Frank S. Nugent (Novel: Alan Le May)
John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Wualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood
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Celebrated American director John Ford and iconoclastic actor John Wayne worked together an amazing 23 times on the big screen from 1928 when Wayne was just a bit player in films like Hangman’s House and Four Sons through 1963 and their final collaboration, Donovan’s Reef. During that 35-year history, they made some of the most acclaimed westerns in history including 1939’s Stagecoach, 1950’s Rio Grande, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West Was Won, and this film, 1956’s The Searchers.
The story involves a Civil War soldier Wayne’s Ethan Edwards returning home to Texas where he hopes to settle down. When those plans are interrupted by a Comanche ambush that kills his family and abducts his niece, Ethan begins a five-year mission to track down Chief Scar, the man who has purportedly taken her for one of his wives, and kill him in retaliation. His one-eighth indian nephew, who he refuses to accept as part of the family, decides to accompany him in hopes of finding his sister and bringing her back alive. Despite his dislike for Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), they bond on the trail as they search for Debbie, yet when they find her nearly assimilated into the Comanche tribe, Ethan wants to kill her, but Martin refuses to accept that she’s lost and competes to find her first to hopefully save her from Ethan’s gun.
It isn’t hard to see why Ford enjoyed working with Wayne so much. He was the embodiment of machismo and surreal bravura that bolstered the revenge-seeking westerns of classical Hollywood. He was assertive, forceful and never took defeat as an answer. He fought tooth-and-nail for himself and his family, yet was fed by a flawed ego and world weary superiority that was frequently tested by younger, naive upstarts in nearly every feature. Wayne personified this ideal and was celebrated for it even if it amounted to little more then typecasting and never seemed to require real acting talent. Hunter and Vera Miles as his love interest, are the film’s key talents, both giving solid, charismatic and credible performances that keep the film from falling into too many western cliches. Although they are given some rather trite situations to handle, they do so with passion and sincerity. The rest of the cast allow their stereotypes to guide their performances, though without many negative reprecussions. Although Hank Worden as the grating Mose Harper and Wayne’s son Patrick as the incompetent young soldier eager to be involved late in the film, each give the film its most irritating characters.
But the film isn’t meant to be a celebration of fine performances. Its grandeur is in its direction, production design and cinematography. Ford had a knack for highlighting natural or naturalistic environments in a way that made them leap from the screen. Every film of his I’ve seen has been more opulent visually than it has narratively. Much of what is on display in The Searchers is pure pleasure from a visual perspective. From the snow-laden landscapes exemplifying the passage of time to the wide vistas of the American West, there’s not a scene you don’t feel a part of. The use of colors, especially those during the sunset that befalls Ethan’s family home shortly before the war party arrives, is gorgeous.
And the opening and closing scenes are rightfully classified as iconic. As the film opens, Ethan’s sister opens the steps out through a blackened doorframe onto the front porch of their homestead, spying someone in the distance riding towards the house. It’s the returning hero, Ethan, intent on settling down for the rest of his life. The closing scene, as two loving couples into into the darkened house, all that remains at the end is a successful, but somewhat lonely Ethan turning away from the house and seemingly walking back towards the life he had left, realizing that he may not be meant to settle down. It’s the most heartbreaking scene in the film and were The Searchers made up entirely of these little moments, I might have been more enamored with the film as a whole.
February 8, 2011