The Searchers (1956)
Director: John Ford
Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles
Plot: As a Civil War veteran spends years searching for a young niece captured by Indians, his motivation becomes increasingly questionable.
Genre: Adventure / Drama / Western
Rating: PG for some violence.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“That’ll be the day!”
John Ford’s evergreen Western is one of the most visually stunning pictures in his oeuvre. A landmark of its genre, with some critics declaring that it is Ford’s finest work, The Searchers continues to raise the bar with some of the most unforgettable scenes of the vast, desolate land of the American West, in particular the iconic Monument Valley.
Bookended by shots of a doorway (which inspired the last shot of The Godfather (1972) and many other films), Ford’s work suggests a gateway into the past, a portal opened if only a couple of hours, only to be closed for no reason other than to preserve its sanctity and inviolability.
The American West, so imbued with a sense of mystique and machismo, is best encapsulated by Ford’s bravura direction and star John Wayne’s muscular presence. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who finds himself on a personal vendetta to rescue his niece from an Indian tribe.
Ethan is accompanied by an assortment of strange characters, all rendered dispensable in his eyes. He is a man of conviction, a survivor of the harsh wilderness, but inherently racist, a flaw that threatens to obliterate those before him. He is, if nothing else, the archetypal reluctant American hero of the Old West.
The Searchers’ seemingly discriminatory stance remains controversial, perhaps more so in this day and age when such outright condemnation and hatred toward the Indians would provoke disgust. Wayne’s performance is superb, carrying much of the film with his sharp wit and snarky attitude. His character is racist but likable, a tension that fortunately proves reconcilable under Ford’s sleight of hand.
He is not all masterful though, and in what I feel is the film’s glaring weakness – a lengthy sequence involving the reading of a letter by a woman who would provide romantic intrigue, accompanied by scenes of what transpired in the letter – The Searchers starts to lose pace and struggles to sustain.
This narrative structural flaw, if you will, is something that has bugged me no matter how many times I have seen the film. In this vein, I find myself admiring Ford’s work for what it is, but short of proclaiming it a masterpiece. For what it is, The Searchers remains to be a testament of Ford’s skill in directing action and suspense. Cue the first major action sequence when Ethan’s small army on horses is flanked on both sides by Indians who smell blood.
If you are new to John Ford and the Western genre, this is an excellent introductory work. And then you will come to find that the legendary four-time Oscar winning director has made some of the most outstanding pictures of our time.
Verdict: A John Ford-John Wayne classic with sharp humour, spectacular action and memorable characters, but not Ford’s best work.
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