John Wyne as Ethan Edwards
Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley
Images from jeffreyhuntermovies.com
The Searchers (1956) is considered by many to be a true American masterpiece of filmmaking, and the best, most influential, and perhaps most-admired film of director John Ford. It was his 115th feature film, and he was already a four-time Best Director Oscar winner (The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952)) - all for his pictures of social comment rather than his quintessential westerns. The film's complex, deeply-nuanced themes included racism, individuality, the American character, and the opposition between civilization (exemplified by homes, caves, and other domestic interiors) and the untamed frontier wilderness.
Ten to fifteen years after the film's debut, and after reassessing it as a cinematic milestone, a generation of "New Hollywood" film directors, French film critics and others, including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, and George Lucas, praised the film. They traced their own fascination with film to this mythic John Ford western, and in reverence, reflected his work in their own films (e.g., Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968), and Mean Streets (1973), Lucas' Star Wars (1977), Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), and Schrader's Hardcore (1979)). Even rock musician Buddy Holly wrote a song based on John Wayne's trademark line: "That'll Be The Day," popularized by the Beatles.
The Searchers tells the emotionally complex story of a perilous, hate-ridden quest and Homeric-style odyssey of self-discovery after a Comanche massacre, while also exploring the themes of racial prejudice and sexism. Its meandering tale examines the inner psychological turmoil of a fiercely independent, crusading man obsessed with revenge and hatred, who searches for his two nieces (Pippa Scott and Natalie Wood) among the "savages" over a five-year period. The film's major tagline echoed the search: "he had to find her...he had to find her."
What Makes a Man to Wander?, define the central theme of the film - one man's wanderings and obsessive search:
What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away.
The opening scene presents the visual motif of the framed doorway and threshold between the two worlds. The interior area in the cabin represents civilized values and the settled family. The brilliant, glaring, sunny outdoor area represents the savage and threatening land of the western frontier loner. The black silhouette of a frontier woman moves from the darkness, with a forward-tracking camera, through the door to the brightly sunlit wilderness outside through which Monument Valley is seen. Moving excitedly to the porch, she notices a man approaching - in the center of the frame - who slowly rides in from the desert in a mythic entrance - the man is framed between two distant buttes. This opening scene is symmetrical to the last one in the film, except that the character in the doorway is different.
As Ethan arrives home, the soundtrack is playing Lorena, a favorite song of Civil War soldiers from both the North and South - and a reminder of the lost love they left at home during wartime - its placement at this point in the film (and repeatedly at key points) is doubly symbolic given the context in the film and the unacknowledged, frustrated relationship between Ethan and Aaron's wife Martha.
(American Movie Classics Company LLC)
John Wyne as Ethan
Natalie Wood as Debbie
From Tiburon International Film Festival
The Searchers is a 1956 American Western film directed by John Ford. It is the story of Ethan Edwards, a middle-aged Civil War veteran portrayed by John Wayne, who spends years looking for his abducted niece with Martin Pawley, his adoptive nephew, portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter.
While a commercial success upon its 1956 release, The Searchers received no Academy Award nominations. It was named the Greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008. It also placed 12th on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the Top 100 greatest movies of all time.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Described by the director as a "psychological epic," The Searchers (1956) is John Ford's most revered Western, for its visual richness and profoundly ambiguous critique of the genre's (and America's) racism. Ford pushed John Wayne's archetypal Westerner into the realm of antiheroism, as Ethan's five-year quest to rescue his niece from Comanche chief Scar mutates into killing her when he discovers her living placidly as Scar's bride. While Ethan's lethal racism signals his insanity, Wayne's charismatic presence and Ethan's desire to salvage the family unit of "civilized" settlers carries its own sheen of Western heroism. Still, the famous final image of Ethan's departure into the desert reveals that "civilization" has no place for such an uncompromising figure. Shot on location in Colorado and Monument Valley, Ford's vividly arid Technicolor vistas render Ethan a man of the magnificent and punishing landscape, unable to reconcile his inner savagery with domestic constraints.
Greeted in America as just another quality Ford oater, the film was first reclaimed by French critics for the unresolved tensions and evocative style of Ford's narrative, elevating it to the status of cinematic art. With U.S. cinephiles following suit, The Searchers deeply influenced the 1970s "film school" generation and has since taken its place among the greatest Westerns ever made.
(Review by Lucia Bozzola at Ask)
All images from To Bathe in Filmic Waters
If John Ford is the greatest Western director, The Searchers is arguably his greatest film, at once a grand outdoor spectacle like such Ford classics as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) and a film about one man's troubling moral codes, a big-screen adventure of the 1950s that anticipated the complex themes and characters that would dominate the 1970s. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who returns to his brother Aaron's frontier cabin three years after the end of the Civil War. Ethan still has his rebel uniform and weapons, a large stash of Yankee gold, and no explanations as to where he's been since Lee's surrender. A loner not comfortable in the bosom of his family, Ethan also harbors a bitter hatred of Indians (though he knows their lore and language well) and trusts no one but himself. Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Aaron's adopted son, join a makeshift band of Texas Rangers fending off an assault by renegade Comanches. Before they can run off the Indians, several homes are attacked, and Ethan returns to discover his brother and sister-in-law dead and their two daughters kidnapped.
