The Searchers Review

So many writers and directors have lavished praise on John Ford's 1956 Western The Searchers that I might as well cut to the chase straightaway. This film is a masterpiece, both of the Western genre and of American filmmaking in general and its legendary status is more than well deserved. Endlessly influential, made with confidence and style and packed with thoughtful, even profound observations about human beings, it is hard to see how it could possibly be any better. People who say it's overrated are just telling you about themselves; if anything, it's in danger of being underrated simply because it's less often seen than it used to be, now that interest in the Western seems to have declined.

The opening song asks the question, "What makes a man to wander", which is exactly the question that the film addresses. The chief wanderer is Ethan Edwards (Wayne), a decorated member of the Confederate Army. Three years of wandering have left him lonely and embittered, lost in the post-war Union that he fought against. Ethan turns up at his brother's house in Texas but is uncomfortable with domesticity and can't stop looking for something to fight against. He gives his war medal to Debbie, his neice, but refuses to hand his sabre to the authorities as it represents the five years of blood and tears that ended in defeat for the Confederates. A mass of anger, hate and confusion, Ethan is a ticking time bomb, and his fuse is lit when the family home is attacked by a Comanche war party. Ethan and his "quarterbreed" nephew Martin (Hunter)- one eight Cherokee - return home from a recee to find the house burnt to the ground and all but the two daughters horribly slaughtered. Lucy and Debbie, his nieces, have been captured by the Comanches, so Ethan swears that he will find them one way or another. Joined by Martin and Lucy's sweetheart Brad Jorgenson, Ethan begins a five year search for the girls; his intentions upon finding them are vague at first, but Martin slowly realises that Ethan considers the girls to be tainted by their time with the Indians, a taint which can only be removed with their deaths.

Within this simple but epic storyline, Ford and his favourite actor, John Wayne, create one of the great screen characters of all time. Ethan Edwards is far from your typical Western hero. He's a dark, ruthless anti-hero who would be just as much at home in film noir Los Angeles as in the open plains of Monument Valley. Dripping dogma like a leaking faucet - "I don't believe in surrenders", "I figure a man's only good for one oath at a time, I took mine to the Confederate Army" and the rather meaningless and yet profound oft-repeated "That'll be the day" - Ethan lives in a protective bubble of self-righteousness that becomes genuinely frightening as the film goes on - frightening in its certainty and single-mindedness but also because he is a mirror in which we see reflected all our own inadequacies and irrational hatreds. He's not really a sympathetic character, but he is a recognisable one. What makes him more than simply a racist monster is his burning self-disgust and his evident knowledge of his enemy - finding a Comanche buried under a rock, he shoots out the eyes and explains that without eyes, an Indian cannot enter the spirit world and must spend eternity "walking between the winds". Ironic of course, because Ethan is doing exactly that. Walking between the winds is his fate, one from which he cannot be rescued (when Martin expresses a hope that he will die soon, Ethan replies with his mantra "That'll be the day") - but he can find a measure of redemption in the discovery of his own compassion. What we have here is a classic example of John Ford's obsession with history as a force from which no-one can escape. Ethan is the sum of both his own history and that of his country, and the force of history cannot be denied. Instead of fighting this, however, he wallows in it, a mixture of self-pity and hatred of his own weaknesses and those of other people. In the moment of crisis, he challenges this irrevocable tide of history and performs an act of selfless compassion, going against all his instincts. But, in the end, he is a lost soul whose destiny is loneliness and isolation, and the opening shot of a door opening to welcome Ethan is mirrored by the famous final shot of it closing to shut him out.

Incidentally, some people have wondered about the influence of The Searchers on more recent movies. Well, the most famous example is Taxi Driver. Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle is a solitary loner who, like Ethan Edwards, becomes obsessed with a quest in which a compassionate motive is entwined with disgust for "impurity" and a desperate grab for some kind of redemption. But Travis is no more capable of being redeemed than Ethan and both men end the film still looking for something that they can't quite define and will probably never find. The Searchers is one of Scorsese's five favourite films. Another, more prosaic influence, is on Star Wars, a film which steals the powerful scene where Martin and Ethan return to find the burnt-out wreckage of the family home.

