U.S.A. / Warner Bros. / 1956 / Technicolor / 119 Minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.75:1
In order to fully appreciate the rich complexity of what could be a deeply emotional, perhaps life changing experience of watching this film, audience members must become "searchers" themselves. The closer one examines, and identifies with, the title characters and their quest, the richer its rewards become. This masterpiece pays off even more handsomely for those who can further assimilate the story through Director John Ford's visionary eyes. Witness the numerous stunning painterly images (Ford would say to his cameraman "that's a Lilly" when capturing those amazing shots), complex staging of the actions, realistic but engaging overlapping behaviour and dialouge, innovative cinematic storytelling techniques (most evident in "the letter" sequence), and a diverse range of highly distinctive characters and relationships, with a surprising number of naturally occurring humorous and endearing moments between them.
I say "surprising" because this is a very dark story overall. It's full of a frontier life's extreme dangers and unpleasantness: Unthinkable fear, revenge, hatred and racial intolerance. It tells of horrifically violent acts, their retributive responses, and goes even further by addressing the negative psychological effects of both. It's not shy of surprises in these areas either: We see a house full of people we've come to care for burn to the ground after an unprovoked attack by Comanches. John Wayne's Ethan Edwards interrupts an otherwise somber funeral, twice shouting "PUT AN AMEN TO IT", just so he can get on with hunting down those who are responsible for wiping out his brother and almost all of his family. We hear the sounds of a bugler's "white knight" Cavalry (previously idolized in the same Director's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) only to see the unnecessary massacre of Native American innocents in its wake. There's Edwards shooting out the eyes of an uncovered dead Comanche, then explaining to an indignant Reverend/Captain that the sacrilegious act may not betray any belief in the Reverend's book but, to the Indian's, will cause the spirit to blindly wander forever in the afterlife. By displaying such casual indifference, Edwards demonstrates his personal disrespect for both religions, further cementing the fact that his cold actions (unlike most of those on both sides of the conflict) will be guided by neither. Edwards attempts to conceal his shock at being shown the trophy scalps collected by his formidable nemesis: The marauding tribe's leader Scar. The anger that seethes within, which he will have to suppress, derives not only from Scar's offensive gesture, but from the fact that the distinctively blonde scalp on display belonged to his raped and murdered niece Lori. Also worth noting in this scene is Scar justifying his violent responses by mentioning the loss of his sons. Finally there's the camera dolly (hardly ever used by the director) moving in to a close-up (also infrequently used) of Edward's face. It's an astonishing cinematic moment, one that will forever brand the consciousness of those who can truly see it. His chilling expression combining horror with determination comes after he witnesses the insanity of a few "surviving" young female white settlers rescued by soldiers from the Indians who they grew up with... The same Indians who took them from their families whom they savagely murdered .
John Ford and Company (including Max Steiner who created an emotionally binding score and Winton C. Hoch's majestically photographed imagery) have given a wealth of revelations to take in here. Ford's prior cinematic experience includes dozens of films made before 1924's Western triumph The Iron Horse, and some of the medium's highest artistic achievements afterward, including The Lost Patrol (1934), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941) My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948). After some consideration, the wealth of powerfully engaging scenes in The Searchers is almost to be expected. However, these past experiences and accomplishments, as significant as they were, cannot completely account for the gutsy determinism on display here. Upon directing this film, Ford would become an enigmatic legend by presenting to us one of the darkest, most emotionally charged and conflicted characters ever portrayed in the history of the Western genre: Wayne's Ethan Edwards. Equal credit must be given to the actor who delivers what is easily the most layered and compelling performance in his formidable career. In scene after fascinating scene, he is alternately reviled and revered by the other characters and us. Soon after being introduced, he demonstrates his racial prejudice by making an off handed "half breed" remark to his brother's adoptive son Martin Pawley (beautifully portrayed by Jeffery Hunter). Yet Martin will accompany him on his long and arduous search for Debbie, Pawley's sister, who will turn out to be the lone survivor of his family under siege, taken captive by Scar's tribe. Chief Scar has apparently decided that Debbie's youth, and perhaps attractiveness, were reason enough to spare her life. The search will span more than a few years. Ethan's relentless determination, (to find Debbie and settle a painful score with his arch rival), will not only compliment the Director's perspective, but will be mirrored in his adversary Scar. During the pursuit, Edwards must overcome many obstacles, including a treacherous trader, by demonstrating his resourcefulness and to act ruthlessly and decisively. Alternately he must be flexible, and even generous, as he is when dealing with a Mexican middle-man who will introduce Edwards to Scar and open negotiations between the two. The talks themselves advance further Edwards' willingness to adapt and act not just out of raw emotion (as other important characters will do and suffer the consequences from). They are also suggestive of Ethan's intelligence. It's this character's maturity, delivered in full by Wayne and his Director Ford, that remains the primary reason this film is one of the top two Westerns of all time and one of the ten best American motion pictures ever made.
