In interviews he did with Stephen Colbert and others earlier this week, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan cited The Searchers, a 1956 film that starred John Wayne and was directed by John Ford, as having inspired the show’s much-discussed finale.
“A lot of astute viewers who know their film history are going to say, ‘It’s the ending to The Searchers.’ And indeed it is,” Gilligan told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s always a matter of stealing from the best.”
Coincidentally, a critically acclaimed book on the film written by journalist Glenn Frankel — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as the Washington Post‘s Jerusalem bureau chief in 1986 — was released earlier this year titled, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. As luck would have it, Frankel, who currently serves as the Director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, is also a Breaking Bad fan and he was gracious enough to pen an essay for us sharing his thoughts on the film and the show.
In celebrating the newly iconic status of his landmark TV series, Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, paid tribute the other night to another cinematic icon in describing why his tragic anti-hero Walter White spares the life of his former criminal partner, Jesse Pinkman, at the end of the show.
“The writers and I were thinking of the wonderful western The Searchers,” Gilligan told a TV audience after the final episode. “All throughout The Searchers, John Wayne is looking for Natalie Wood’s character, who has been taken by the Apaches. He’s going to kill her when he finds her. At the end of the movie, when he lays eyes on her, he can’t do it. He sweeps her up in his arms instead and saves her … We were thinking [Walt] is gonna kill Jesse the whole time, we think that’s his intent, then he sees him and sees what terrible shape he’s in, and instinct takes over…”
Omitting the fact that Gilligan has mistaken Apaches for Comanches, there’s something deeply fitting about comparing The Searchers, John Ford’s 1956 classic, and Breaking Bad. Both are about long journeys, physical or spiritual, through great desert landscapes to restore a family. Both involve deeply troubled characters who pushed past the limits of justice and decency in their search for vengeance and gratification. And both ultimately are about redemption.
Ethan Edwards, John Wayne’s character in The Searchers, sets out to rescue his nine-year-old niece Debbie after she has been abducted by Comanches in a raid in which most of her family is slaughtered. But over the five years of Ethan’s search, Debbie grows from a girl to a young woman, becomes the wife of a Comanche warrior and therefore, in Ethan’s eyes, suffers a fate worse than death—having sex, willingly or unwillingly, with an Indian. As Gilligan points out, Ethan’s mission turns dark and he resolves not to rescue Debbie but to kill her because she’s has been physically and spiritually polluted. This is the narrative tension that drives Ford’s film toward its powerful climax. There is a Jesse Pinkman character as well—Martin Pauley, an adopted nephew who rides alongside Ethan on his long journey, resolving to stop him from killing Debbie when the time comes. Martin, like Jesse, is the moral center of gravity of the saga, both accomplice and conscience on the long trek.
Ethan is not Walter White, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned drug lord. Ethan, so far as we can see, has always been a man of violence. He’s angry and shattered by the murder of his brother, beloved sister-in-law and their children, and he responds the only way he knows how, by relentless pursuit and killing. But his resolution to kill Debbie does not come easy and doesn’t sit well. Throughout the film, he struggles with his decision and we’re never sure what he’s planning to do. Walt, by contrast, descends into self-pity and self-delusion with little hesitation or genuine remorse until the last few episodes when he confesses both his crimes and his motivation and seeks to put things right. In saving Jesse, Walt also saves himself.
The big difference is greatness. When The Searchers first came out in 1956, most critics applauded it as another pretty good John Wayne cowboys-and-Indians movie. But over the years, its visual poetry, taut storytelling and rich, unsettling ambiguity, along with Wayne’s monumental performance, has vaulted The Searchers to the pinnacle of Hollywood filmmaking. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard are among the directors who were moved by it and sing its praises. Just as Ernest Hemingway once noted that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” the film critic Stuart Byron once declared, “in the same broad sense it can be said that all recent American cinema derives from John Ford’s The Searchers.”
The enduring greatness of Breaking Bad will only be determined over time. But it would surely be appropriate if a cable TV show became the artistic successor to the greatest of American movies.
You can purchase Glenn Frankel’s widely praised book on The Searchers here and/or at your local bookstore.
(The Searchers screengrab via Film School Rejects)