Release year: 1956
Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Frank S. Nugent, Alan LeMay (novel)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon
Ratings: 1 Golden Globe: Most Promising Male Newcomer (Patrick Wayne).
Moviegeek Sunday Classic #102, week 21 2016
Civil war veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother’s (Walter Coy)Texas ranch hoping to find a home. But his plans are abruptly ruined when a group of comanches raid the ranch with devastating results and he instead finds himself embarking on a year long journey together with his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to find his kidnapped niece (Natalie Wood). But as the hunt goes on, Martin begins to discover the intensity of Ethan’s hatred for Indians and begin to fear for the life of the sister who has lived among them for years.
John Ford’s (Stagecoach, 1939) western sees John Wayne (True Grit, 1969) in his personal favourite of his roles as the bitter and racist Ethan Edwards. Determined and stubborn he is the driving force of the action as he leads the searchers of the title into the wilderness. An important detail is that it is clear from the beginning that Ethan’s search is based more on a desire to strike out on the comanche than on rescuing his niece, making vengeance a major theme of the movie. Another theme is racial prejudice with Searchers differing from many other western of its time by portraying the Native American as ruthless but never more ruthless than the white men in the movie. Despite searching for his sister as relentlessly as Ethan, Martin differs from his uncle in many ways, mainly by the fact that he has no desire for revenge but merely wants his sister safely home again. He follows Ethan on his Homeric odyssey like a consciousness constantly trying to contain his anger and thereby brings a fine balance to the team as well as helping us discover Ethan’s more human sides. He is brilliantly played by an incredible handsome Hunter (King of Kings, 1961) who becomes the heart of the story where Wayne with his excellent turn as Ethan is the backbone. Where the two men deliver the rest of the cast occasionally almost disappear in their shadows, especially as the anti-hero Ethan manages to fill the role of both hero and villain making him an essential part of the story. The movie may be about the search for the kidnapped girl but the interesting part is watching Ethan shift back and forth between his two charactizations. The rest of the cast unfortunately tend to exaggerate their performances to a degree where it almost becomes comical and some of the outdoors scenes are filmed at so unrealistic looking film stages it makes you cringe, and the shifts in times are sudden and at times confusing (wait, how much time has passed since five minutes ago?). But when the scenes move into the open we are granted with stunning views over the scenery and as it’s accompanied by a gorgeous score by Max Steiner it occasionally takes your breath away and reminds you why it, as relentlessly as its star, remains on several ¨’Best Movies’ lists.
David Lean watched The Searchers repeadtly while shooting Lawrence of Arabia to get a sense of how to shot landscapes.
John Wayne named one of his sons after Ethan as a homage to his character.
Lana Wood (Diamonds Are Forever, 1971) who played Debbie Edwards as young is the younger sister of Natalie Woods (West Side Story, 1961) who played her as a teenager.
Picture copyright: Warner Home Video