The Searchers (1956) dir. John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, Ward Bond
“The Searchers” is one of the all-time great Westerns. It deserves the title because “The Searchers” personifies best the mythologized period of time that Hollywood perfected. Ironically it’s one of John Ford’s later pictures (he was in his early 60’s), but his age doesn’t show. It's mesmerizing Hollywood studio classic.
John Wayne plays Uncle Ethan, a Civil War vet with a nefarious past who has returned to his brother's home for food and shelter. The return of Ethan is a joyful occasion for the kids but a sore spot for his brother. Unexplained conflict between the brothers hints at a lifetime of domestic differences. But while out on a scouting mission the ranch is attacked an Indian war party, his family murdered and his niece Debbie is kidnapped. From here on in Ethan's life becomes focused on revenge. Ethan, along with his half-nephew Martin Pawlsey (Jeffrey Hunter), embark on a decade-long journey to find the kidnapped niece and avenge his brother's death.
Ethan Edwards is one of the all-time great anti-heroes. In the cinematic mythological West, law and order is a relative entity. Ethan can be a stubborn racist, but a noble gentleman with his own personal set of ethics and morals. For Ethan, considering the heinous crime committed against his family, any and all means of rescue is justified. Edwards is singular in his mission, his character is superior to anyone and everthing he comes across.
"The Searchers" is a fascinating film because of the length of its narrative timeline. Ford takes us up and down the span of the U.S. West, across desert, mountains, and snowy fields. By the end of the journey Debbie is 10 years older, no longer the innocent victim Martin knew. She has spent most of her life in the company of Ethan's sworn enemy. As a result she becomes the enemy to Ethan. So what is Ethan's motivation? To find and rescue Debbie, or exact his own personal revenge against a lifetime of battles against the Commanche?
I was privaleged to watch the film in High Definition on HD Net. It was a glorious experience - John Ford's elegent compositions never looked better. One of the best scenes is Ethan's first confrontation with the Commanche. Watch the staging and build up of the action as Ethan's party is tracked by the Commanche's war party silently from a ridge off in the background distance. Ford was a master of composition, and though it wasn't his first film shot in Monument Valley, he uses the landscape to greatest effect.
While John Wayne's immense screen presence and star power invigorates every scene he's in, arguably the weakest moments is the subplot involving Jeffrey Hunter's character. Over the course of his journey Martin develops and undevelops a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles). It's provides comic relief but it's often pedantic and distracting from the sharply focused journey.
And there's the opening and closing shots, which never cease to send shivers down my spine. If you haven't seen the film, they are two identical shots of John Wayne in the distance seen through a doorway. These two moments are enduring because of three key elements - 1) the frame within a frame composition which, despite the long shot focuses our attention on Wayne's tall and sturdy frame. 2) The strong wind which seems to carry Ethan away. 3) The somber Stan Jones tune "The Searchers" played by 'The Sons of the Pioneers'.
The politically incorrect 'Cowboys and Indians' story and John Wayne's much parodied performance can seem antiquated to modern-nave audiences. But any preconceptions will dissolve immediately once The Sons of the Pioneers start singing that graceful opening song and John Ford frames that magnificent opening shot. Enjoy.
Here's the fantasic opening: