Friday, October 7, 2011

The Searchers (1956)

An Exceptional Western

- Weathered westerner Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) has returned to his brother's home after fighting in the Civil War and wandering the frontier for the last few years. But just as Ethan's life begins to cool down, some Comanche Indians raid his brother's house, kidnapping Ethan's niece and killing the rest. Now Ethan and his nephew Martin Pawley (who also happens to be 1/8 Native American - played by Jeffrey Hunter) begin to search for their kidnapped kin; and as time goes by, Ethan becomes more and more hateful - and untrustworthy.

1956's The Searchers is a great western; a must-see film simply for director John Ford's visuals and star John Wayne's performance.

John Ford's name is synonymous with the western genre and The Searchers is an essential piece to Ford's legacy. Taking advantage of the incredible American setting of Monument Valley, Ford creates a beautiful but imposing American frontier setting. Ford (with some considerable help from cinematographer Winton C. Hoch) forms one unforgettable shot after another and captures the truly amazing scenery absolutely perfectly. The Searchers proves to be an absolutely stunning looking film within the the film's first 60 seconds, grabbing the viewer with powerful imagery.

The visual aspects of The Searchers are astonishing but Ford also gets high marks for the way that he depicts the Native Americans in the film. Occasionally falling into some naive 1950s ideological trappings, the film portrays the Native Americans quite fairly (especially for its time). Rather than simply (and falsely, might I add) portraying Native Americans as rowdy savages, The Searchers shows the Native Americans as a struggling people just trying to get by and live in peace - while also being quite candid about the genocide committed by the US Army during the post-Civil War years. Some of the Native Americans in the film are evil but most are virtuous – just like the white Americans in the film.

One of the many John Ford/John Wayne collaborations, The Searchers sees Wayne give his finest screen performance. Wayne often times just plays John Wayne in a different film situation (for example: in 1960's The Alamo, John Wayne plays John Wayne in a coonskin cap) but he gives an excellent performance here in The Searchers as Ethan Edwards. Wayne exercises the same classic screen presence that he is known for, but his character has a dark side that we do not always see in a John Wayne character.

Ethan is a complex individual that is very much removed from Wayne's own personality: a more than capable frontier veteran but an obsessive, cynical outsider who, while often motivated by good intentions, exercises some cruel thoughts and actions as a result of his bigotry, anger and confliction. Ethan Edwards is not the typical western hero – in fact, Ethan is not much of a hero at all. An exceedingly complex loner, Ethan is neck-deep in confliction with two facets of his personality constantly battling one another: his barbarism and his humanity. His human tenderness fuels his love for his family but his savage barbarism drives an intense hatred of Native American people, which has lead him to cruel intentions and actions when his family and the Comanche become one and he same. Every event in the film builds to a sharp point, the moment where Ethan must make a decision about which side of his psyche he will follow - or he, at least, must form a balance between the two. As rightfully renowned as the film's visuals and themes are, Wayne's portrayal of the interesting Ethan Edwards character is what really makes the film powerful.

The rest of the film's performances do not quite measure up to Wayne's iconic turn. If there is a flaw in the film, it would surely be some of the supporting performances; for example, Hank Worden is nearly unwatchable as the slow county idiot Mose. However, other supporters do a fine job. Jeffrey Hunter's performance as Martin Pawley is quite good; a bit over-the-top sometimes but he is generally effectively colorful and one of the more likable and relatable characters in the film. John Ford regular Ward Bond also does a good job as the moral and amusing Reverend/Captain Samuel Clayton and Vera Miles is very endearing and also funny as Martin's love interest Laurie Jorgensen.

The Searchers has been an incredibly influential film (David Lean, for example, apparently continuously watched and looked to the film for inspiration when filming Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)) and is considered by many to be the best western film ever made. Powerful, funny, entertaining and poignant, The Searchers is one of those films that is hard to forget after the first viewing and continues to grow on the viewer after each subsequent viewing. After viewing the film and experiencing firsthand Ford's featured visual command of the American West and John Wayne's unforgettable performance of Ethan Edwards, all questions are answered as to why The Searchers is held in such high esteem.

CBC Rating: 10/10

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