Yet, many critics damn the film with false plaudits when they praise the ‘visual poetry’ of Ford’s onscreen creation. While there is no denying the manifest beauty of many of the scenes’ backdrops, mere beauty itself is not poetry, for poetry (in the non-verse sense) connects and communicates certain ideas and emotions that transcend the mere image, beautiful or not, while beauty is just beauty. John Ford films are undeniably beautiful, but to call them poetic, visually or otherwise, is to simply not understand the term nor how it should be properly applied.
And there is even less poetry in the screenplay. It was adapted by Frank S. Nugent (Ford’s son-in-law) from Alan Le May’s 1954 novel of the same name, and simply falls flat. The actual tale was inspired by the legendary 1836 kidnapping of young Cynthia Ann Parker (mother of the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker) by Comanche warriors who raided her family’s home. After a quarter century, her family recovered her. That ‘incident’ has inspired stories, books, and even poems, but none as vivid as the tale The Searchers tells, despite its many flaws. And while many call the film an American epic, the film clearly is not, for the term epic describes not only a tale told involving great time and space, but also great characters who somehow discover deep and powerful things within themselves. There’s not a single character in this film who ends up significantly different at its end from what they were at its start. Even Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin merely grows up and becomes a bit more assertive.
Furthermore, not only is there is no great change evident in any of the characters, but there is no change even in the film’s outlook on life. Think of films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Part of what makes them great films is that the internal diegesis also changes.
2001 starts out as a primal film into which intellect seeps, then invades. That invasion soon becomes a pervasion, and the film ends on perhaps the most ineffably intellectual high note in film history. In Ikiru, the first two thirds of the film follows the gloom and despair of a dying man, and the whole film seems to be very dark. Then, there is an abrupt shift, and the main character dies, and is recounted in a hagiography we know is at odds with the man we witnessed. Yet, it works, once the revelations we know and those the internal characters know gibe. Other great films often have similar internal transitions of perspective, if not as radical as the two aforementioned. The Searchers is static, not only by comparison to those two far greater films, but even compared to films that are at its own level artistically.