Warner Bros. // 1956 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // April 11th, 2000
He had to find her...he had to find her...
The Searchers is a true American masterpiece of filmmaking, and perhaps the best film of director John Ford (The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande). The film is number 96 of the AFI's top 100 films of all time. However, at the time, this sophisticated film was unrecognized by critics and did not receive a single Academy Award nomination. The film's screenplay was adapted by Frank S. Nugent (Ford's son-in-law, who collaborated with him in 11 films) from Alan LeMay's 1954 novel of the same name. Film directors such as Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, and George Lucas trace their fascination with film to this John Ford film; in appreciation of this cinematic milestone, they reflected his work in some of their own films such as Taxi Driver. Arguably John Wayne's finest role, it reaches far past the typical western setting and is a tale of self-discovery, while also exploring the theme of racial prejudice. It is also an exciting adventure and a story of a quest that must be fulfilled. While it is not my favorite of the genre, it is considered by many to be the finest Western of all time. Warner Brothers delivers a surprisingly good disc of this classic film considering it came from their budget line of under $20 retail priced releases, and is available for much less. A very good anamorphic transfer, along with the pan-and-scan version, and a decent collection of extras make this disc an extremely high value for your movie buying dollar.
The plot itself wouldn't qualify on its own as such a profound film. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, who fought for the Confederacy, being a Texan and all. He still has an intense dislike for Yankees and it is implied that he was a criminal after the war, as he arrives back at his brother's ranch with quite a bit of newly minted coin without explanation of how it was obtained. He appears to be an embittered man, and a lonely one, who doesn't feel at home even with his family and children who idolize him. The family consists of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy), his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), their children Ben (Robert Lyden), Lucy (Pippa Scott) and young Debbie (Lana Wood, Natalie Wood's sister). In addition, the Edwards adopted Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, Seven Angry Men, The Longest Day, Star Trek's "The Cage"), a one-eighth Cherokee orphan saved years earlier by Ethan from an Indian slaughter. A prejudiced Indian hater, Ethan doesn't acknowledge him as a true relative but as a mixed-blooded, adopted nephew that he won't allow to call him "Uncle." Ethan treats him in an intolerant, harsh and insulting manner because of his Indian blood: "I could mistake you for a half-breed."
During Ethan's stay with the family, a group of Comanches attacks the Edwards ranch, killing the family members who were home, except Aaron's two daughters who are kidnapped. Here the story really begins: from this point, the film follows Ethan, Martin, and several other men, including Lucy's boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr., Rio Bravo, Mister Roberts), the Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond, The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts), and a group of Texas Rangers, as they set out to find the kidnapped girls. As the search stretches from weeks to months and finally years, most of the men abandon the cause -- except for Ethan and Martin. Along the way they learn that a chief named Scar (played by decidedly Caucasian Henry Brandon) was responsible for the raid, though they find out only Debbie has survived early on. Ethan pushes on relentlessly following their trail, aiming to kill Debbie and her captor, Chief Scar, for violating her; declaring that once Comanches capture a white girl, she is no longer white. Despite Ethan's protests that he wants to continue the search alone, Martin tags along with him for years, because Martin knows that he will have to protect Debbie from Ethan if she is ever found. Therefore, although partners, Ethan and Martin are destined to become enemies once the search is finished.
Most of John Wayne's best work has come when he plays a darker sort of character than the typical western hero. First in Red River and later in a few other films such as this one he plays a character that isn't quite categorical as either good or evil; or perhaps both depending on the situation. Wayne's Ethan is a man who is heroic but filled with bitterness. He is a rugged individualist, who loves his kin but hates even more passionately. His racial prejudice isn't pretty. His hatred for the Indians is so deep that when he finds a dead Comanche warrior, he shoots out the corpse's eyes because Indians believe that without their vision in the spirit world they must wander eternally. Later during a shoot-out between Indians and Texas Rangers, Ethan continues firing into their backs as they retreat, despite protests from the other men. Lastly, although he hates them, Ethan is not above adopting the more brutal Indian techniques like scalping -- his lust for vengeance is boundless. Paradoxically, Ethan's generosity to the children is shown by the gifts he gives them in the beginning; a saber for Ben and his war medal to Debbie, so that she can have something to wear around her neck just like the gold pendant he gave to Lucy when she was younger.
