The Influences of Star Wars: The Searchers
John Ford is a filmmaker a lot of people, even cinephiles, have come to know for his classics without having ever seen them. Maybe it’s just because of the time his films came out or the western genre itself, but a lot of people just don’t seem to give his films the time of day any more. John Wayne was his star actor and by now most people can explain the John Wayne archetype without having ever seen the actor’s famous mug. The reason westerns don’t make money anymore is because we’ve really lost interest in it. This is due to a lot of factors, especially for the depictions of Native Americans, but primarily we’ve all just grown accustomed to the stories. There’s no need to search them out anymore when it isn’t going to surprise you. This doesn’t diminish Ford’s contributions to film by any means, he was a master craftsman, but it does explain why the most famous examples of Ford’s touch are in the films of Akira Kurosawa, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. All three of those filmmakers heavily based their own style off Ford’s and while their films are still watched today, Ford is skirted under the rug. So if you’ve never seen a film by John Ford and you had to pick only one to watch, you’d best make it The Searchers. While again, it’s got that old Hollywood Native American problem (and still sort of a problem, where are all the Native American filmmakers, I know they’re out there!) in which all of them are savages, it’s still perhaps the greatest Hollywood Western. So George Lucas being George Lucas decided that if needed a Western touch to his films, he might as well go for the best of the best.
The first parallel is Tatooine. While the desert and Mos Eisley take cues from North Africa, it’s shot in the same style as Ford. It emphasizes the broad landscape and the heat of the desert. The most obvious connection in A New Hope, the one that is always brought up when discussing Star Wars influences, is the Lars homestead and its destruction. The ranches in The Searchers mirror the homestead closely, and with good reason. The most famous sequence in The Searchers is when John Wayne and company returns to the ranch to discover the Native Americans have killed off most of the family and kidnapped the rest. This is why Lucas frames the homestead the way Ford frames the ranches, because this scene is mirrored when Luke returns to find Stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle. Emotionally, both scenes pack a punch, and it is probably Lucas’ best directorial decision in the entirety of the film. Yet Luke goes on to train to be a Jedi while John Wayne goes on a revenge hunt.
This is where it gets interesting, because Han Solo is the character who epitomizes the John Wayne archetype of the rugged outlaw who means well, not Luke. So from that scene on, A New Hope doesn’t allude to Ford’s film, but it wasn’t the last time Lucas would revisit it. The slow path of revenge would be explored again in Attack of the Clones, in which Anakin Skywalker goes on a killing spree by taking out the Tusken Raiders (who in all the films represent the Native Americans). In fact, Lucas goes shot for shot for a sequence straight out of The Searchers where our “heroes” do something similar. Lucas essentially reframes this scene. While John Wayne is shown going down a dark path, he is still seen as somewhat justified in his actions. Lucas frames it as, while the Tusken Raiders have wronged Anakin, Anakin is wholly in the wrong for his actions. Out of all the live action Star Wars films, Clones is the least watchable, yet this stands out as one of the best choices Lucas ever made. It’s a sad tradeoff that Clones has both the best and worst aspects of the Prequel Trilogy.
So in the end, it doesn’t shock me that most people don’t watch Westerns anymore. Many of their tropes have been taken and improved upon, as evident by the continued popularity of Star Wars. However, I think historically they are still worth something. A testament of early filmmaking, a step in the right direction in terms of style. Very reflective of the times, but it can still be entertaining as long as you keep that in mind. For my money, Spaghetti Westerns were always better, but Ford will probably always be the golden standard when we think of the genre.