In retrospect, this was one of the reasons Dell was so good at graphic storytelling. They couldn't depend on anything even remotely lewd or tasteless to garner interest in their comics. Their only option was to tell really good stories.

The adaptation of The Searchers is a rare example of how this could work against them. All through the story, Ethan Edwards' hatred of Indians and violent intentions might be hinted at, but could never be shown overtly enough to give the story the emotional punch it needed. Ethan has to be a morally broken man. Otherwise, a lot of the tension in the story vanishes and his decision to allow Debbie to live at the end losses most of its impact. 

I'm going to give you an example of what I mean. Below is a one-and-a-quarter pages from the comic book, followed by a clip from the movie that shows the scene these panels are adapting. Notice that Ethan's clear intention to kill the girl doesn't make it to the comics.

Gee whiz, this is bizarre. Normally, I'm first in line to bring modern pop culture to task for being crude, lewd or gross and will never stop believing that lack of high standards in these areas (aside from moral issues) is often a block to good storytelling. But here, an effort to clean up Ethan Edwards' act led to a less effective story. It's not the portrayal of violence and personal darkness that's bad--it's how its portrayed. 

Next week, we'll jump back to the Hyborian Age to visit once again with our favorite barbarian.

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