The Real Wild West: From The Searchers to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Searchers is a western directed by John Ford in the year 1956 and starring John Wayne as the main protagonist of Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who embarks on a long and arduous journey to rescue his kidnapped niece from the Comanche tribe that abducted her. Directed by one of the most iconic directors of westerns at the time, The Searchers incorporates several characteristics of the common western trope: a remote and desolate setting, the individualism and sometimes distant nature of the protagonist, Indians serving as the unequivocally ‘bad guys’ throughout the film, and the overall theme of an individual journey to solve the problems at hand. Set in Monument Valley, a not only iconic, but also heavily sought after setting for many westerns, The Searchers is almost a stereotypical western due to a lot of its derived characteristics from the classic western trope. However, what sets this movie apart from the rest, and, coincidentally, what makes it so comparable to the spaghetti western of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are the techniques used in the creation of this film. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone, and starring Clint Eastwood as the ‘good,’ Lee Van Cleef as the ‘bad,’ and Eli Wallach as the ‘evil,’ was released 10 years later in 1966, and follows these three men and their quest to find a stash of Confederate Gold in the midst of the ongoing Civil War. Though also a western, set in a similar time period and setting as The Searchers, the fact that this movie was directed by Italian director Sergio Leone, who primarily wanted this movie to stick out from other classic westerns, challenged several of the stereotypes and characteristics commonly found in American westerns of the time.

However, after watching both of these westerns, it is hard not to notice some of the same techniques used by Ford and Leone to express different and even partially contrasting messages, and it is clear that despite the existence of many similar techniques in filming both of these movies, the context in which each of the directors uses these techniques, such as setting, camera angles, focus, and music is what develops the somewhat contrasting messages of these two movies. Both movies, given that they fell under the category of westerns, were made to display some of the very same themes and messages, which was made very clear through the use of certain filmmaking techniques by Ford and Leone. According to Michael Cloyne, author of “The Crowded Prairie,” westerns that were being mass produced at the time, both in America and Italy, were made to cater to the prominent idea of a strong man. However sexist this may be, it was widely embraced during the 1950’s and 60’s and onwards, to the extent of even presidents publicly supporting actors like John Wayne, and performing other public actions to make clear their affinity towards the western genre, and its ideal of a cowboy. Thus, it was this extent of praise and approval of this archetype that pushed for the creation of those dominant figures of Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Ethan in The Searchers. Thus the active and intentional choices made by Ford and Leone were, quite clearly, to further romanticize this archetype. From the beginning of both of these movies, the setting is quite consistent and uniform much like the resolve of the characters themselves. For The Searchers, almost the entire movie, aside from the few indoor scenes, is shot in Monument Valley, where its iconic arches and endless dry sand are all that populate the screen around the actors. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, though the setting is a little more dynamic, with the characters covering a lot of ground over the course of the movie, the characteristics of the setting are still the same: dry, desolate, lifeless, and seemingly endless. In the series of scenes where Tuco forces Blondie to walk the desert without food or water, it is exceedingly clear to the audience not only the harshness of the surroundings taking their toll on the characters, as seen also through Clint Eastwood’s exaggerated makeup, but even more so the grit and strength of these characters, especially Blondie, to overcome it.

In both of these movies, the setting may just seem like the obvious choice due to the precedent set by the numerous westerns that came before these movies, but it was more than just that. By establishing this setting as a harsh and unforgiving land, Ford and Leone are implicitly creating this image of these protagonists in the mind of the audience, an image of strength and willpower and an abundance of bravery. Though it is not immediately clear to the audience themselves, especially in the midst of more attention demanding plot, Ford and Leone are pushing the idea of the fearless cowboy that conquers all, an idea that audiences at the time would instinctively accept and enjoy. However the differences in the making and viewing of the film start to become apparent with some of the other choices that Ford and Leone made in creating their respective movies, and more specifically where they strayed apart from each other in terms of musical accompaniment. In The Searchers, the movie both begins and ends on Ethan framed on a doorway, seemingly very far away, and both scenes are appropriately accompanied with a kind of somber sounding melodic song which is established as the movie’s main tune. From this opening scene itself, the music choice of Ford has been established to set the tone for the movie to come. As the movie progresses, especially during the scenes when Ethan and Marty are out on the desert almost helplessly looking for Debbie, songs such as “Gather at the River,” and “Skip to my Lou,” which is played when Laurie gets a letter back from Marty saying that he won’t be back for Christmas again. Throughout this movie, the musical score serves as an accompaniment to the visual aspects of the film itself in creating and sending a message across to the audience about the fruitless nature of their true search and the futility of Ethan and Marty’s journey. Thus the music is always relatively somber and slow in an effort to get the audience to sympathize with the struggles of these protagonists in such a harsh environment as is in this western.

However, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a completely different point is pushed to the audience with their radically different choice in music. Ennio Morricone, the composer of the music for this movie, worked along with Sergio Leone to push a very different message to the audience through the accompaniment of music throughout this film. The first and most protruding aspect of this musical score is the main theme music of the film, “Fugo a cavallo,” which plays after every introduction in the beginning of the movie and also during every critical or tense scene in the rest of the film. Not only is this theme music much stronger and more positive than the main theme music for The Searchers, but its frequency and its usage by Leone to replace the usual expected plot or dialogue in its place makes it almost comedic for the audience to listen to. Unlike Ford’s usage of the theme music in The Searchers, Leone manages to use this whistling theme song to ridicule the classic stereotype of the strong cowboy archetype in most American westerns at the time, including in The Searchers. Unlike other westerns, this film is able to portray, through the music, the true flawed characters that are not completely good, bad, or ugly. The remaining musical choices made by Morricone, such as “The strong,” “Il ponte di corde,” and “The Ecstasy of Gold,” all either exhibit an ominous tone or a strong a triumphant one, both of which are a seemingly ironic choice by Leone to contrast with the non-stereotypical characters he invokes in this movie. Throughout the movie, the audience, based on the title, is left expecting a classic western with a clear good force and a clear bad one, and of course is expecting the good to win. However, this is clearly not entirely the case, with the good in this movie not being displayed as truly completely good, and the good and evil forces fighting for the same cause and the same reward by the end of the movie. The movie ends with “Ecstasy of Gold,” which sounds so regal it almost convinces the audience that good has overcome, even though Blondie’s actions in the climax scene are no less questionable than Angel Eyes’ actions from earlier. By adding in these clearly positive and negative music tracks, Leone only messes with the audience’s perception of what good and evil in the movie really is even more, and thus is very different from the use of music in The Searchers to further emphasize the trope of the hard working and never faltering protagonist

Finally, the use of camera angles and blocking was another key aspect of the film making process where Ford and Leone strayed apart from each other and sought to convey radically different messages in their films. From the very first scene of The Searchers, we can see the message that Ford is trying to convey: a message of superiority of the protagonist by creating distance between Ethan and everyone else. From the beginning scene with Ethan Edwards framed in the distance by the doorway, to the number of shots throughout the movie where Ethan and Marty are seemingly lost, and simply wandering around in the empty desolate desert, a number of the scenes in The Searchers start with a long distant shot with the main characters of focus small and centered, and seemingly surrounded by the harsh environment around them. The shots then transition to a long and continuous shot focused on Ethan and any other characters he is with, featuring close ups of the characters talking, with minimal cutting involved as well. All of these aspects of Ford’s filming and directing in The Searchers continuously serve to involve the audience emotionally connect them sympathetically with the characters that they’re viewing. By using this type of camera angle and focus, Ford is able to distance the audience from the protagonist when he is doing questionable things, such as shooting several Indians, but he can also bring the audience close when the characters like Ethan start venturing into their inner thoughts and emotions. However, Leone’s use of camera angles and focus in TGtBtU simply mock this type of filming. Using several closeups of faces and quick cuts, not only in the intro scenes of the three main characters in the beginning of the movie, but also in almost every single noose scene and fight scene, Leone is able to create a much more down to earth portrayal of these characters. While Ethan in The Searchers is characterized as a flawed man who mends his ways through the course of the movie, the close cuts and proximity of Blondie to the viewers slowly displays the flawed nature of his actions and continues to show, through the similar camera angles on the good and the evil, how there truly isn’t much of a difference between them

Thus, throughout these two films, though both westerns, Ford and Leone create very different messages through their differing use of music and cinematography, and their similar use of setting. Though both movies fall under the genre of “western,” the name clearly doesn’t hold these two films to the same ideals, as Leone is able to take a lot of the same kinds of character archetypes and general storylines to weave a completely different meaning for the audience than Ford does with his much more classic western of The Searchers.