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With: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood
Written by: Frank S. Nugent
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 119
Date: 03/13/1956

The Searchers (1956)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Lost and Found

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first saw The Searchers, which is widely considered to be the greatest Western ever made and one of the greatest films ever made, about 10 years ago, and wasn't impressed. I didn't have very much experience with Westerns, and even less experience with John Wayne. Now I've come to see Wayne as one of the cinema's great stars. I consider myself fairly well-versed in the Western genre now. So, I took another look at The Searchers on DVD and found I was only half wrong.

Although director John Ford was a visionary throughout his entire career, The Searchers marks a distinct departure and a milestone in his career. From his earliest talkies, like The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935), he earned the esteem of his peers and the critics. He then made many more highly regarded films: Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Wagon Master (1950). Those films are made in black and white with an artists' eye for pacing, space, and compositions. But the storytelling and characterizations are somewhat restrained and stiff (to varying degrees).

In 1952, Ford got to make a dream project, The Quiet Man, in lovely Technicolor. On that film, his storytelling became looser and more relaxed. Perhaps this realization of a dream, or maybe his age, (57) allowed Ford a more confident, less controlled outlook. That's when he made The Searchers.

In The Searchers, John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a soldier who returns to his brother's farm after the end of the Civil War. Soon after his return it becomes clear (to us) that he has always been in love with his brother's wife. But before anything much can happen savage Comanches attack and kidnap the family's two youngest daughters. Wayne and his brother's adopted son, Martin (who has a small percentage Indian blood), played by Jeffrey Hunter, hit the trail in search of the two daughters. And the search goes on for years, eventually for only one daughter (played as a teenager by Natalie Wood).

The Searchers is as beautifully photographed as most of Ford's other films, but the Widescreen and Technicolor make his usual location, Monument Valley, explode with weight and meaning. What really sets the film apart though is its dark tone, inherent in the screenplay by Frank S. Nugent (formerly a film critic for the New York Times). Ethan is a bitter and lonely man. Even before the story starts, we assume that he's spent a good deal of time obsessing over his lost love, and now he shifts that obsession to both a hatred of Indians and a yearning to find his niece (mostly the former, though). When he finds the body of a dead Comanche, he shoots its eyes out so that the Comanche's spirit will not be able to enter the spirit world. It becomes clear that when Lucy is found, if Ethan determines her to be too far gone (in other words, if she's had sex with Comanches) that he will kill her. Yet Ethan speaks Comanche and knows a good deal about the tribe.

Ethan's obsession is matched by the evil Comanche chief, Scar, who, the movie implies, is Ethan's equal in every way. At the beginning and the end of the film, we see Ethan framed in a doorway, showing darkness inside and brightness outside, implying that Ethan doesn't belong inside with the civilized folks. He belongs in a world of his own making--the same world as Scar's.

As far as the story and the storytelling goes, the film is entirely successful. Wayne gives an astonishing performance, boiling under the surface, laconic on top. His catchphrase is, "that'll be the day," whenever anyone suggests that anything bad may befall him. (Interestingly, Buddy Holly co-opted the phrase for his dark song, "That'll Be the Day (That I Die).")

Where The Searchers fails is in its sloppy use of music and childish attempts at humor. During one scene at a trading post, Martin finds himself married to a short, fat Indian woman who follows him and Ethan around, much to the delight of Ethan. She's relentlessly made fun of, and even abused as Martin kicks her down a hill after she lays down to sleep next to him. Other tense moments between Ethan and Martin are "lightened" up by silly blurts of music and stupid double-takes where a quick edit could have chopped the scene short and maintained the suspense. Hunter, as Martin, overplays just about every scene he's in. He makes you long for a Brad Pitt to fill the role and tone it down.

These things are almost forgivable, but the ending, in which Martin discovers Lucy in a Comanche teepee and she willingly jumps into his arms is ridiculous. "I'm taking you home," Martin says. "Yes," Lucy says, as if she were an android with no thoughts or feelings of her own. When I saw the film ten years ago, I felt cheated at that ending and I still do.

Still The Searchers gets so close to greatness you can almost smell it. It's easy to see why Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and many others have championed it.

Warner Home Video released a re-mastered DVD for the film's 50th anniversary. I will say right off that it's probably the finest DVD transfer I've ever seen. Not only is the film newly crisp and its colors newly bold, but also the Vistavision image actually appears deeper. The set comes with lots of extras, including a new commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Ford in the final years of his life, as well as featurettes (interviewing Martin Scorsese, John Milius and other devotees of the film) and reproductions of the original press book and comic book.

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