Judge Ryan Keefer now fully understands his father's love of the Duke.
Our reviews of John Wayne-John Ford Film Collection (published June 6th, 2006), John Wayne Westerns Film Collection (Blu-ray) (published October 19th, 2015), The Searchers (published April 11th, 2000), and The Searchers (Blu-Ray) (published October 11th, 2007) are also available.
He had to find her…he had to find her…
The Searchers has been a touchstone for '70s filmmakers like Scorsese, Bogdanovich and others for years. Taxi Driver is an homage to it. And why not, as John Wayne and John Ford were at the peak of their collaborative relationship, making such classics as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stagecoach, and this film is arguably Wayne's best. When The Searchers was released as a standard definition anniversary edition earlier this year, there was some blowback from the purists who thought the restoration attempt given to the film was halfhearted. Now that it's in high-definition, does it make things better?
Facts of the Case
Based on a novel by Alan Le May (Gunfighters) and adapted to the screen by Frank S. Nugent (Fort Apache), The Searchers tells the tale of Ethan Edwards (Wayne), a man without any substantial loyalty, except to his family. When Ethan's family is murdered and his two nieces are kidnapped, he helps lead a group of Texas Rangers (including Wayne buddy Ward Bond, Hondo, Operation Pacific) to find them. The group searches high and low throughout the West for the girls, who were kidnapped by a vicious Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon, The Ten Commandments). After a Comanche attack where one of the members is wounded, the Rangers break away, leaving only Ethan, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr., Rio Grande), the older daughter's boyfriend, and one of the adopted family members, a half-breed named Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, who was the first captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek). The days turn into weeks, then months and years. During all that time, Ethan never quits, because he always thinks that she's alive, and also because in his words, "we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth."
The first time I saw The Searchers was years ago on a smallish set at my parents' house. Living with a John Wayne fan, I was actually exposed to more of the Duke's other films, like Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Quiet Man. And in watching The Searchers again for the first time in years, I found it to be as comfortable and wholly entertaining as the first time I saw it. The fact that I was watching it in high-definition on a 60-inch set made things that much more enjoyable.
This next paragraph treads some spoiler water, so be prepared…
Even as a bit of a dilettante film critic, even I can see how much has been made Wayne's character being racist in the film, and there's certainly enough to back that up. However there's a part in the film that I think shows a little bit of how Ethan softens. During the scene in winter when Ethan and Martin come across a cavalry station where they have rounded up some refugees, Ethan shoots a look at a couple of the whites that have been "brainwashed," for lack of a better word, by the Indians. While I think there's a bit of hate in his eyes, there's also a bit of introspection, at the type of things they must have been subjected to, and at the end when he rescues Debbie (Natalie Wood, West Side Story), it's clear that while he may want to kill her, he doesn't, because then that includes even more people into his dark way of thinking, and he'd much rather carry the burden on his own. Even so, he still seems to, in what could be characterized as the most poignant exit in movie memory. You can also see how perhaps Wayne's mood changes with his wardrobe. In the beginning, he wears a red shirt, presumably to show his bloodthirst, but then it changes as the mood of the film does. He switches over to blue during a somewhat lighthearted sequence when dealing with Martin at a campfire, and then to a red checkered pattern when he meets Scar and sees Debbie for the first time in years. He then renounces kinship to Debbie, but since he's not wearing a shirt, perhaps the threat is hollow. For the final sequences, it's back to the blue. This may sound like Mr. Blackwell's take on a John Wayne film, but it's my theory, so there you have it.
OK, all is normal again…
One other thing I'd like to talk about is the perception of a lot of violence of the film. There are some scenes of battle, but most of the violence is inferred or based on assumption. Ambushes are captured either just before or just after they occur, some attacks are symbolized with just the scream of a female, and in one case, Wayne describes how one person died so vividly, without saying anything, in one of the better pieces of acting in his career.
Now, let's get to the picture. There had been some complaints, justified or not, regarding the picture quality of the initial standard definition version that was recently released. According to film restoration expert Robert Harris's recent interview with the Warner Brothers Vice President of Mastering Ned Price, the original VistaVision negative of the film is unusable at this point. Even though a master was originally created for the laserdisc, that master was supposedly different than how the film originally looked. Not to say that the standard definition version is dead-on accurate, but it's apparently closer to the theatrical appearance than people may think. My apologies to Mr. Harris or Mr. Price if I've misunderstood anything. With all of that out of the way, this 1.78:1 widescreen version of The Searchers looks great. You can make out the printing on Ethan's belt buckle in the beginning of the film, and the depth and detail found in the Monument Valley landscapes are really breathtaking. The tight close-ups of Wayne's face (along with Bond's) make the facial growth very visible as well. If there's a complaint I have with the picture (and it's a minor one), it's that the whites seem a little too exaggerated. If I'm reading too much into things and that maybe that's just how the heat looks, mea culpa. Some have used Ethan's red shirt as a reference for their qualms with the standard definition version, but in the Price interview, he uses the bricks in some of the houses as a reference, because they were purple in the laserdisc. So perhaps the reference point was a little bit off for those in previous versions. I'll leave it at that for debate among more advanced videophiles.
The extras are ported over from the recent anniversary release of the standard definition DVD. Aside from the introduction by Wayne's son Patrick, Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon and resident Ford appreciator) contributes a commentary to the film which serves more as an examination of and information on Ford's life. The next feature, titled "The Searchers: An Appreciation," features praise of the film by directors Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys), along with screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Magnum Force). The three provide an interesting critical appreciation of the film's merits which is good to watch, as I originally thought it would be just a regular lovefest. But to hear them talk about the racism in the film and their thoughts on the Ethan and Martin characters, as well as their opinions on what they thought was the relationship dynamic between Ford and Wayne. Milius and Wayne return for "A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers," as they share some thoughts on the film, as a lot of on-set production footage and footage of Wayne and Ford together is played. I can't quite put my finger on it, but in between the insight and the footage, it's not that bad of a piece. There are some kitschy little Warner Brothers short films that focus on the production and some of the supporting cast, and those complete the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As far as the film goes, and maybe this is a skewed perspective because he stands next to Wayne for most of the film, but Hunter's performance was a bit on the hammish side. The job is to support the Duke, not to try and upstage him and fail at it. For the DVD, considering the treatment that Warner has given to other catalog standards like Ben-Hur and The Wizard of Oz, they probably could have gone a little more exhaustive for this new release of The Searchers.
Simply put, The Searchers remains one of the greatest original American films for good reason. It helped show everyone that all a filmmaker needed was a great story and for the actors to believe it, and if the director's vision was clear enough, some really beautiful things could happen. On high definition, this may be reason enough for people to run out and buy one of the HD DVD players, assuming you can find one. This is definitely a keeper.
Nothing to find here, this film is completely exonerated. Let's go home.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director/John Ford Biographer Peter Bogdanovich
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