Taking a highly praised classic on is a tricky business for any film reviewer. A movie as celebrated and revered as The Searchers has been picked over, analyzed, and revised up and down in critical estimation since it was dubbed a classic. It can be hard to just sit down and watch The Searchers like any movie. Not for nothing, the first time I saw it was in film school, surrounded by people who, even if like me they hadn’t seen it before, had already had drummed into them what was “important” about it.
The Searchers was not an instant critical hit, and only on the later praise of great filmmakers like Martin Scorsese did its reputation rise up in the ranks of John Ford’s westerns – though it could be said that John Ford was always more of a director’s director than a critic’s director; Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles were early admirers of his painterly eye and gift for composition. The Searchers, set mostly in Texas but shot in Monument Valley, demonstrates this eye in its brilliant Vistavision cinematography (Vistavision being Paramount’s technique of widescreen 35mm shooting). Certainly the story and its production can be seen as a metaphor for the American experience, a commentary on how age has affected both its star, John Wayne, and director, and on and on.
But looking past all of the pre-baked ideas about The Searchers, and just watching it as a movie, it’s admirable how complete the story is. In its deceptively simple tale of two men searching for a kidnapped girl, it explores multiple facets of its characters, the society they live in, and the consequences of the choices they make. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a particularly mysterious character – he arrives out of nowhere one day on his brother’s farm, three years after the end of the civil war but still carrying the saber that’s part of his Confederate uniform. No-one know where he’s been, and he’s carrying gold coins that look freshly minted. It’s implied he might have stolen them, but they’re never brought up again, and no-one ever directly asks Ethan about it.
The gold coins and the unanswered questions they raise are an example of what Peter Bogdonavich on the excellent commentary track calls John Ford’s “economy of gesture”. He has a big, complex story to tell, and he does so with as little resort to straight out dialogue as possible. The character’s facets are conveyed in gestures, looks, in the unspoken. Martha, the wife of Ethan’s brother, is clearly in love with Ethan, but they barely share a touch, and only a few lines of dialogue. When he says goodbye to her to lead a scouting party, his kisses her on the forehead, then goes without a word.
That scouting party, and the Comanche that elude them, lead to the main storyline and the source of the film’s title: the Edward’s household is raided, the men and Martha are killed and the two daughters, Lucy and Debbie, are stolen. Ethan and Martin Pawley, an adopted son of the Edwards, spend the next 10 years searching for the missing girls. The complex relationship between Martin and Ethan is the crux of the narrative.
Martin is 1/8th Cherokee, but any Indian blood is too much for Ethan – he unreservedly despises the young man, and doesn’t want to be called “Uncle” by him. Ironically, Martin is only alive because Ethan found him as a baby when his parents were killed, but he doesn’t want any credit for the rescue. When his brother points out that Ethan was Martin’s rescuer, Ethan says, “It just happened to be me. No need to make any more of it.”
Ethan’s hatred of American Indians is a central fact of his character, but he doesn’t come to it through ignorance. He understands their language and their ways. Another example of Ford’s economy, it’s only from a tombstone that Debbie hides beside that we see some hint of the origin of his malice – his mother was killed by Comanche. And it’s a Comanche war chief called Scar who kidnaps the girls.
But Scar has his own story, and when he and Ethan finally meet we learn Scar is on his own quest for revenge for the death of his sons. The Searchers transcends the simplistic white hat/black hat heroes and villains morality of the classic western. The Natives in this movie aren’t faceless hordes, but people, and when their women and children are massacred by the cavalry it’s seen as no less horrible than the raid on Edward’s ranch.
The story is impeccably shot and directed by Ford, and this Blu-ray may be the first home release to come close to expressing the sheer beauty of the film. Many of Ford’s enormous compositions on this Blu-ray are simply breathtaking – I don’t think it is overstating the case to call it one of the most beautiful Westerns ever made. The image on this disc is quite filmic, which means it can be grainy, which is in the nature of actual film, but not pristine digital video that modern audiences might be used to.
The Blu-ray also boasts a fair complement of extras, including three separate 30 minute documentaries (all in 480p standard definition): The Searchers: An Appreciation, which has talking head interviews with Martin Scorsese, Curtis Hanson, and John Milius; A Turning of the Earth, which intersperses documentary footage with narration by actors from the film and Milius; and the contemporary Behind the Cameras, which aired on TV in the ’50s before the film was released.
It’s odd to call any film timeless, since it is impossible to make a film that is not of its time. In the 1950s there was nothing questionable about slathering some red make-up on a British actor and calling him a Comanche (though it should be noted that the majority of Indians in the film are played by real Najavo who lived on the reservation in Monument Valley). The worst crimes and most gruesome images, such as when John Wayne shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche, condemning his spirit to wander for eternity, are left off-screen. But criticizing a film made in the ’50s for having been made in the ’50s strikes me as both pointless and ignorant. The Searchers is a powerful movie that seems to grow only more powerful as I get older. It’s also entertaining despite its lofty reputation and grim subject matter, filled with humor as well as darkness and violence. It’s a great film, and this Blu-ray is the best presentation of it yet on home release.
The Searchers is part of the John Wayne Westerns Film Collection, along with Fort Apache, Rio Bravo, and two movies new to Blu-ray, The Train Robbers and Cahill: U.S. Marshal.