Whenever the subject arises of which movie Western is the best of all, which unfortunately for the Western is more and more seldom these days, John Ford's 1956 "The Searchers" usually comes up. True, it's often mentioned in the same breath as "Stagecoach," "Red River," "High Noon," "Shane," "Unforgiven," and other well-known classics, but the fact that it is almost always mentioned at all is the point. The movie has a loyal following, and there is a good argument to be made that if John Ford was one of the greatest of all Western directors, and "The Searchers" is the quintessential John Ford Western, then maybe "The Searchers" is one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Who knows.
What is clear is that "The Searchers" is a fine example of the breed and can stand comparison with any Western ever made. This is probably why Warner Bros. went the full route by decking it out handsomely in their 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition. If you're a fan of the film or a fan of the director or a fan of the star, John Wayne, or a fan of Westerns in general, this new edition of "The Searchers" may be right up your Wild Western canyon.
The story line is remarkably straightforward, considering that it presents a series of fairly important themes. Based on a screenplay by Frank S. Nugent from the novel by Alan Le May, "The Searchers" deals with the winning of the West, the struggles between the invading White Man and the Native Americans, the Western Code of Honor, and old-fashioned determination vs. selfish, vengeful spite, all of it peppered with action, romance, and humor.
There are plenty of fine actors in the film, but it's John Wayne and his character who dominate the picture. He plays Ethan Edwards, a man who could hardly be called a typical Western hero. Indeed, he is probably the least heroic and most thoroughly contemptible character Wayne ever played. The setting is Texas, 1868, and Edwards has just returned home to his brother's place from the Civil War, where he fought for the Confederacy. But the War's been over for three years. What's he been doing in the meantime? He's got plenty of newly minted gold coins with him, and there are hints that he has been up to no good, maybe an outlaw. But like a lot of things in the story, it's more of a suggestion, an innuendo, than revealed truth.
Worse, Edwards is an embittered, Indian-hating racist. He makes no bones about it. He hates Native Americans probably as much as he hates Yanks. In truth, there are few people of any kind that he does not seem to hate, as he no sooner returns home than he finds himself arguing with his own brother. But it's the Indians he seems to despise most of all, even if we're never sure at first exactly why. Still, it is only a brief time before he has even more reason to hate them. A band of renegade Comanches lures Edwards and several others away from the homestead, and in their absence the Comanches raid the home, killing most of the remaining family and kidnapping the two young daughters. Edwards knows what the Comanches want from the young women, and he'd rather see the girls dead than in Comanche hands.
So off goes Edwards to search for the missing girls, along with a few other men that include a young fellow named Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), whom Edwards saved as a youngster and who was later adopted into his brother's family. But the question remains: As the search goes on, for five long years, what will Edwards do if and when he does find the girls? He shows a savage side to him every bit as brutal as that of the renegade Indians. Will he rescue the girls or kill them? As he says, "Living with Comanches ain't being alive."
How much does Edwards hate Indians? He even shoots them when they're already dead. "What good did that do you?" asks his friend when Edwards shoots an Indian corpse in the eyes. "By what you preach, none," answers Edwards. "But what that Comanch believes, he got no eyes, he can't enter the spirit land, has to wander forever between the wind."
Something interesting Peter Bogdanovich says on his audio commentary is that the film wasn't considered anything particularly special when it was released in 1956, but it was only when critics re-examined and re-evaluated Ford's films in the 1970s that they began to realize its importance. That is pretty much my recollection, too. I saw the film when I was kid, largely because it had John Wayne in it playing a cowboy, not because it was directed by John Ford, a name I would not have recognized at the time in any case. The movie just seemed like another Western to me. I didn't even have any trouble with Wayne's character hating Indians because I had grown up with the unfortunate Hollywood stereotype of settlers being good guys and Indians being bad.
Today, we can see that Ford was trying to show both sides of the story: That the White Man was the invader, that the Native Americans were defending their land, and that both sides had their good and bad people. The movie never flinches from showing the savagery committed by both sides. Believe it or not, it was a novel movie idea at the time, especially when it was John Wayne playing one of the "bad" people.
With time, most of us came to appreciate the movie's strengths in a clearer light, and nowadays we can see that the movie is probably the apex of Ford's film career. Note, for instance Ford's framing of each scene and the photography of Winton Hoch, both exemplified by the opening and closing daylight shots, bookends filmed from within a house through a doorway, the bright outdoors framed by the dark interior walls. They were common shots Ford often used--to highlight a bright area of the screen with darkness around it. Note, too, that the movie ends with the door closing into complete darkness, a shot Francis Coppola would use to end "The Godfather." Looking back, Ford and "The Searchers" influenced countless subsequent films, including my own personal favorite Western, Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales."
You might also look for the number of medium and long shots Ford uses as compared to the relatively few times he actually closes in on an object or a face. He uses close-ups sparingly, to emphasize a point, and when he does, he makes the point all the more dramatically. Compare that to many of today's directors who use close-ups and quick editing so often they have a numbing effect. Ford was able to imply things that are more dynamic by our not seeing them. Just as he used close-ups infrequently, so did he use violence in moderation. Some of the most intense acts in the movie--murder, scalping, rape--the director only suggests, never shows. He let the audience use their imagination, and the movie is all the more powerful for it.
