Warner Bros. // 1956 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // October 11th, 2007
The story that sweeps from the great Southwest to the Canadian border in VistaVision.
There's an undeniable importance to our cinematic history in that it serves as the record of attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. Not only does our great library of film capture and convey the mindset of writers and filmmakers but it also provides evidence of audience sensibilities at any given point of a production's release. This is why it's confounding to witness the swirling commotion raised at Director John Ford's 1956 classic, The Searchers now that it has been released in the high-definition format -- this particular disc being of the Blu-ray variety. While it's wonderful to see such classics being acknowledged by way of a high-def delivery, it's confounding to sit by and watch others who are overtly afflicted with present-day political correctness raise cries of outrage over this "cowboys and Indians" drama.
We cannot change history; we can only hope to learn from it. But if we do succeed in changing or otherwise suppressing the record of our history, then we are doomed to repeat our less glorious moments.
So all this flap is about The Searchers, in which the weathered and somewhat crusted John Wayne portrays Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, a man driven to singular-minded vengeance after his family is murdered and two nieces are kidnapped by a tribe of vicious Comanche Indians. Edwards, his brother Aaron (Walter Coy), adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), his daughter's boyfriend Brad (Harrey Carey, Jr.), and a group of Texas Rangers set off to find the kidnapped girls (Pippa Scott and Natalie Wood) in a quest that extends from weeks to months to years. The unyielding search further ingrains an absolute hatred within Edwards for all "redskins." While only Edwards and Martin persevere in the hunt for the girls, it becomes apparent that the two men will ultimately confront one another when stark racial hatred will need to be quelled by basic human decency.
Without a doubt, The Searchers provides us with a setting that challenges our sterilized sensibilities in regards to racial differences being displayed on a big screen. There's no question that you'll cringe out the anti-Indian vitriol spewed by Wayne's Edwards but, along the way, Director Ford harnesses the rage to provide a deeper look into a troubled and isolated man. Wayne isn't given a free pass to simply stomp around in mock cowboy heroics and is pressed to provide reason behind his rage. Whether we agree with that or not is immaterial; this man has endured the ultimate horror of finding his family murdered and is unstoppable in his driving need to exact restitution. As the narrative progresses, we gain glimpses where Edwards yearns for a respite from his vengeance and, moreover, is challenged to assess his own viciousness in the end. To this end, the picture doesn't exist to simply scapegoat the American Indian in any baseless fashion. Once the final frames have clicked by, you'll realize the picture wasn't about the Comanche outlaws as much as it was about Edwards himself. The picture remains one of the cinema's top achievements and has rightly been included in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films.
So now The Searchers is on Blu-ray (concurrently released on the HD DVD format as well) and we wonder how this classic picture, originally presented theatrically in VistaVision, has fared in the migration. Unfortunately for all DVD incarnations, the original film elements had been found to be unusable at the time the picture was transferred to laserdisc. According to film restoration expert Robert A. Harris, a new print could only be derived from black-and-white masters, leaving much room for straying from the original Technicolor saturation and palette. That said, we won't delve into how red Wayne's shirt should be or how deep blue the sky should appear but, rather, we'll look at the overall soundness and stability of the resultant image on display here. Thankfully, the original restoration was managed well enough to allow us excellent detail and depth in this Blu-ray edition. Colors, while perhaps not 100 percent faithful to the original print, are lush and stabile. Flesh tones look realistic and over-saturation is never an issue. The details are sharp and it becomes fun to pick out the tiniest of elements that went unseen in the previous standard-def rendering. As for the audio, the Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono track is surprisingly satisfying. While it doesn't fill a soundstage with directional delights as we've come to expect these days, it maintains a vintage experience that is nonetheless clear and well managed.
Extras on this Blu-ray disc are the same as have been offered on the HD DVD release, those being the same as were delivered in the 50th Anniversary SD release earlier. Therefore, you'll find the engaging and highly informative running commentary from Peter Bogdanovich. Then, the 1999 retrospective, "A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne, and The Searchers," includes some rare on-set footage and vintage Ford interviews, all presided over by the narration from John Milius. Next is "The Searchers: An Appreciation," where Milius is joined by Martin Scorsese and Curtis Hanson, the three providing their insight and praise of this classic western. Up next is a collection of vintage sequences from the Warner Brothers Presents TV series, focusing here upon the other stars of the film, notably Hunter and Wood. A theatrical trailer rounds out the bonus features.
If you eager to discover the original sort of machismo that forged the "man's man" films of the bygone era, you needn't look much further than The Searchers. That said, you'll be pleasantly surprised to see that the iconic Wayne provides a performance that goes beyond the accusations of one-dimensional performance laid against his character in this film. Chances are, you'll find this to be an enjoyably complex excursion and character study that effortlessly bests much of the genre drivel slopped into the film-going trough today. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* 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
* Introduction by Patrick Wayne
* Audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich
* Documentary: "A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne, and The Searchers"
* Featurette: "The Searchers: An Appreciation"
* "Behind the Cameras" segments
* Theatrical trailer