The Searchers - The Quintessential Western Movie

                            John Wayne, a great but a straight-arrow hero usually splits people into two camps: those who say that he was a legendary actor and those who say he simply couldn't act. But everyone might agree that John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956) provided John Wayne, his demanding and complex role, surpassing his Oscar-winning role "True Grit" (1969). Disregarded by the Academy Awards and critics upon its release, 'The Searchers' is a western movie that rarely attempt to deal head-on with the problem and roots of racism in American life. 

                         John Ford's epic western is one of the quintessential American films. It is a landmark Western that is at once a great adventure story, a fable about the nature of quest and fulfillment, and an exploration of the vicious racism. Ethan portrayed by Wayne is his first anti-heroic role. It is a hard-bitten, unsympathetic role of Wayne, who is normally shown as an All-American hero. The trip through the southwest - presented in bold and colorful outline the arid country and areas of hills and giant rock formations - is eye-filling and impressive.

        Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a alienated hero, who has taken three years to come home, after fighting on the losing side of the American Civil War. After the war, he has taken the law into his own hands, including a bank robbery. The anti-social Ethan arrives at his family house to see his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), who has a ranch in the isolated part of Texas. He is filled with hatred for Native Americans and the Yanks, and even seems to argue with his own brother. But he soon has one more reason to hate them. 

              A group of rebellious Comanches lures Edwards and several others away from the homestead, and in their absence the Comanches raid the home, killing most of the remaining family and kidnapping the two young daughters. Encountering the mangled bodies of his family, Ethan is guilt-ridden, feeling he was not there when he was needed. So, he becomes possessed with recovering his two nieces and seeking revenge on the Comanche. 

           The rest of the movie follows Martin, Ethan and many other men, including Lucy's boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.), the Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), and a group of Texas Rangers, as they set out to find the kidnapped girls. As the search stretches from weeks to months to years, questions arises: what will Edwards do if and when he does find the girls? Will he rescue the girls or kill them?

                John Wayne is exceptionally commanding as the Texan whose passion for revenge is magnificently uncontaminated by caution or sentiment. He may be performing a less-than-righteous individual here, but he never looked better. Director Ford makes this Westerner a person of dubious intent and an ambiguous man. Jeffrey Hunter as Martin is callow and courageous as the lad who goes with Ethan. Ward Bond as the top-hatted preacher-captain makes a dandy fighting parson and is a standout from the rest of the cast. 

              Director John Ford was already a legendary director by the time he made this film (he had already won all four of his Best Director Oscars), and in "The Searchers" his directorial stamp is apparent. One of the great things to note in this movie, is how skillfully Ford handle the film's violent subject matter without showing violence on-screen. For example, when Edwards discovers Lucy's desecrated body, we never see the corpse. As a matter of fact, we don't even see him discovering the corpse, rather, Ford gives us two scenes: first, Ethan Edwards returns from exploring, thoroughly distraught and horrified. Brad and Martin try to get him to explain what happened, but Edwards refuses, only saying, "I'll never go back there again." By this point, it creates an indelible and horrific impression in the viewer's mind that could never be justified with visuals, no matter how graphic. 

                 The screenplay written by Frank S.Nugent based on the novel by Alan Le May manages to create an indelible story populated with difficult characters. Winton C. Hoch's cinematography and Ford's framing of each scene are of top-notch quality. The valleys are captured in an epic sense. Its visual images work perfectly with the grand story, creating a complicated, emotionally-driven film. The movie commences with a door opening, and ends with that same door closing, and in both scenes, John Wayne stands alone. At both the frames, Wayne remains a lonely, complex, and embittered man. 

                 The flaws in 'Searchers' are minor: The use of humor to break the built-up tension works sometime, not in others; and the director's insistence on a romantic angle for young Martin rather diminishes the movie's overall friction. But these things are very minor flaws in a film that by and large captures the American spirit. "The Searchers" is a much more multi-layered Western than most other such examples of the genre. 

                   Watch 'The Searchers', an attractive and entertaining American cinematic experience, which also conquers the darker side of "the winning of the West."


The Searchers - IMDb 


Haricharan Pudipeddi said...

Definitely one of the western flicks I'm yet to watch. Will try to watch it and soon and return with a comment

Arun Kumar said...

Thanks for the comment, Haricharan.

treborc said...

You have not seen it, how the heck Wayne did not get an Oscar for this beats me.