The Searchers


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

The Searchers
"A vital part of your film education."

"What makes a man to wander/what makes a man to roam/What makes a man leave house and home/and wander off alone?"

Thus asks the theme song to John Ford's classic 1956 western The Searchers, one of the key films of its time and a lasting influence on generations of film-makers since.

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At the film's heart is the complex, contradictory character of Ethan Edwards, played by the inimitable John Wayne. A Confederate veteran of the Civil War, he unexpectedly turns up on his brother Aaron's (Walter Coy) new Texas homestead after a three year absence; it's highly likely he has been living an outlaw life and that his bags of silver weren't obtained by legitimate means.

Soon after, a Comanche raiding party, led by the cunning and ruthless Chief Scar, attacks the homestead while Ethan is out hunting for what he thinks are rustlers. All the family are killed except 10-year-old Debbie (played as she grows up by Natalie Wood). As far as Ethan is concerned, however, the fate Scar has in store for the girl is one worse than death – she is to be raised as a Comanche and will, in time, become Scar's wife.

Motivated by revulsion at this thought, Ethan begins an epic quest to 'save' the girl, accompanied only by Aaron's adopted son, the one-eighth Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). That one-eighth, however, is more than sufficient to ensure Ethan's suspicion and hostility.

Prefiguring the likes of Taxi Driver in its presentation of an anti-hero who is, quite frankly, unpleasant and borderline psychotic - shooting out the eyes of dead Indians in order that their spirits will not be unable to find their way to the happy hunting grounds or slaughtering buffalo because it reduces their food supply - The Searchers is a dark, dark film.

Though frequently read as a thinly-veiled commentary on race relations in the context of the nascent Civil Rights movement, it has that capacity, common to all great films, of allowing for a multitude of multi-layered interpretations. Thus, for example, as an auteur film, it emerges as another installment in Ford's ongoing examination of the foundation myths of his adopted country in which the Native American increasingly moved from the likes of Stagecoach's savage – or more charitably and problematically – noble savage, through to Cheyenne Autumn's representative of a pre-existing civilisation regrettably destroyed by the white man fulfilling his "manifest destiny" and bringing a ever-more dubious-seeming 'progress' in his wake.

All this also contributes, of course, to making The Searchers a regular feature in critics' top 10 lists, a vital part of your film education and - yes - an absolute "must see".

Reviewed on: 09 Jan 2007
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The Searchers packshot
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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Chris ****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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