Monday, January 14, 2013

Movie – The Searchers (1956)

I’ve never really been one to declare “Best Movie Ever” kinds of films, whether overall or in genres.  This is partially from having seen so many good movies I really don’t want to have to pick a best among them, and partially because my opinion would vary depending on when I was asked to name one.  The Searchers is certainly a movie that many people have named the best film ever made in the Western genre.  I will say that there have certainly been times where I would agree with that.  What I can state is that I consider this film to contain the best film performance I’ve seen from its star John Wayne.

Wayne is one of those matinee idols who people would go to movies to see play himself, rather than to see the characters he would play.  The attitude was more “There’s John Wayne as a cowboy; there’s John Wayne as a Green Beret; there’s John Wayne as an aging sheriff.”  Arnold Schwarzenegger is a more modern example.  What makes Wayne’s performance in The Searchers so good is that he is able to overcome most of that ingrained reaction to seeing him onscreen.  He actually loses himself in the role of the racist man obsessed with revenge on the Indians who killed most of his family and kidnapped the rest.

I also consider this to be John Ford’s best film.  Ford followed his older brother Francis from Maine to Hollywood.  By 1917 Ford had joined his brother as a director of silent films.  It was when talkies came along that Ford really started to hit his stride.  Even though he directed the very popular Will Rogers in 1934’s Judge Priest, and won a Best Directing Oscar for 1935’s The Informer, it was 1939 that proved to be a breakout year for him.  He and John Wayne worked together for the first time on Stagecoach – the film that made Wayne a star and that also featured Ford’s first use of Monument Valley as a location for shooting.  In addition in 1939, Ford also directed Henry Fonda in both Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk – two more classics from the greatest year ever for films.  By the mid 1950s when Ford made The Searchers, once again with John Wayne in Monument Valley, he was a four time Oscar winner who was ready to make a “career capping” film.

The movie, based on the Alan Le May novel of the same name, opens with Ethan Edwards (Wayne) riding into his brother Aaron’s ranch.  While Aaron is not completely happy to see Ethan, his wife and children are.  In fact, his wife and Ethan are obviously in love with each other, and a more modern look at the film would make a viewer wonder if Aaron’s children are actually at least partially Ethan’s, especially in regards to Ethan’s reactions to later events regarding the daughters.

Also living at Aaron’s ranch is Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), a mixed race (white and Indian) man who Aaron raised after he was abandoned.  Ethan, a virulent racist against Indians ever since his mother was killed by them, is very unhappy with Marty being there.  He soon gets a newer reason to hate Indians when he and Marty are lured away from the ranch by an Indian attack elsewhere because when they return they find Aaron, his wife, and a son all killed and their two daughters kidnapped.

Ethan’s anger reaches towering proportions.  He sets out to recover the girls and wreak his vengeance on the Indians who did this.  The Texas Rangers help him initially and Marty also accompanies them.  Showing the depths of his rage Ethan shoots out the eyes of an Indian corpse he finds because his tribe believes that means he will not be able to find his way to the afterlife.  After an Indian attack on the Rangers most of them regroup while Ethan, Marty, and a man named Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) continue the pursuit.

Brad is in love with the older daughter (Pippa Scott) that was kidnapped.  He still has hopes of saving her, but Ethan lets him know that he found the girl’s defiled corpse (perhaps a reaction to Ethan’s actions with the Indian corpse).  In a blind rage Brad charges into the Indian encampment and is killed.  The Indians get away and Ethan and Marty, hopelessly outnumbered, return to the ranch.

The youngest girl, Debbie, is still presumably alive.  Ethan and Marty head out once again to track down the Indians, Marty leaving behind a woman he loves (Vera Miles) to do so.  Ethan’s obsession drives him on over the months and even years that follow.  He and Marty track the killers out of Texas into Colorado and eventually to the New Mexico territory.  Along the way they continue to hear stories about Debbie, how she has become part of the tribe, and how she may even have been made a wife of one of the men.  We become aware of the fact that Ethan’s rescue mission at some point along the way changed in purpose.  His hatred of the Indians is so great that he now sees Debbie as defiled by them and that the best thing he can do for her is to kill her along with the rest of them.

They finally catch up to the tribe again and find the now-teenage Debbie (Natalie Wood).  Just as Ethan feared, she considers herself part of the tribe.  Ethan tries to kills her, but Marty manages to stop him and Debbie gets away.  This is far from being over, though, especially as far as Ethan is concerned.  By the way, the young version of Debbie seen at the beginning of the film was played by Natalie’s younger sister Lana Wood, who would go on to be best known for playing Plenty O’Toole in the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.

The Searchers shows just what John Wayne could do when he got to play a more complex character than usual.  As intimidating as he could be onscreen as a good guy, he was practically a force of nature as a man consumed by hatred and revenge.  And the final image of him silhouetted in a doorframe is one of the most famous shots in film.  Unless you absolutely hate westerns I highly recommend this movie.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. It's interesting to look at Ford's career (and Wayne's too) and how they changed in how Indians are portrayed. Almost like they regretted earlier portrayals, but couldn't admit it outright.

    Chip, you ever heard of Letterboxd? I can send you an invite if you're interested. I've only got two invites left. Here's my profile:

    1. Good point on the movies. In fact, Ford's last western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), features a sympathetic portrayal of Indians and the crap they took from the government in the 1800s.

      I've looked into Letterboxd a few times, but each time it said they were still in Beta and I needed to ask someone for a code to join as a beta tester. I had figured I would wait until they felt they were production-ready. It's been well over a year since I first encountered it, though, and it still says they are in Beta, so it appears to be more of a marketing tactic to make it seem exclusive rather than they are still working out the kinks.

      If you have an invite left, I would appreciate receiving it. You can send it to If you can't email it and it has to be via Facebook then I'm afraid I do not have an account with them and you should send the invite to someone else. Thanks.

  2. I really like this film a lot. People who say that John Wayne only ever played John Wayne have never seen this film. He acts with a great deal of subtlety in this one. Ethan is a difficult character because he is so obviously flawed, and yet so obviously the person we are to sympathize with, at least in part. Your saying that it's evidence of what Wayne could do is dead on.

    It's not my favorite Ford (that's probably Mister Roberts or the now-forgotten They Were Expendable), but it's one of my favorite two or three Westerns.

    1. I saw Mr. Roberts maybe 30-35 years ago. I remember the basics (marbles, conflict with higher up, letter at end, etc.) but that's about it. I've never seen They Were Expendable.

  3. This is a film that exemplifies why I'm rewatching movies from the book. First time around, I saw it and then moved on. But I feel like there's a lot more there. I know that I need to watch it again to fully comment on it. So your review is just providing more motivation for me to do that. Damn my list of movies to watch is TOO LONG!!

    1. "Damn my list of movies to watch is TOO LONG!!"

      I know what you mean. My Netflix DVD queue is around 120 and my Instant queue is just under 200 (both mixes of regular and 1,001 movies). And this doesn't count the 100 or so films from the 1,001 and Oscars lists I've tracked down via other means and have available to me to be watched.

      Personally, I'd still be working more on the films you hadn't seen, rather than going back to re-watch ones you have (other than the weekly ones for the blog club.) I know you hit a bunch in the 80s that you didn't care for that much, but there really have been a number of good ones post-1980 that you haven't seen yet. The Lives of Others is a perfect example.