Then, too, Ford uses his favorite location for shooting, Monument Valley, the beauty of the landscape making a fascinating contrast with the brutality of the plot. Again, when I was a kid I took this landscape for granted as being the real West. I saw Monument Valley so often in movies I thought the entire West looked like that. Strangely, it never occurred to me that I grew up and lived in California, as far "West" as you could go in the continental United States, yet I never saw a single prairie or plateau like the ones in a John Ford Western. I never thought of myself as being a part of the actual "West," the one in the movies. I suppose film and television and literature in general continue to distort our perceptions of reality.
Anyway, Wayne may be playing a less-than-righteous individual here, but he never looked better. Rugged, handsome, in a characteristic red shirt and a rifle slung across his shoulders, he is the archetypal movie Westerner. But Ford makes this Westerner a person of dubious intent, an ambiguous man whom we never come fully to trust. Surely, that was Ford's sense of American history speaking in the movie, the sense that what the white settlers did in coming West was not always right or fair. And when we see Edwards himself taking a scalp, we're made sure of the fact.
The rest of the cast is up to par as well. Hunter as the young man who accompanies Edwards on the quest is properly youthful, enthusiastic, and arrogant. Natalie Wood as one of the girls they are searching for is beautiful and innocent. Ward Bond, a Ford regular, is bellowing, boisterous, and bigger than life. Vera Miles, John Qualen, Harry Carey Jr., Henry Brandon, and many others in the cast are more than adequate, but it is Wayne who towers above them all.
The film's drawbacks are minor: Ford's use of humor to break the built-up tension works in some cases, not in others; and the director's insistence on a romantic angle for young Pawley rather diminishes the movie's overall friction. But these are small concerns in a film that by and large captures the American spirit in all its glory and with all of its warts. "The Searchers" is at once an attractive and entertaining picture yet an intentionally harsh one in its depiction of the darker side of "the winning of the West."
In their restored and remastered print, Warner Bros. maintain most the film's original VistaVision aspect ratio of 1.75:1 across a widescreen television, and the results are generally superb. There are a few instances where perhaps the high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer is a trifle too dark, but in the main the image is sparkling, with no signs of age whatever. The colors shows up brilliantly, deep and vibrant. Object delineation is excellent; and detailing is generally well executed. Given the amount of wide-open expanses of land and sky involved in the shooting, there is relatively little grain in the picture.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound quality is just as sparkling as the picture quality, although you obviously won't find any surround information here. Nor is there much in the way of bass or dynamic extremes. However, you will find an extraordinary clarity in the dialogue and music that makes listening a pleasure on the ears.
Disc one of this two-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition contains the feature film, a generous forty-four scene selections, and a widescreen trailer. The disc also contains a two-minute introduction by John Wayne's son, Patrick Wayne, a co-star in the film; and, more important, it has an audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, always a joy listening to. In fact, Bogdanovich along with Roger Corman are probably my favorite film commentators because they never fail to entertain as well as enlighten. These are people who are filmmakers through and through, who have not only studied film but practiced filmmaking. Bogdanovich is a writer, director, producer, actor, biographer, and film historian; listening to him talk about folks he knew and worked with is a pleasure.
Disc two contains three documentaries and yet another trailer. The first documentary is "The Searchers: An Appreciation," a new, 2006 feature, thirty minutes long, in which filmmakers Curtis Hanson, Martin Scorsese, and John Milius comment on the film. The second documentary is "A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers," a 1998 feature, thirty-three minutes long, that takes us behind-the-scenes of the film's shooting. And the third documentary is a vintage piece hosted by Gig Young, twenty-one minutes long, called "Behind the Cameras," which includes segments on "Meet Jeffrey Hunter," "Monument Valley," "Meet Natalie Wood," and "Setting Up Production." Finally, there is a theatrical trailer for a new WB release, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
In addition to the two discs, the Collector's Edition includes in separate envelopes a reproduction of 1956 "The Searchers" Dell comic book; a reproduction of the original 1956 Warner Bros. press book; and reproductions of filmmaker memos, correspondence, and photographs from the movie. All of this material is housed in a handsome, leatherette-embossed slipcase, the discs themselves contained in a foldout, plastic-and-cardboard Digipak.
John Wayne said that of the many films he made with director John Ford, "The Searchers" was his favorite. Maybe it's because of the relative complexity of the character he played. Certainly, Ethan Edwards is a conflicted individual with a dark side, much less the straight-arrow hero that Wayne usually played. In any case, "The Searchers" remains a much more multi-layered Western than most other such examples of the genre, and it is surely a classic of its kind.
"The Searchers" may be purchased separately in the deluxe, two-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition" reviewed here, with all the bells and whistles; or in a regular, two-disc 50th Anniversary Edition; or in a big eight-movie box set, the "John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection." The box set also includes "Stagecoach," "The Long Voyage Home," "They Were Expendable," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Three Godfathers," and "The Wings of Eagles."