John Ford's direction is supremely confident here and considerably more restrained than in some of his other films of the period. Just look at the sweeping camera pans which bring out the best in Monument Valley, Ford's favourite location, and the elegant framing of some of the most gorgeous images in cinema history. There is, thankfully, less of the broad comedy which slows down earlier works and what there is doesn't intrude too much into the otherwise grim atmosphere. The Indian tracker Mose Harper is an interesting example of this; he is introduced as a comic character but then, rather in the manner of Graham Greene's comic figues, gets in the firing line and becomes ironically heroic. His dream of a "rocking chair by the fire" is echoed in the sentiments of Western heroes throughout the history of the genre, but it's interesting to see it come from a peripheral character, and a "half-breed" at that. On the other hand, the fist fight between Martin and the post-boy Charlie for the hand of his sweetheart Laurie (Miles) is just silly, slowing down the last third of the movie and diluting some of the suspense. However, Laurie is an attractively tough character, somewhat similar to the Hawksian heroines of the period, and Vera Miles plays her with a nice edge of bitterness. The other women in the film don't come out as well, sadly. Natalie Wood, as the fourteen year old Debbie, is as bland as she was in virtually every other film she ever made, and good perfomers such as Olive Carey as Mrs Jorgenson don't really have much to do apart from look strong and defiant. The men fare a little better. Ward Bond is a constant delight as Revd.Captain Samuel Johnson - what an undervalued actor he was - and I liked John Qualen's fussy Mr Jorgenson, obsessed with the injustices of the New World. Jeffrey Hunter is more problematic. He's not exactly bad as such - this is probably his best screen performance - but he's so damned dull it's hard to care about his feelings for Laurie and Debbie. He's also unfortunate in that most of his scenes are shared with John Wayne. Wayne is simply extraordinary here. It's not really his acting, good as it is, it's his presence which leaves an indelible mark on the film. The ghosts of his past performances haunt this one, as if Ethan Edwards is the dark half of the Ringo Kid and Nathan Brittles. It's impossible to imagine any other actor in this part; it's Wayne's Stanley Kowalski, his Norman Bates, and the role which establishes once and for all that the big guy could act, and act bloody well.

Everything about this film comes together, somewhat surprisingly since the elements have been tried and tested in many other films. It's closest antecedents are the Anthony Mann westerns with James Stewart (a match of actor and director to equal Wayne and Ford) and, of course, Howard Hawks's brilliant Red River. The rich darkness of Ford's vision reached its apotheosis here; his later films are mostly footnotes to this one with the honourable exception of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a review of which is on the way. Whether you care about Westerns, 20th Century culture or American cinema in general, you have to see The Searchers.

The Disc

Right, since most people agree that The Searchers is a classic film, surely there can be no doubt that Warners have treated us to a super special de-luxe edition. Sadly, Warners obviously didn't feel the same way as they have given this film an average DVD release. Decent transfer and a few extras, but nothing to write home about.

The film is presented in both 4:3 and anamorphic 1.85:1 on flip sides of the disc. My comments on picture apply to the 1.85:1 version.

The picture quality is generally adequate and very good in some respects. The most impressive aspect is the richness of the colours. They are stunning, especially in the more painterly scenes such as the interior of the house before the Indian raid, bathed in the dark blue of dusk. However, there is sometimes a distracting softness to the image, especially in the interiors during the first part of the film, This improves as the film goes on and becomes less apparent during the second hour. Detail is sometimes lacking however. There is a small amount of grain throughout and some artifacting. Overall this is quite a good transfer although disappointing compared to the brilliant work done by Warners on the North by Northwest and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof discs.

The soundtrack is the original mono recording and is quite satisfactory. Nothing particularly impressive about it, but it does the job and keeps the dialogue clear. Some of the music comes across very nicely, especially the opening song.

There are a few extras on the disc. The theatrical trailer is present and correct. More interestingly, there are four short films on the making of the film, intended to be transmitted on TV around the time the film opened in America. These are presented by an unusually sober Gig Young and are unintentionally hilarious. There are "interviews" with Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood, neither of which elicit anything approaching interesting information, and some behind the scenes footage of Ford filming in Utah. These are priceless bits of Americana and have to be seen to be believed. They are all sponsored incidentally, most amusingly by L&M cigarettes. This commercial is almost worth the price of the disc on its own actually - "L&M, mmmmm. So good to your teeth".

There are static but easily navigable menus and a surprisingly generous 44 chapter stops.

This is a classic film, essential viewing in fact, but the DVD is a missed opportunity in most respects. The quality of the movie makes it worth buying, but a special edition would be a real must-have DVD.

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