Saturday, October 17, 2015

304. The Searchers (1956)

Running Time: 118 minutes
Directed By: John Ford
Written By: Frank S. Nugent, from novel by Alan Le May
Main Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood
Click here to view the trailer


I can remember first starting this project, back in the fall of 2009 and getting up very early on certain mornings to watch movies and write reviews. I managed to fit in The Searchers last night, right before bed, but made sure to set my alarm for 7:00am, so that I could get up while my wife was at work and put in a good effort at ticking off a few more films and reviews. I hit the snooze a few times, but here I am...

Don't ask me why, but this might be one of the greatest opening shots I've ever seen - it just appeals to me for some reason.

The film opens with a terrific shot of a woman opening her front door, stepping out, craning her neck and spotting John Wayne's Ethan Edwards coming out of the desert, a lone man returning to his family, post Civil War. The family consists of Ethan's brother - Aaron, Aaron's wife - Martha and their three legitimate children: Ben, Debbie and Lucy. The next morning, Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton (Bond) comes a calling on the Edwards' clan, informing them that someone has stolen a local man's cattle and he needs men for a posse. Ethan convinces Aaron to stay behind, while he and the Edwards' adopted son Martin Pawley (Hunter) ride off to help the group. They eventually find the cattle dead and Ethan surmises that the whole affair with the cows was only a ploy to get the men away, so that Comanche Indians could attack their homesteads. Upon their arrival back at the Edwards' home, Ethan and company find the place burned to the ground, with only the remains of Aaron, Martha and Ben to be found - thus the Indians kidnapped the girls. Ethan, a lone rebel means to ride off and find him by himself, however, Martin won't hear of it, insisting to ride along beside the Duke. Add Lucy's boyfriend Brad and the trio set out to find the girls.


Not only do I remember occasionally getting up early back in the fall of 2009, but I can also remember way back to my teen years, getting very interested in film. The very first list that I ever tried to tackle was the AFI 100 Years...100 Movies list, the original one. This was in the days before Netflix, so renting the movies was out of the question. Instead, I'd make trips to F.Y.E. and purchase the movies on videotape. This was also at a time when I'd seen VERY few, if any, classic films, so it was my first exposure to not only a certain time period, but also to certain actors, actresses and directors. Well, I only made it about ten movies in before I decided to quite, but five of the classics that I remember seeing were: Yankee Doodle Dandy, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, The Apartment, Bringing Up Baby and The Searchers. Whether I liked them all or not is irrelevant, I still manage to hold all of these films in high regard, since, at that time, they were the five oldest films I'd seen. I remember LOVING pretty much all of them, except The Searchers. There was something about the dusty plains, the clip-clop of horses and the gunslinging that just didn't appeal to yours truly and I simply didn't take to it. Flash forward to today and recently on the blog we've been talking about westerns and how much I'm not into them - so not much has really changed, has it?

Except, I actually liked The Searchers this go around. Now, let me say that again...I LIKED The Searchers. I know a lot of people consider this western to be the greatest one of all time and while it would probably be up there on a list of my favorite westerns, I have a problem calling it the greatest anything. In 1992 Sight & Sound magazine voted it the fifth greatest movie of all-time, which I think is a bit much, but at least I can sort of understand the recognition. While the general feel and layout of The Searchers is very OF it's time, basically everything else is definitely not what I think of when I think "1956 movie". The one thing that really popped out to me while watching The Searchers was the absolutely awesome cinematography, an aspect of film that THE BOOK has really opened my eyes to. The camerawork here was top notch and something that could hold up today against even the most talented of cinematographers and 3D effects "artists". It seemed like every other frame I was picking out great shots, saying "ooh, that'd be a good one for the blog". Of course there's also the racial dialogue that comes from the Ethan character and is directed toward the Comanche, but you know what? While watching, I really didn't think of it as racist - let me explain. It was a cowboy saying he hated Indians - to me it wasn't racism, it was just the same old cliche story we've seen hundreds of times in hundreds of westerns. To me, on this viewing, it wasn't racism, the two were just natural enemies. But, of course, I'm wrong - it was raging racism and in watching a snippet of an interview with Martin Scorsese this morning on YouTube, he points out that "Ethan hates the Comanche so bad, that he hates them beyond the grave".

The one other aspect of The Searchers that is so fascinating is that the whole film is about nothing but the SEARCH (imagine that). And here's the thing: Martin is searching to save a life, while Ethan may be searching to end one. Why did these two guys search for FIVE YEARS PLUS to find one little girl? I mean, think about that: nowadays you get you'd get your picture slapped on the side of a milk carton after a few weeks and you'd be forgotten about by the general public soon after, thought dead. I'd say Martin didn't stop searching because he was sort of dimwitted and he didn't really have anywhere else to go. His purpose in life burnt to the ground when the Comanche burned down the Edwards' homestead, so why not stick by Ethan and roam the countryside, even if it takes forever? Ethan kept going because he was so freaking racist that he couldn't stand the thought of one of his kinfolk being contaminated by a Comanche tribe. I'd say it was his intention throughout the whole western to find her and kill her and then ride off into the sunset with maybe a tear in his eye for the eight-year-old niece that he could finally get some closure on.

If you think about it, this is just as much a detective story, as it is a western. I personally think someone (preferably talented) needs to remake The Searchers, but not as a western. I kind of have a feeling this has already been done, so comment me if it has. However, I could definitely see The Searchers set on the streets, a kidnapped girl getting picked up and a couple of detectives spending five years searching for her. I think, if done right, it could be something really great, but like I said, I somehow get the feeling that this has already happened and I'm just forgetting something.

