The Searchers


Reviewed by: Chris

The Searchers

"What makes a man to wander?" These words are echoed in the song at the beginning of The Searchers. They conjure up a basic masculine drive. The instinct to search, both on a physical level and within oneself is an enduring theme in films and human lives. An antithesis of the stay-at-home, husband-material persona, they also capture a wanderlust associated more with the anti-hero - the dangerously attractive independent man.

Departing from the set formula of Westerns, The Searchers explores these themes - as well as those of other sexual stereotypes, racism, the 'all-American hero' and, most importantly, the dichotomy between civilisation and the great untamed wilderness. Its emotional richness is more that of a melodrama than of a shoot-out between good guys and bad injuns - something that maybe contributed both to its lack of immediate success and to its enduring influence over subsequent generations of movie-makers. The Searchers is revered for the complexity of its plot as well as its technical brilliance.

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John Wayne is Ethan, returning home after a long period away. He is someone who has seen life, fought in the war, knows more about Indians than most people, and hates Comanches with a vengeance. The emotional baggage he carries with him is hidden beneath a hard exterior and a big cowboy hat, but this is a film that is bursting with so many clues that it demands the attention normally reserved for recondite art-house movies rather than no-brainer Westerns.

Shortly after his return, what family Ethan has left is brutally raped and murdered in an Indian raid, but his ten-year old niece Debbie is captured and raised wigwam style. Ethan sets off on an odyssey to find her that takes several years. Other family members, bandits and the cavalry hang on his shirt tails trying to keep up. If this brutally simplified synopsis makes it sound formulaic, be assured that the big scenes are not the gunfights or ambushes but the emotional tensions, as our hard-nosed characters take us through moral quagmires.

The film is also intensely visual. Shot using the stunning scenery of Monument Valley, it passes from sun bleached desert to snows that come up past the stirrups. The cinematography is striking, particularly in its use of framing shots (such as looking out into the sunshine from dark interiors through a doorframe or cave entrance) and deep focus shots (where our attention is drawn simultaneously to both the foreground and the background).

Ethan has a certain chemistry with his brother's wife which complicates things, but one of the most emotional moments is when Marty, his saddle-companion, leaves his childhood sweetheart Laurie to follow his conscience. Laurie provides some excellent comic moments later on when we witness her barely concealed delight as two men fight over her.

As a European watching The Searchers, your reviewer was struck by the 'Americanness' of the film, which seemed to give realistic historical background explaining everything from the rather barbaric attachment to a right to bear arms, unenergetic barn dances that could practically be done sitting down, simplistic religion, and the tendency to talk rather louder than is necessary. But they are hardly faults in the film; and on the plus side if we are talking about American-ness, John Wayne's obsessive desire not only to see things through against all odds but eventually to be willing to reconsider his values is a testament to the qualities of that country.

One of the most influential works in cinema history, the Searchers is a film that handsomely rewards careful inspection.

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2006
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A lone man spends years obsessively searching for his kidnapped niece until it becomes unclear what he might do if he finds her.
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Read more The Searchers reviews:

Keith Hennessey Brown ****1/2

Director: John Ford

Writer: Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan Le May.

Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Johnston Clayton, Natalie Wood.

Year: 1956

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

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