The Searchers: Review
The Searchers, John Ford’s supreme masterpiece, is a spectacular Western that should be required viewing for every movie fan.
Even though Ford has a multitude of exceptional films to his credit (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, etc), The Searchers is considered to be the famed director’s ultimate achievement, as well as one of the greatest American films of all time, and one of the most influential films ever made landing on virtually every “best of” list since its release in 1956. It’s impossible to see this film and not come to the same conclusion.
The accolades are well earned due in large part to the film’s breathtaking cinematography and exceptional cast led by Ford favorite, John Wayne in a role completely against his well established type. Because of this, Ford had to battle with the studio in order to cast Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a formidable man who possesses an overwhelming personality that commands attention from settlers and Comanche alike. Known for his larger than life persona rather than for his acting, The Duke gives the performance of his career as the troubled Civil War veteran who spends five years on a vengeful journey to rescue his kidnapped niece, the only survivor of a brutal Comanche raid.
Wayne ‘s portrayal of the bitter and highly prejudiced man is arguably his finest performance. He delivers a stunning exhibition of his vastly under-appreciated acting ability, full of depth and complexity, proving once and for all that the former football star and prop man was more than just a screen icon. It may be hard to believe, but The Searchers proves that Wayne was a real, honest to goodness, actor. Wayne himself considered the role to be the best character he ever portrayed, naming one of his sons Ethan as homage to the character he played.
Supporting Wayne are many of Ford’s reliable stock actors (Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr., John Qualen) and a stellar roaster of 1950’s stars, including gorgeous Jeffrey Hunter as Wayne’s half-native nephew and Natalie Wood (Rebel Without a Cause) as the grown up niece who has assimilated with her captors. Vera Miles (Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho) also plays a crucial role as the love interest to Hunter, providing some much needed lighter moments when she ultimately gets tired of waiting to get married.
And of course there is the landscape itself. Majestic and beautiful, Ford’s portrait of the frontier is uniquely his own. As David Lean was with Lawrence of Arabia and the desert, Ford is with the old west. Whether depicting isolated settlements, or picturesque riverside camps, Ford seems to have had a composition palette inaccessible to any other filmmaker before or since. Every shot, every frame even, is so well constructed you can watch the film with no sound at all and enjoy it just as much. Perhaps even glean more from the pictures than you would have otherwise.
Listed among many prestigious rankings including the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and “Entertainment Weekly’s Greatest Films of All Time”, The Searchers is more than a necessary viewing experience for the classic film enthusiast, it’s a prime example of the height of exceptional filmmaking by one of the art form’s most talented and prolific collaborators, John Ford and John Wayne.