On George Lucas, The Searchers, and cinematic quotations

This piece was supposed to be for May the Fourth—whoops.

To be honest, it switched focus many times—it was originally a simple analysis of the different 1950s movies which influenced Attack of the Clones, the second film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. However, I got caught up on one of these movies, a film that has a long-standing relationship with the Star Wars saga—John Ford’s The Searchers.

When you think about it, Ford’s movie seems an odd inspiration for a Flash Gordon-esque space opera. Yes, Ford was a master of composition and his images of the natural world have inspired a great many filmmakers, but when you look at the story proper, it doesn’t seem like Lucas inherited much of it at all—at least, not at first.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

Set in post-Civil War Texas, The Searchers opens with the return of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Confederate soldier turned wanderer, to his brother’s homestead. His homecoming is interrupted by a Comanche raid in which most of the family is brutalized and killed. Ethan’s two nieces are captured by the tribe, leaving him and the family’s adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to pursue the captives across the wilderness.

The older of the girls turns up dead and the search for the younger takes so long that it is almost a guarantee that she’s been integrated into the tribe, possibly even married to one of the men. Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche is so strong that it becomes clear he plans to kill the girl rather than rescue her. The only one in his way is the principled Martin, but will he be able to change Ethan’s mind before it is too late?

The Searchers is no simple adventure. Suffused with rage and despair despite its comic scenes, it questions the traditional “Cowboys and Indians” narratives of earlier westerns with a main character whose homicidal bigotry is hard to reconcile with his “compelling strength” as critic Edward Buscombe once observed in his book-length analysis of the film. It’s little wonder the film garnered more appreciation in the jaded 60s and 70s than when it was originally released. New Hollywood’s shining stars tend to list the movie as a favorite. George Lucas is no exception.

Lucas’ homage to The Searchers during the burning of the Lars farm was noticed and commented on even back in 1977. Second image source: Second Reel

The Searchers is often touted as a major influence on the original Star Wars film (also referred to as A New Hope once it became clear Star Wars would become a series), but the connections always seemed thin to me. Sure, you could draw broad comparison between weary war veteran Obi-wan Kenobi with weary war veteran Ethan Edwards—both fought on the losing side of a civil war, both serve as mentor figures to an idealistic younger man. However, Obi-wan is a positive figure while Ethan certainly is not, so the comparison does not run too deep. There’s also the famous quotation of the destroyed homestead in which Luke’s return to the Lars farm openly recreates Ford’s compositions in the 1956 movie. Otherwise, the original Star Wars is a light adventure in which grief and rage are shunted to the side. The movie quotes The Searchers without actually dealing with its themes. This is not a problem, mind you—any wallowing over the barbecued Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru would bog down the film and clash with the pulpy tone it’s going for.

However, A New Hope is not the end of Lucas’ quotations of The Searchers. There’s more of Ford in another, less regarded film in the Lucas saga—Attack of the Clones. Released in 2002, it was the second of the oft-maligned prequel trilogy and usually touted as the worst of the three, even in light of current re-evaluations of the prequel films. Mock the cheesy love dialogue all you want, but rewatching this movie again, I was struck by how much more meaningful the references to Ford’s film are.

One of the major plot threads in Attack of the Clones concerns Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) search for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), who was left enslaved on the desert planet Tattooine at the end of the previous movie in the series. Plagued by nightmares of his mother’s distress and convinced these visions are prophetic, Anakin rushes back to Tattooine in the hopes of finding her. Instead, he discovers that Shmi, though briefly liberated and happily married to a farmer, was captured by the Tusken Raiders, a nomadic tribe hostile to outsiders. Anakin tracks down the Tusken camp and finds his mother just as she is dying, presumably from weeks of beatings. Enraged, Anakin kills every Tusken in sight—(in)famously “not just the men—but the women—and the children too!”

This chapter of the film almost operates as a condensed remake of The Searchers. Anakin’s scouting out the camp and the later funeral scene openly quote shots in Ford’s movie. And then there’s the basic dramatic trappings: the quest for a captive loved one, the obsessed warrior driven by hatred and grief, and even, to a smaller extent, the emphasis on the individual’s psychological need for belonging in a community. Ford extensively explores that third point through the romance subplot with Laurie (Vera Miles) and his depiction of close-knit settler families, while Lucas makes those notions more implicit in Anakin’s alienation from the stoic Jedi Order and how this divide pushes him to the dark side.

Everyone talks about how Anakin is meant to evoke James Dean’s red-jacketed teen hero in Rebel Without a Cause, but he shares way more DNA with Ethan Edwards. For both characters, the genesis of their never-ending rage comes from the violent death of a mother (we see it plainly in Attack of the Clones, while this bit of Ethan’s backstory is only evidenced by the information on Mrs. Edward’s gravestone). Erotic transgression troubles both characters as well: Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and the supposed-to-be-free-of-romantic-attachments Anakin is in love with Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). For these anti-heroes, love becomes twisted into something obsessive and ugly, turning each into monsters unable to connect with anyone. In the end, both are redeemed by love, though neither will ever fully escape their isolation from the greater community.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

Beyond showing George Lucas understands film history, what does all this referencing really do? It’s easy to take the standard cynical view that it’s yet another example of the shallowness of postmodern art. While damning the similarly allusion-happy Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdanovich once accused Lucas and others of his generation of “simply making movies they grew up with, over again.” Bogdanovich’s criticism suggests a man caught up in his childhood loves, doomed to a grotesque Peter Pan career.

But I can’t go there, especially since Attack of the Clones shows a decided upping of the ante in Lucas’ engagement with The Searchers. He’s in dialogue with Ford in a way he was not before, actually dealing with Ford’s themes head-on. Maybe it’s because Lucas was older by the time he got to the prequels and therefore better able to understand the tragedy of The Searchers than when he was young. In that sense, he’s not only having a dialogue with The Searchers, but with A New Hope, and arguably with his younger self as well. This suggests not some Peter Pan with a camera, as Lucas’ detractors would define him, but an artist whose worldview evolved between youth and old age. Whatever one thinks of the overall quality of the Star Wars prequels, one cannot accuse Lucas of treading water with them or with his relationships to the movies that shaped him in his youth.

Sources:

https://kitbashed.com/blog/the-searchers/

https://kitbashed.com/blog/there-was-once-a-certain-kind-of-cinema

The Searchers: BFI Classics by Edward Buscombe

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