The 1950s would turn out to be a tumultuous decade for film, as the mighty studios first lost the vertical integration they had long enjoyed by owning the complete business stack from development, through production to distribution in their theaters. Seeking to level the playing field, the government stepped in and put a stop to that, and soon after the newly arrived television took its wrecking ball to what remained of their entertainment monopoly. In 1950 8% of US households had a TV set, by 1955 that number had risen to 67%, and by the end of the decade it was no less than 88%, although by then the studios had capitulated and long since sold their back catalogues to the small screens in an effort to stem the rising tide. The studios countered by amplifying the spectacle of the big screen with even bigger screens, the likes of VistaVision, Cinerama and, in what would become a recurring pattern, 3D films. As this was happening, the types of films Hollywood was putting out was shifting, and the western was on the downward trajectory for once, amidst post-war film noir, The Third Man, Sunset Boulevard, biblical epics, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur and adventure films like The African Queen (1951). Into this mix, in 1956, to fairly positive, if misunderstood reviews and good business came Ford’s latest western, The Searchers
It tells the story of Ethan Edwards, as portrayed by John Ford stalwart John Wayne, returning from the losing side of the civil war to his brother’s homestead. Not long after he has returned, an indian raiding party steal a number of cattle from the surrounding farms; they posse up and ride out after them. Soon after it turns out that the stolen cattle was nothing more than a decoy, leading to a frantic ride back to the farms, back to their families. And indeed, with the men gone, the indians struck in the night, killing Ethan’s brother’s wife–who we sense shared a forbidden love with Ethan–kidnapping their two daughters. In a scene that is instantly recognizable from its mirror image in Star Wars, Ethan, the young half-indian Martin and the village idiot Mose return to find smoke pouring from the burning, ravaged homestead. Consumed by rage and hatred, Ethan and Martin set off on a road trip across the country, tracking the indians and looking everywhere for the missing girls. One turns up dead, and when they finally come upon the other one, they find her fully integrated into the indian tribe. Ethan now no longer plans to save her, but to kill her.
As the years passed, The Searchers has slowly, but surely made its way up the ranks to become one of his most revered films altogether. Far from being simply the ‘yet another solid, if middle-of-the-road western’ it was reviewed as, it is a treatise on obsession, hatred, racism, deep cultural divides and youth wasted, love lost. It is in a sense the kind of ‘rip-snorting western’ The New York Times talked of it as, yet underneath lurks a much more disturbing, sinister story, based on the real kidnapping of a 9-year-old girl in 1839, who was ‘rescued’ years later after having been married and given birth to three children. But The Searchers wasn’t simply a movie about a kidnapping, or a re-kidnapping; it was a film about the deep schism that existed in the US itself.
The re-evaluation of The Searchers started soon after its release in the late 50s, with Jean-Luc Godard leading the charge in Cahiers du Cinema, undoubtedly inspiring a generation of aspiring filmmakers to follow suit, many of them at USC. John Milius, who also lent his voice to the blu-ray commentary track of the film, said about it that it was, “the best American movie–and its protagonist, Ethan Edwards, is the one classic character in films. I’ve named my own son Ethan after him. I’ve seen It 60 times,” and Steven Spielberg remarked that “The Searchers has so many superlatives going for it. It’s John Wayne’s best performance. It’s a study in dramatic framing and composition. It contains the single most harrowing moment in any film I’ve ever seen. It is high on my twenty-five-favorite film list.” By the late 70s it had managed to thoroughly infiltrate the new generation of filmmakers, so much so that Stuart Byron in his New York Magazine article ‘The Searchers’: Cult Movie of the New Hollywood (March 5, 1979), said that “in [a] broad sense it can be said that all recent American cinema derives from John Ford’s The Searchers”.
Sometimes directors deny the influence, and often the influence is structural rather than direct, but in one way or another The Searchers relates not only to [Paul] Schrader but to John Milius, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Michael Cimino, not only to Hardcore but to Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dillinger, Mean Streets, Big Wednesday, The Deer Hunter, The Wind and the Lion, Ulzana’s Raid and Star Wars. When one film obsesses so much talent, it won’t do just to call it a cult movie. The Searchers is the Super-Cult Movie of the New Hollywood.
While Milius readily admitted outright not only that, “I steal from Ford and I don’t care!”, but that he had seen The Searchers over 60 times, Byron also confronted both Spielberg and Cimino, neither of whom, despite convincing argumentation on behalf of Byron, recognized its influence on Close Encounters and The Deer Hunter respectively. But Schrader and Scorsese however had no qualms about borrowing liberally from it to make Taxi Driver. Regardless, in the company of his friends and fellow filmmakers, it’s not surprising that Lucas also came to regard The Searchers as a remarkably evocative film, one that leaves its mark on Star Wars most notably in the imagery of the burning homestead scene, the perhaps most famous ‘kitbashed’ moment of the whole film.
