John Ford Feature #9 – The Searchers (1956)

SearchersPoster-BillGoldThe Searchers (1956)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Searchers by Alan Le May)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Harry Carey Jr.

John Ford is considered one of the great trailblazers in the early days of film, one who paved the way for early sound films to go on to become what they have today.  His influence is so indescribably far-reaching that his work still fascinates audiences, critics, and filmmakers and is continually studied by young and old alike.  The Searchers is perhaps considered to be his greatest film, and in a career full of truly remarkable films, that’s saying a great deal.  Though his 1956 classic earned no Oscar nominations that year, it is widely considered to be one of the greatest American pictures ever made, and has earned just about every retrospective accolade that historians can throw at it.  The Searchers is truly epic in its scope, taking place over a number of years and featuring terrific set pieces, breathtaking cinematography, and one of the most engaging performances ever given by a man who was once considered to be a bad actor.  Ford’s masterpiece would prove to be one of his final “traditional” westerns, and is considered to be the pinnacle of the director’s collaborations with actor John Wayne.  It wouldn’t be a great film without its fair share of controversies, and this film features them in spades.  The Searchers is most notable for its interpretation and examination of the racist attitudes towards Native Americans by early Americans.  Ford’s film depicts Native people as being ruthless and bloodthirsty, not because of any prejudice held against them by the filmmakers, but in order to justify the brutal actions of its main characters in the final act of the film.  Despite some of these dated and controversial themes and features, the film has more than endured the test of time and is even more poignant for its brutal examination of tough ideas and themes.  It has influenced and paid homage by great film directors like David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese.  The Searchers stars the great John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, who is considered to be one of the most compelling characters in a film of its time.  Also featured are Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards, Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley, Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgenson, and regular John Ford Stock Company regulars Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton and Harry Carey Jr. as Brad Jorgenson.  

searchers

Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in 1956’s The Searchers.

The Searchers begins with Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning home to his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family after an eight year wartime absence. It’s clear that Uncle Ethan has been missed, as his influence is immediately felt in the Edwards household as well as in the community. Edwards is soon visited by the Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and his band of Texas Rangers. Clayton and the Rangers report a herd of stolen cattle, and suspect Comanches in the area as the thieves.  Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) ride off with the Rangers to find the cattle, but instead find an obvious ploy to lure the men away from their homes.  They immediately turn around and head for the Edwards home, but it’s too late, as the home has been burnt to the ground, and Aaron, his wife, and their son have been brutally murdered by the Comanches.  No sign Ethan’s nieces Debbie (Lana Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott) can be found in the destroyed home, so the men ride off in search of the two young girls.  After an intense firefight with the Comanches, the Rangers are left with too few men to effectively fight the enemy combatants, and head home. Without the Rangers at their disposal, Ethan, his nephew Martin, and Lucy’s boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) are left to carry out the search.  After Ethan finds his niece Lucy brutally raped and murdered in a canyon clearing, an enraged Brad charges into the Comanche camp and is quickly killed.  After the two survivors lose the trail during the tough winter season they take refuge with the Jorgensen family, and Martin falls for their young daughter Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles).  Ethan and Martin are eventually tipped off as to Debbie’s whereabouts, and set off once again to find the last remaining Edwards child. Will Ethan and Martin be successful in their hunt for their young family member, or have they been chasing a ghost all along?  Find out for yourself in John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers.

There are few better feelings in the life than knowing that you’ve just finished watching one of the greatest films ever made, especially when it manages to live up to the tremendous amount of hype and acclaim it has built up over nearly sixty years.  John Ford’s The Searchers is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and has very easily become one of my all-time favorite films.  It’s presence alone has made December’s John Ford marathon more than worth the time and effort put into it.  There are so many highlights throughout the film that it’s difficult to single out my favorite elements.  The first thing I’ll address is the performance of Ethan Edwards by John Wayne, who is an incredibly complex and multifaceted character.  Edwards is very difficult to root for in The Searchers, between his need for brutal revenge, his apparent hatred of the Native American people, and his old world “take no prisoners” attitude towards all things in life.  Yet even without a protagonist to truly get behind and support, The Searchers makes you feel the immense pain felt deep inside of Ethan.  Wayne’s performance is unblinking and stiff in the best way possible, and is easily the greatest performance I’ve seen the old cowboy give to date.  The cast of supporting characters don’t stick around too long with the exception of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and the Jorgensen family, but every single performance is impressive in how they handle the gravity and seriousness of the situation at hand.  Hunter’s Pawley is the protagonist we yearn for in Ethan’s worst moments, and it is quite the experience to see the young man grow in front of our very eyes. John Ford’s direction of the films terrific action set pieces is remarkable, never opting to pull his camera away from the most important points of interest.  He handles the racism and moral ambiguity found throughout the film with a deft hand, keeping his camera motionless and letting the audience be the judge of Ethan Edwards’ actions.  The scene where Ethan Edwards and company discovers the burning remains of the Edwards home is one of the most heartbreaking moments ever captured on film, and clearly had a tremendous influence on a similarly moving scene in the Star Wars franchise.  Complementing the veteran director’s skillful camerawork is the photography by the Academy Award winning Winton Hoch.  Hoch once again shot the film in beautiful Technicolor, this time filming it entirely in VistaVision, one of the many film formats that would eventually lead to the modern day IMAX experience.  It’s a wonder how Hoch wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for The Searchers, but the Academy’s ignoring of the film as a whole is even more shocking.

the-searchers-original1

Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in 1956’s The Searchers.

Ford’s The Searchers holds up in a way many classic films simply can’t, from its unflinching analysis of historical racism that nearly led to a genocide in the United States, to its epic scope and beautiful photography.  Everything about the film still feels relevant and pressing, even sixty years after its release.  The Searchers features an incredible cast propped up by one of the most impressive performances of all time in John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, remarkable cinematography by the godfather of Technicolor, and impeccable direction by the great John Ford.  This is truly one of the greatest films ever made, and no amount of praise I can give it will ever be able to do it justice.  The Searchers earns my highest recommendation, and I implore that everybody reading gives it a chance.  You might just discover your new favorite film.

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