“What makes a man to wander?” This opening line, derived from the first verse of the theme song in John Ford’s classic, The Searchers, heralds the film’s opening credits. Since most “theme songs” reveal a film’s central themes and serve to compliment a director’s artistic vision, I researched the rest of the lyrics, penned by Stanley Jones specifically for this film. The first verse is poignant, and subtly sets the tone even before the audience is aware of the plot:
What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away (Jones).
John Ford provides generous foreshadowing through these lyrics. Viewers can deduce that a male character–who’s probably the main one–will do a fair share of “wandering and roaming” in the film, which will lead said character to abandon his family, “turn his back on home,” and wander away from said home via horseback, riding very far away–evident due to the repetition of “ride away” three times at the end of the verse (all three verses of the song end with this phrase for added dramatic effect). The careful selection and arrangement of words in this verse practically give half of the plot away, albeit this foreshadowing is intentional. For about thirty seconds into the opening scene (after a micro shot “Texas 1868”), the camera opens with a center shot of a door frame bathed in shadow against a sunny, mountainous desert backdrop, followed by a feminine figure hastily passing through it. The camera follows her outside as we observe her staring out across a vast open distance, her petticoat flapping carelessly in the wind, as the camera cuts to a medium shot of her as she gazes at an unknown subject, shielding her eyes with one hand–this suggests that the subject she’s spotted might be unexpected, and she must shield her eyesight from the glare of the sun for fear that perhaps her mind is playing tricks. Finally, we are permitted access to the subject of her attention in the following shot, unveiling a long-shot of an approaching horseback rider, positioned in the center of the frame (focusing our attention), ambling toward us and the female figure. After spotting the moving figure (the fact that he’s moving and nothing else is in the shot draws our initial focus) we notice the presence of a geometric blanket affixed upon a wood stick stand which lay close to the camera, appearing to be almost beneath the approaching rider. For those viewers familiar with Native American cultures, it’s clear that this blanket probably has Native origins, and its role in the scene, given that the tribal blanket is the only object present during the initial reveal of this particular character, symbolizes the Native Americans and their cultures are associated somehow with this character’s life. At this point, the film’s opening song lyrics fall into place–so that’s the guy. Then we realize that that guy is actually John Wayne–and well, case closed! After glimpsing this lone rider, viewers recall the mysterious opening verse, and conclude that this guy must be the aforementioned “man” in the song! A battery of questions ensue at once: who is he, what is his name, where is he coming from, why is he headed toward the framed doorway we’re watching him from, is this the doorway of the home he wandered away from, and if so…why did he leave in the first place? Through the brilliant manipulation of these cinematic devices combined, Ford manages to capture his audience without employing any character dialogue (to this point)–pure genius. Before we have time to dodge the slew of questions, the camera cuts back to a second, male character who has joined the female, who spots the horseman and reacts, prompting the woman, “Ethan?” before he steps toward the camera, off the porch, and slowly approaches the horseman. The camera suddenly cuts to two children who’ve just emerged on the porch, side-by side, as the female child excitedly remarks to the male child, “that’s your Uncle Ethan!” Cutting back to the two male characters now joined in the shot, the rider dismounts, and the pair wordlessly shake hands. The camera then cuts to a long shot of the house and characters gathered on the porch and the dismounted rider, who proceeds to remove his hat while approaching the female character, kissing her on the forehead as she grabs hold of his shoulders, followed with a warm “welcome home Ethan.” At this point, our earlier suspicions have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt–this guy, Ethan, has to be the guy in that song I knew it! Ethan is a member of this family, returning “home” from a journey that he was on for an undisclosed amount of time–albeit definitely for a long time, seeing as the female child is compelled to inform the sibling by her side that this guy is “Uncle Ethan,” suggesting that the other, younger child has never met Ethan. John Ford’s direction of the film’s entire opening sequence is masterfully constructed, and impacted me the most out of the entire portion of the film we have seen so far- and I can’t wait to see what other tricks Ford has up his sleeve.
Jones, Stanley. “The Searchers.” AllMusic.com. AllMusic, n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2015.