Yet it’s also reflected in a more subtle way in the pairing of the grizzled war veteran Ethan and the young, idealistic Martin, mirrored of course in Obi-Wan and Luke. Like Ethan, Ben is a veteran from the losing side of a civil war, and a kind of substitute uncle figure to Luke, while Luke is in the exact same situation as Martin, who lives with the Edwards family, even though they aren’t his real parents (him being half-indian, adopted). While Ben carries over little of Ethan’s weary character, the relationship between the two echoes the one that binds Ethan and Martin together after the tragedy at the homestead. And as the posse of men ride out after the indians prior to the homestead burning, there’s even a short interchange in which Martin is remarking on how the track they’re following doesn’t make any sense. In Star Wars the roles are reversed, as Obi-Wan is the one who points out the discrepancies around the ruined Sandcrawler (“Sand people ride single file, to hide their numbers.”) Although the mystery of the trail builds over a couple of scenes, the sequence even turns in the exact same manner as both parties conclude that the ultimate goal wasn’t the cattle or the Sandcrawler, but the homestead. In The Searchers Martin gallops off in a fit of anger, despite Ethan counseling him to cool his horse, and in Star Wars it’s Luke who runs to his landspeeder despite the protestations of Obi-Wan.
What follows is a scene that is almost shot-by-shot, cut-by-cut quoted in full, as Martin and Ethan, and Luke arrive home to find their homes razed, pillars of smoke billowing across the desert landscape, and their families murdered in cold blood. Where Star Wars shows the aunt and uncle burnt to smoldering skeletons in a rare display of violence that would soon be dialed back as the more politically correct 80s rolled around, The Searchers show no bodies, but simply Ethan finding his brother’s wife’s dress. We understand implicitly what has happened, and it is much worse than if we had seen the corpse. Both sequences conclude with a strikingly similar closeup of Martin and Luke; both young, blonde with wind-swept hair, a look of innocence lost and deep despair on their faces. And the stories begins in earnest.
While it’s possible to continue the comparison in the abstract–in the sense that it could be argued that both films revolve around revenge–it would be somewhat disingenuous, since they go about it in such completely different ways. Ethan draws Martin with him into his spiral of obsession and hatred, with Martin giving up his youth to the quest, Luke never looks back. In conventional storytelling terms, it seems like a lapse of narrative that the loss of his aunt and uncle never resurfaces again in the story as motivation for Luke; a sense of what’s at stake. Had Star Wars been made today, Luke would undoubtedly have kept a memento of them with him, to strengthen his resolve before landing the killing torpedo in the Deathstar exhaust port; yet we get no such thing from Star Wars.
Also remarkable is that while it’s a relationship that is ripe with opportunities for inter-textuality between Star Wars and The Searchers, in the same way that Sergio Leone and his writers Sergio Donati and then film critics, future filmmakers Dario Argento and Bernado Bertolluci had pumped Once Upon a Time in the West full of so many references and stereo-types/reverse stereo-types that, as Umberto Eco said, they started to talk amongst themselves. But Lucas attempted no such intellectualization, and you can almost feel him glossing over the idea because he knows any such attempts could only bog down his otherwise perfectly paced space adventure. Some directors, as Roger Copeland points out in his excellent analysis When Films ‘Quote’ Films, They Create A New Mythology, published in the New York Times, September 25th 1977, the likes of Godard, Woody Allen and Scorsese used trappings from, or callbacks to, older films to talk about them or their influence on us:
The point here is that we’ve all been deeply influenced by film whether we know it or not. None of us acts “naturally” any more. And for much the same reason, directors can’t make wholly “original” works of art. We are too jaded, too aware of the past. The very title of Marty Feldman’s recent film, “The Last Rename of Beau Geste,” perfectly expresses the sense we all feel of having “arrived” late on this planet, of having been denied the opportunity to be truly original.
Because The Searchers was a film that had gained a substantial following amongst critics by the late 70s when Star Wars came out, the image of the burning homestead was also the one that stood out perhaps the most as having been borrowed or quoted. And almost without exception, critics remarked upon it, each of them falling on either the ‘it’s post-modern’ or the ‘how dare he’ sides of the plagiarism fence. While this book naturally spends a great deal of time analyzing these occurrences in Star Wars, I can’t say that you’ll find any easy answers to where the line should be drawn and on which side plagiarism should be called.
Though it’s almost lost in the halo of its success, Star Wars had its fair share of detractors even back when it was first released, several of whom I've discussed at greater length elsewhere, including Frank Herbert (Dune) and Jean-Claude Mézières (Valérian and Laureline) as well as proxy-champions like Michael Moorcock, all of whom essentially accused Lucas of plagiarism. Only, they were all talking about entirely different sources (and neither of the three were themselves above clear lines of inspiration in their own work, as indeed is no one).
And at the end of the day, is a similar character, a thematic motif, a quoted scene or a musical refrain enough to warrant accusations of plagiarism? Shouldn’t we expect our media-rich culture to echo the collective, rather than arguing for impossible originality in all things?
Block, Alex Ben., and Lucy Autrey Wilson. George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-by-decade Survey of Timeless Movies, including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success. New York: It, 2010.