John Ford’s The Searchers tops the American Film Institute’s list of the ten best westerns of all time made the top fifteen in its list of the best American movies of the first 100 years of Hollywood. Such a distinctive honor did not stop a very vociferous public announcement by Quentin Tarantino of his hatred for John Ford. Tarantino remains in a very small and exclusive minority when it comes to recognizing the artistic value and cinematic impact of John Ford’s greatest Western.
The film also undermines criticism directed toward another legendary Hollywood figure: star John Wayne. The charge leveled against Wayne is that he essentially plays himself every time he steps onto the set. While there is certainly some truth in that, there is also much to criticize. For one thing, the heroic figure most often portrayed by Wayne is far cry from the only major Hollywood star of a certain age NOT to actually enlist in the service during World War II. That controversy side, The Searchers affirms beyond all doubt and refutation that when he was called upon to actually do so, John Wayne could actually act. And quite well at that. His character Ethan Edwards is—arguably—the greatest realization of the forthcoming Hollywood archetype of the antihero ever portrayed by an actor so steadfastly associated with playing traditional and conventional heroes.
The film was not exactly recognized as Ford’s crowning achievement upon release. Time has been very kind to The Searchers as the AFI honors attests. In a year (1956) in which Around the World in 80 Days would be honored as the Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Seachers actually failed to receive a single nomination! Time has a way of healing such wounds: trying to find that year’s Oscar winners on any list of the AFI’s 100 best of anything proves to be an exercise in futility.
Perhaps Quentin Tarantino might disagree on the validity of this point. Few would join him.