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  • Carrie Specht

Film Critic Kevin Thomas presents "The Searchers" at the Aero Theatre


John Ford’s Supreme Masterpiece, The Searchers, is a spectacular Western that should be required viewing for every movie fan. Now that it’s being showcased among film critic Kevin Thomas’ Favorite Picks, you’ll be able to fulfill that requirement this Wednesday, April 16th at 7:30 PM at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, with an in person introduction from Thomas himself.

Although John Ford has a multitude of exceptional films to his credit (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, Rio Grande, etc), The Searchers is considered by many to be the famed director’s ultimate achievement, as well as one of the great American films of all time. Which is not surprising since Ford is the only director to be recognized four times by the Academy of Motion Pictures as Best Director of the year (The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green was My Valley, and The Quiet Man), and the Western is the only genre that by definition is uniquely American. Far more complex and thought provoking than your usual Western, The Searchers is regarded as one of the best and most influential of all films ever made, consistently ranked near the top of every “best of” list since its release in 1956.

The accolades are well earned due in large part to the film’s enormous scope, breathtaking beauty and exceptional cast lead by Ford favorite, John Wayne in a role completely against type of his well-established man of honorable character. The Duke gives the performance of his career as Ethan Edwards, a deeply troubled Civil War veteran who spends five years on a vengeful journey to rescue his kidnapped niece. A pre-Rebel Without a Cause Natalie Wood is Ethan’s only surviving family member of a brutal Comanche raid that leaves Ethan growing more obsessive and irrational as the journey progresses.

Accompanied by his half-native, adopted nephew (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan is forced to confront his own prejudices, revealing the rescue search is driven by extreme racism. When his relentless pursuit leads him to his niece, now grown up and assimilated with her captors, Ethan’s true motivation becomes questionable as to whether he wants to save his beloved relative or kill the young woman now “contaminated” by her cohabitation with the enemy. It is in this dramatic moment that the character of Ethan fully attains the personification of the contradictions and dark side of the American frontier and the internal conflicts inherent in the very nature of being an American.

For such a complex role, Ford had to battle with the studio in order to cast Wayne as the bigoted Ethan Edwards, a formidable man who physically dominates other men, and possesses an overwhelming personality that commands attention from settlers and Comanche alike. Known for his larger than life persona rather than for his acting, John Wayne delivers what is arguably his finest performance, a stunning exhibition of his vastly underappreciated acting ability, conveying a depth of character unsurpassed by previous performances.

Wayne himself considered the role to be the best character he ever portrayed on-screen (naming a son Ethan in homage). And in a year dominated by the likes of Peyton Place and Sayonara, Wayne truly did deserve a nod of recognition, but came time for the Academy Awards, none was given. Interestingly enough, with such accolades, it’s hard to believe that the film was not recognized by the Academy with even a single nomination in any category. The only professional acknowledgement the film received upon its initial release was a Directors Guild of America nomination for John Ford for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures.

Listed among many prestigious rankings including the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and the “Entertainment Weekly 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 teams of collaborators, John Ford and John Wayne. Then there’s the cinematography, the landscape, the supporting cast of Ford’s stock players, and so many other good reasons to see this film it just doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of this rare opportunity to view a true masterpiece on the silver screen. In this case the simile is quite apt.

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