John Ford and John Wayne forged one of the great director-actor partnerships in American cinema. From "Stagecoach" (1939) to "How the West Was Won" (1963), the pair collaborated on many Westerns now regarded as classics, including "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "The Three Godfathers," "The Horse Soldiers," "The Searchers," and Ford's so-called cavalry trilogy, "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and "Rio Grande." Fans and film historians might be hard-pressed to pick a favorite out of this bunch, but for the Duke it was no contest: "The Searchers" was his all-time favorite.
It's hard to tell who's the star of this revenge-themed Western, Wayne or Monument Valley. The establishing shot all but favors the land. Ford shoots the back of a woman standing in a doorway in silhouette, gradually expanding the shot to reveal the whole glorious landscape--and in Blu-ray, those rock formations look as stunning as our first glimpse of Oz. Ford was the first director to take Westerns out of the Hollywood back lots and film on location, and there was no land more dramatic or rugged than this territory near the Arizona-Utah border that was farther from a railroad than any other place in the U.S. When you see behind-the-scenes footage of the two Johns at Goulding's Trading Post, the only permanent structure in the area, you begin to realize that the harsh conditions weren't just on-screen. This was the real American West, and both director and star were in love with it. Ford was also such a realist that he chose supplementary locations in Alberta, Canada and Gunnison, Colorado because of their snow levels and cold. In Blu-ray, these scenes--like cavalry crossing an icy river--are surprisingly striking.
On one of the bonus features, director Martin Scorsese calls "The Searchers" a "very disturbing film," but also "one of the most beautiful films every filmed." That's a good way to put it. Ford's use of the land in his Westerns (he filmed nine of them in Monument Valley) goes beyond simple appreciation. There's a connectedness between the land and the characters and the cinematographers that borders on lyricism. As a result, it's a drop-dead gorgeous film to watch. And yet, Ford's themes are often dark. The director was fascinated by essentially good characters like Ethan Edwards (Wayne) who are capable of doing bad things in "The Searchers," of bad men (like those in "The Three Godfathers") who find a streak of goodness within them that allows them to take care of a baby entrusted to them.
Like just about every Western, the plot of "The Searchers" is set in motion when a lone horseman rides into town. In this case, "town" is just a lonely homestead in the middle of Texas, and the rider, we quickly learn, is Uncle Ethan, back from the war. In the tradition of the Western hero, there are mysteries surrounding the stranger, and with Ethan it's the question of where he's been since the end of the Civil War, and why he didn't show up at the surrender to turn in his saber. Questions like these continue to pop up throughout the film, as do chances for Ethan to prove his superior knowledge of the land, the Indians, their languages, and all things related to survival in the West. Like most Western heroes, Ethan has one foot in society and one foot outside of it. He's the one-person vigilante who sets things right and defeats the forces that threaten to destroy society. But because his methods aren't always acceptable, once that job is done, there's no place for the Western hero in the society he's stabilized.
"The Searchers" was adapted from a serialized Western later published in novel form by
Alan Le May. The plot is a simple one that embraces one of the main (and least attractive) themes of the Western: a hatred of Indians. When Ethan's brother and the sister-in-law he secretly loved are killed along with some of their children, he's as devastated as the rest of the settlers. But what starts out as a posse of deputized Texas Rangers to recover his nieces who were taken captive quickly turns into a White Whale that threatens to wash away Ethan's humanity. In relentlessly pursuing Comanche war chief Scar to try to recover the girls, Ethan does things that place him on the same level as Scar (Henry Brandon).
But it's not just a straightforward narrative. Ford had a wonderful way of balancing a strong narrative with that cinematic lyricism and humor-in this case provided mostly by Mose Harper (Hand Worden), who plays a pioneer who's mentally challenged. What's interesting, though, is that through Mose and the white women who were recovered by cavalry after spending years with Indians, Ford explores degrees of insanity and creates a resonant tapestry that makes Ethan's own brand of insanity less "out there." The West is a hard place, and if the isolation doesn't do things to you, then hardships or horrendous things that you witness will.
Ward Bond, another Ford favorite, is in his element as the Reverend/Captain Samuel Clayton, while Harry Carey, Jr. and Jeff Hunter provide youthful (and inexperienced) foils as one of the girl's boyfriends and a boy who was raised as their brother. There's a lot going on in "The Searchers," and seeing it again after not watching for a while just impressed me how much depth and complexity Ford manages to impart in his Westerns. I have always preferred "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" of the Ford classics, but now that "The Searchers" is out in Blu-ray, I may have to side with John Wayne. It's an awfully impressive film in Hi-Def. The only flaws, really, are a couple of inexplicable attitude 180s pulled by Ethan and niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). Other than that, it's hard to find anything to criticize.
What can I say? I'm astounded that a 1956 film produced in VistaVision could look so spectacular on Hi-Def and actually be an improvement over all the previous SD releases. If you like this movie, you'll probably have to own both the ultimate boxed set for all the extras and a Hi-Def version for the sheer pleasure of it. The 1.78:1 aspect ratio fills out the whole widescreen television area, and the 1080p picture (transferred using VC-1 technology) makes the film look 20 years younger. There's so little grain and so much detail, with great color saturation, that it's amazing. The box proclaims that the new Hi-Def transfer was made from restored VistaVision, and the effort paid off.
Obviously, the VistaVision source master was a whole lot more to work with than the Mono soundtrack, and while the sound is clear and naturally balanced, it's still Mono. Language and subtitle options are English, French, and Spanish. There's nothing in the sound to blow you away, but nothing that detracts from the glorious video either.
Director and Ford biographer Peter Bogdanovich provides a really solid and intelligent commentary track for the film that's introduced by Wayne's son (and "Searcher's" co-star) Patrick. The commentary is crammed full of insights and information and shared with enthusiasm by an obvious admirer.
A new short feature on "The Searchers": An Appreciation gives us Scorsese and two other directors reminiscing mostly about their own first encounter with the film. Personally, I would have preferred it if they had gone less down nostalgia lane and more in the direction of a true appreciation.
There are Behind the Cameras segments from the 1956 television series based on the film, with character interviews and segments--none of which relate pointedly enough to the classic Ford film--and the theatrical trailer. But the best non-commentary feature is a 1998 documentary narrated by John Milius, one of the "nostalgic lane" directors. Here, in edition to the story of John Ford and Monument Valley, we get some astounding footage of such things as Ford seeing the valley from the air for the first time and the director and Wayne rumbling through this desolate territory in cars, one of which gets stuck during a river crossing. The documentary is letterboxed so that it plays in 1.33:1 ratio.
"The Searchers" isn't just a classic Western. It's a classic American film that has as much complexity, beauty, and resonance as any great work of art. And it looks utterly fantastic in Blu-ray.