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The Searchers

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Searchers

Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter
Director: John Ford
Rated: NR
RunTime: 119 Minutes
Release Date: March 1956
Genres: Action, Drama, Western, Classic

*Also starring: Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Henry Brandon, Hank Worden, Lana Wood, Dorothy Jordan, Patrick Wayne

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Dragan Antulov review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
2.  Brian Koller read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Dragan Antulov
3½ stars out of 4

First time I heard about THE SEARCHERS, 1956 western by John Ford, it was mentioned as the best film of all times. At the time, I was rather sceptical towards all those critics pronouncing the best films of all times and I had to wait few more years before I understood the real importance of THE SEARCHERS. Soon after I had watched BANOVIC STRAHINJA, 1981 medieval drama shot in former Yugoslavia, I read few articles that claimed that the story had been obviously inspired by Ford's film. The story was actually inspired by 15th Century Serbian epic poem, and since it is rather hard to imagine John Ford taking such an exotic and obscure inspiration for his westerns, another conclusion must be drawn. The story of THE SEARCHERS probably has a lot of resemblance with many similar stories, myths and legends told in different centuries on different continents - it is one of those rare films that actually looks like a part of universal collective unconscious. That is the reason why this film is so important, and why it is considered to be one of the best films by John Ford, but also one of the best films made in this century.

The story begins in Texas in 1868. Three years after the end of Civil War, Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne), former Confederate soldier is now wandering through the wastelands of Texas. Brief visit to his brother Aaron (played by Walter Coy) is interrupted when the group of Texas Rangers, led by Reverend/Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (played by Ward Bond), comes to recruit volunteers in order to pursue group of cattle thieves. Ethan joins the party, together with Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter), Aaron's part-Cherokee adopted son, and they follow the trail until they find the cattle slaughtered. They soon realise that the cattle was stolen by a Comanche war party led by Chief Scar (played by Henry Brandon), only to lure the men out of their farms and leave their families unprotected. Rangers rush back but it is too late for Aaron's family, which is savagely massacred, with sole surviving little girl Debbie (played by Lana Wood) taken captive. Ethan and Martin are going after Comanches in order to rescue little Debbie and take revenge. But the Chief Scar and his band prove elusive, and two men spend years roaming the West in fruitless search. Younger Martin is actually ready to quit, settle down and marry his sweetheart Laurie Jorgensen (played by Vera Miles). The only thing that prevents him is Ethan and his ever growing hatred towards Comanches, hatred that might even lead to killing Debbie, now probably turned into Indian squaw after all those years outside Western civilisation.

Great popularity enjoyed by THE SEARCHERS among the critics and film scholars could be explained with the fact that Ford's movie explores some great philosophical questions - human identity, eternal struggle between irrational and rational tendencies within human beings. And such questions don't appear in some hermetic "artsy" movie, they are asked in a movie that belongs to the genre of rather crowd-pleasing western. All this is wrapped nicely in the script by Frank S. Nugent, based on a 1954 novel by Alan Le May. On the other hand, splendid colour photography by Winton C. Hoch and beautiful landscapes of Monument Valley locations shouldn't fool anyone - THE SEARCHERS is very serious and dark film, one of the darkest films of its time. It shows Old West as visually magnificent, but very dark and unpleasant place to live, always ready to awaken darkest and most irrational tendencies among human beings - material greed, sexual depravity and homicidal rage.

Dark overtones of the films are best embodied by its protagonist. Legendary John Wayne gives another great and memorable performance as typical hero of American West - tough, hardened Westerner, one among those who turned savage backwater of the world in the world's greatest superpower. But, in the same time, Wayne reveals the hidden, often forgotten other side of coin; his Ethan is tough Westerner who fought the wilderness in order to civilisation, but in the process he also became part of that wilderness. The real test for every actor is play the convincing villain, and Wayne passes that test with flying colours, because his Ethan, although being nominal protagonist, also happens to be the villain. His past is murky, he fought to preserve the slavery, it is suggested that he robbed banks and probably committed other crimes in order to earn the living. But the most disturbing element of his character is racism, first hinted in his mistreatment of his half-breed companion Martin, than finally revealed in his acts of mindless, pathological violence. Wayne should be really praised because he managed to portray that unsympathetic character with subtlety.

Ford also should be praised, because THE SEARCHERS was a film that faced America with some thorny issues. One of those issues was the real cause of racism among white people. THE SEARCHERS, rather explicitly for its time, confronts viewers with the ultimate nightmare for any racist, open or closet - interracial sex, or, to be precise, "violation" of white women by non-white men. Ethan is clearly less disturbed by the fact that his family was massacred by Indians than with the fact that the women were raped in the process. His intent to kill Debbie becomes evident in a moment when he realises that she is grown enough to be regularly taken advantage of as Indian squaw. Ford also shows a hypocritical nature of such racists - when white men have sexual liaisons with non-white women (as hinted in semi-humouros episode with Martin's "wife") Ethan is joking; when there is other way around, he becomes homicidal maniac.

After showing such racist attitudes, that were the dark side of glorious American past, Ford also explicitly shows its aftermath. Indians are portrayed as vicious killers, but they are also portrayed as victims too. Glorious, mythical 7th Cavalry Regiment shows its true nature by indiscriminately killing Indian women and children. Scar's murderous rampage is also motivated with the revenge towards white people who had killed his sons. In the end, both men - Ethan and Scar - almost look like reflections of each other.

THE SEARCHERS is very good film, one of the best made in its time, but the author of this review has some reservations towards using the word "masterpiece". Film is rich with details that could be discovered only with multiple viewings, but those multiple viewings also reveal many of the film's flaws. For example, use of comedic subplots and characters, like eccentric Indian hunter Mose Harper (played by excellent Hank Worden) sometimes does give a flavour of realism and authenticity to this dark and depressing story, but very often that could turn into grotesque, like the presence of singing cowboy Ken Curtis playing Laurie's "civilised" suitor, and the wedding scene is rather farcing. The end is rather disappointing, with rather unexplained Ethan's transformation from homicidal maniac into kind and forgiving family man; that was probably made in order to give this film a required happy ending.

In the end, THE SEARCHERS is film that belongs to the category of so-called `important" movies - those which are remembered less by their own merit, and more by the way they influenced future film- makers. On the other hand, due to the climate of "political correctness" it is unlikely that today's Hollywood would dare to tarnish such important legacy with a remake. This would probably represent the good things for all those film-lovers who would like to be introduced to that exceptional piece of classic cinema.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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