While they soon learn that one of the girls is dead, the other, Debbie, is still alive, and with obsessive determination, Ethan and Martin spend the next five years in a relentless search for Debbie -- and for Scar (Henry Brandon), the fearsome Comanche chief who abducted her. But while Martin wants to save his sister and bring her home, Ethan seems primarily motivated by his hatred of the Comanches; it's hard to say if he wants to rescue Debbie or murder the girl who has lived with Indians too long to be considered "white." John Wayne gives perhaps his finest performance in a role that predated screen antiheroes of the 1970s; by the film's conclusion, his single-minded obsession seems less like heroism and more like madness. Wayne bravely refuses to soft-pedal Ethan's ugly side, and the result is a remarkable portrait of a man incapable of answering to anyone but himself, who ultimately has more in common with his despised Indians than with his more "civilized" brethren.
Natalie Wood is striking in her brief role as the 16-year-old Debbie, lost between two worlds, and Winton C. Hoch's Technicolor photography captures Monument Valley's savage beauty with subtle grace. The Searchers paved the way for such revisionist Westerns as The Wild Bunch (1969) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and its influence on movies from Taxi Driver (1976) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977) testifies to its lasting importance.
(Mark Deming, All Movie Guide)
All images from jeffreyhuntermovies.com
Countless films of the Western genre had already shown racism as an unspoken premise but with The Searchers John Ford made a conscious decision to tackle it head-on. A choice for which he can only be admired, despite the tentative and often contradictive nature of his approach. The film goes futher than most in portraying racism as an integral part of human nature, and for this many can be heard to question its motives. Is the film designed to outline the harsh nature of this standpoint or is it in fact seen to sympathise with it? These days we have the ultimate advantage of hindsight but back in 1956 when The Searchers debuted people were only too willing to accept this racist stance. Of course the inbred racism paraded by Wayne’s protagonist can also be seen in many of the other characters, yet within Ethan it is apparently the most spiteful and deep-seated. He is, however, quite the walking contradiction; despising everything Native American yet showing a proud and advanced level of cultural miscegenation. He is intimately acquainted with their traditions, languages, and religions yet berates Martin for his minimal Cherokee heritage. Ethan hates Indians for their savagery yet doesn’t hesitate in scalping an enemy, he despises Martin’s Indian blood yet makes the boy his sole beneficiary, and finally attempts to kill his niece for fully embracing the Indian culture yet carries her safely home in the end.
(To Bathe in Filmic Waters)
The villain of the piece is a fabled Comanche chief named “Scar” who is introduced to us with his shadow, standing over the younger of the female hostages towards the beginning of the film. Despite fulfilling a stereotypically Hollywood take on the authoritative Native American (chest puffed, stony faced, and played by a white actor), he exists as an important mirroring character. Scar represents everything that Ethan despises in himself, and when the two do finally meet a complex array of racial and sexual fears come can be seen to arise. The mirrored nature of these two characters is illustrated perfectly in the jibe that Ethan swings towards Scar, stating that he speaks “pretty good American, for a Comanch”. Alluding of course that someone (his niece Debbie) must have taught him. Of course Scar flips the phrase and asks the same of Ethan, much to his annoyance. The aforementioned Martin character is just as important despite playing a supporting role. If Scar is the “bad” indian then Martin is undoubtedly the “good” one, showing unwavering loyalty to the white race. He signifies a shift in the Western genre also, in the creation of a Native American character who is the young hero of our tale. Despite displaying a plethora of antiheroic qualities, Ethan’s hatred towards all things Indian are made obvious enough that we distance ourselves from him. A point that is somehow framed by the final scene where he turns his back on us as an audience.
(To Bathe in Filmic Waters)
All images from jeffreyhuntermovies.com
The Searchers was released in 1956, and is based on a short story by Alan Le May. Le May’s story, “The Avenging Texans,” was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1954, and is itself rooted in a tragic event from Texas history, the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker, once in 1836, and again 1860.
The majority of filming was done in Monument Valley, Arizona, a particular favorite setting of director John Ford. Ford’s incredible eye for cinematography makes each scene seem painted, not filmed. No other film seems as tied to the land as The Searchers, primarily because Ford uses low-angle shots to allow the rock formations to dominate the frame. Even if the movie had a forgettable plot and actors sleeping through their roles, the natural beauty John Ford managed to capture on film (thanks to the VistaVision widescreen format) would be worth the expenditure of 119 minutes.
DIRECTOR: John Ford
CAST: Jeffrey Hunter, John Qualen, John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Olive Carey, Vera Miles, Ward Bond
PRODUCER: C.V. Whitney
composer: Max Steiner
editor: Jack Murray
cinematographer: Winton C. Hoch
music director: Max Steiner
screenwriter: Frank S. Nugent