Some criticism has occurred over Edward's "about face" decision upon encountering Debbie for the second time. I would suggest that these viewers haven't paid close enough attention. Although Martin gives voice to his suspicion that Ethan will respond with deadly force after finding Debbie, his uncle only exhibits signs of actually following through this way upon encountering Debbie the first time. Martin pleads with her to return with him, but when she unequivocally states her intention to remain with the people who raised her (the murdering Comanches) it suggests their many years of trial and hardships were in vain. Ethan has seen firsthand the psychotic and brutal effects of a life with one's captors. Debbie, by comparison, seems well cared for, giving further reason for his impulsive gesture. In their second meeting, Ethan chases and struggles with her, finally carrying her up in his arms saying "Let's go home Debbie". We realize what he does: It's the only logical and practical choice he can make. This crucial moment of redemption is, as the famous French film Director Jean-Luc Goddard observed, extremely poignant. I would add transcendental, being a momentous opportunity for Ethan to demonstrate the compassion residing deep within and subtly shown numerous times throughout his journey.
This final act of kindness and his safe return of Debbie to a caring and loving home will not be enough to allow Ethan to join in and comfortably enter this sanctuary himself. He's the guy who "does what's necessary". It's his raw negative aggression which fuels the unpleasant, decisive actions that "gets the job done" but there's simply no place for it in this peaceful setting. He must therefore pay the price for being what he is: An outsider. So Ethan silently stands outside the family's home, watching the others' joy at being reunited with their loved ones. Beautifully photographed from inside the house, this amazing "frame within a frame" shot begins the film as well when the door opens to reveal the backdrop of Monument Valley in all of its Vista Vision grandeur. At the story's conclusion, Ethan stands back and smiles as Martin and his fiancee pass by, then turns and walks away into the wilderness with that customarily graceful John Wayne swagger. The door closes.
If one simply sits back and casually observes this film, with an inattentive or superficial approach (perhaps conditioned by the plainly obvious narrative exposition we've come to expect from many modern day movies) the viewer is apt to be disappointed.
Ford effectively communicates throughout this extraordinary film Ethan Edward's buried internal struggle. Ethan attempts time and again to not only deal with the horrors he's witnessed, but to keep them from negatively impacting on those he cares for. Even at the story's beginning when he returns from the Civil War he's basically silent about them. This makes it necessary for the audience to participate in uncovering those subtle signposts of feeling along the way and help create that rich and rewarding experience its artists intended. There are in fact, so many revealing story and character developments to take in here, even a half-dozen viewings may not be enough to observe all of them.
When John Ford made this film, his bold and complex maturity became like "The Grange" of fine wines. For those lucky enough to partake, The Searchers is similar to a magnificent investment opportunity: The more one gives, the more one gets in return.
The Searchers is my Turner Classic Movies Treasure of the Month. It is scheduled to air on TCM Tuesday April 22, 11:30 p.m. P.S.T.