Despite the overall dark nature of the film, it is not without humor. Perhaps the most funny scene is when Pawley's imperfect knowledge of the Indian languages results in his accidental purchase of a rather large squaw for a wife. The antics of the elderly Mose Harper (Hank Worden), who aids in the search in exchange for a rocking chair, are also funny, as are the scenes of the romance between Pawley and the Jorgensen sister played by Vera Miles (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Hellfighters, Twilight's Last Gleaming). Pawley's long absence during the search, along with word of his new "wife," makes for some fun moments.
Ford's direction was superb. Although the film has a great deal of violence, much of it takes place off screen. For the attack on the Edwards ranch that sparks the rest of the tale, you don't actually see it. Instead you are subjected to the suspense leading up to the attack; a group of birds becoming spooked, small noises around the house, and strange shadows that create a palpable sense of violence in the air. When Ethan and Martin arrive to find the house in flames, it isn't hard to imagine the battle. An even more powerful example of off-screen storytelling is used for the discovery of Lucy's death.
The picture was beautifully shot in Utah's Monument Valley in Technicolor and Vistavision. The sprawling desert colors are rendered in such as way as to capture the magnificence and ruggedness of the Old West. Winston C. Hoch's cinematography works hand-in-glove with the sweeping epic story that creates an emotionally complicated experience. The Searchers endures many of the tests of time to remain a landmark moment in cinematic history.
I am somewhat surprised by the disc. This film is certainly one of Warner's standout catalog titles yet was relegated to the budget line. But conversely the studio didn't go for the barebones disc usually found in their budget series. First off, the disc has both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and pan-and-scan versions on the two sided disc. The anamorphic transfer has only a few problems, none of which I'd call serious. The colors are faithfully rendered and the beautiful Technicolor comes through in spades. There are some nicks and blips from the film stock, but not nearly as many as I've seen in other, even more recent releases. Overall it's pretty clean considering the film is 44 years old. There is a bit of grain here and there as well, but only in a few long shots of the landscape. Contrast is great, even in the few dark scenes, with one exception: in one scene the contrast and brightness shifts back and forth, but only for a few moments. My opinion is the few mistakes are overwhelmed by the overall great picture, despite the fact that Warner used the same master as the laserdisc.
The sound is nothing to write home about, but is adequate mono. Even music doesn't come off harsh, and dialogue is always clear and understood. The only real detraction is that the center channel is the only one getting any use.
It was in the extras department I was truly surprised, however. Usually with the budget line all you get are production notes and scant cast and crew info. Both are much more comprehensive and interesting than the usual with this disc, and there's more. Besides the original trailer there are four short documentaries done at the time of the making of the film. Side A has the first two, and the other two are on the flip side. They go into finding the location, turning a desert outpost into a thriving town with its own water supply. The casting of the Navajo Indians of the area for the film and costuming are covered in another. Behind the scenes look at the shooting of the many riding and fighting scenes take up another, and the lovely Natalie Wood, who plays the older Debbie explains her part and the film in the last. These features are in black and white, and done for television promotion at the time. I was very impressed with them, despite its marketing emphasis.
The biggest problem with the film is from looking at it in retrospect. This film has a number of stereotypes, particularly about Native Americans. The portrayal of the Indians as bloodthirsty savages was only partially offset by the sometimes poor behavior of the whites also covered. While true Indians were used for all the smaller parts, time had not yet gotten to the point where films used them for leading roles. The obviously white and made-up Chief Scar hurt the otherwise authentic feel. This is not an enlightened film with regard to race. Other aspects sometimes come off dated as well.
This is not an ordinary Western. This is undoubtedly a masterpiece of American cinema, one that many of the critics of the time couldn't see. It captured complex emotion and moral issues, and combined with the anti-hero motif led the way to such films as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.
As I said, it isn't my favorite western. I prefer a more uplifting and fun film such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Silverado, but this one remains high in my esteem. The disc has more than enough extras and a very nice transfer; making it worth far more than the online price of $14. Western fans should buy this one without a second thought.
John Ford and John Wayne are gone now but remain icons of American filmmaking, and nothing I've said here changes that. All are acquitted. Warner is given a surprising commendation for quality considering I'm covering one of their budget discs. Case dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Info