It wasn't my favorite, by any means, but I can't in good conscience call The Searchers anything but a great, must see movie. I don't think I need to see it again and I MIGHT not put on a personal list of great movies, but let's face facts kiddies, it's good stuff on display from the John's here and if you haven't seen it, you MUST, at least once. The cinematography is something to behold and while the groundwork may certainly feel like an old fashioned western, the details are very watchable and engrossing. I think most will find a character in Ethan Edwards that is prime for dissection. I'm sure essays could be written on that character, but I'll leave that to the essay writers of the world. As for me, call it a mild win and perhaps I've finally found that truly great western, even though, in my opinion, "great" is a just a bit of a stretch.

RATING: 7/10  I can't in good conscience go higher and for the same reason, I can't go lower. I know I just said I don't need to see it again, but on the contrary, this may be one of those movies that I need to see ten more times before I really appreciate it like everyone else does.


October 17, 2015  8:37am


  1. I completely agree with your score. The Searchers is a good film, but I have never understood the greatest Western label. Good review.

    1. Glad to know I'm not alone in calling this "not a great". Thanks for the comment Larry.

  2. It was so funny that you mentioned essays, because I wrote an essay on The Searchers in college! I love this movie. Good review!

  3. Oh boy, this is going to be difficult .. and a bit heavy.

    There are times when I've had decided differences of opinion with you Andrew .. and that's fine .. I don't think we've ever fallen out about anything - not even Casablanca or Cat People. We don't think anything the less of each other for that difference. Sometimes - and this is the good bit - a disagree makes us both pause, even if for only a moment - to reconsider.

    Even better still, if one of us makes a point that can be expressed. loosely, as "Try looking at it this way", and we do ... Bear with me.. I will come back to this at the end.

    These things are great, and it's why we are on such a board.

    And when we disagree, we can both pretty much be sure someone will back our side.

    So imagine my feeling of utter isolation as I stand, all alone, facing not just you Andrew, but Larry and Amanda in almost detesting this one.

    Thing is, I sort of suspect (know?) I am the wrong one. I guess I have almost chosen to misunderstand the whole message of the movie.
    I just cannot get past the vile character and attitude of Ethan. The whole thing of 'she's been abducted and raped by people different to us, so SHE has to die.
    Now, before you all rush to correct me, I guess I do, sort of, get the punch line. That end shot. Ethan is ALONE. His attitudes have isolated him, and I guess that is maybe what we should take away .. all that racism, sexism and other assorted hates don't belong in a decent household (read as 'society').
    Maybe. But this is a John Wayne western by John Ford. I cannot get it out of my head we are supposed to be rooting for him, and I'm sorry, but I suspect both Wayne and Ford spent the film doing so. I still suspect they see it as a shame that such a fine man as Wayne/Ethan is cast out. He did 'what a man's gotta do' and we should end up sympathising with him and regret that the 'good, decent folks' don't share his view on the ways of the old west.
    There is such a vile taste all through this film, that a (to me) token gesture at the end will not take away.

    But .. and this is the great bit I was thinking of at thee beginning.. Andrew.. I loved this bit in your review.. "If you think about it, this is just as much a detective story, as it is a western. I personally think someone (preferably talented) needs to remake The Searchers, but not as a western." And That made me think...

    Wow, yes .. A modern take. Large city. Black or Hispanic street gang abducts and rapes nice middle class white girl. Relative goes after her, gunning down any other Black / Hispanic he happens to come across, irrespective of their part - or lack of- in the crime. How on earth would we feel about him ending the film walking off at the end of the film with a "Aww isn't it sad for him to be left all alone" composed shot and sympathetic score?

    Phew . Sorry folks, that went on a bit.

    Now Ray has to walk off the board, all alone, whilst Andrew, Amanda and Larry go "poor guy, he didn't get it did he"

    1. No, I definitely get what you're saying.

      So in a modern revamp, I'd feel sorrier for THAT character walking down the black street, all alone. See...I didn't pick up on that from Wayne's character. It went over my head that "Oh, he's all alone cause he's a jerk".

      Even though I AM bothered by these macho types in real, everyday life...they don't seem to get to me on film as much as they irk you, which is fine. I completely understand your hatred for Ethan and its justified. I think you're right too about the Ford/Wayne pairing being very hesitant to make Ethan come off as the bad guy. He's clearly the knight in shining armor here and clearly Martin wouldn't have found Debra sans Ethan.

      Thank you for the well thought out reply Ray, always appreciated!

    2. I agree completely with what you said. I found Ethan to be repulsive (although I never got the sense that we were supposed to root for him like Clint Eastwood's character in High Plains Drifter). But at the end of the movie I felt like the message was that he didn't belong anymore. (and to an extent, John Wayne didn't belong either). However, I suppose this is open to interpretation and a racist, sexist person could easily think of Ethan as a champion. So it's a tough one...but that is what makes it fun!

    3. I feel life everything that you guys and girls are saying about this movie only makes me appreciate it more. I've never thought of westerns as so deep. Cowboys vs. Indians, "lets muddle through the desert on our horses and form posses and shoot guns, yay".. Yet here's a western with actual themes and characters that are ripe for dissection.

      Perhaps we're meant to see it as, only a man as hateful as Ethan could sacrifice the five years+ necessary to hunt down Scar and Debbie? Would Martin have found Debra without Ethan, no. He may have even given up, if not for wanting to best Ethan, prove he could hang with the Duke. Perhaps without his racism, Debra would've been doomed, because a man without a hateful heart would have eventually just left her to the Comanche - not Ethan.

      And then at the end, when he's served his purpose, he's no longer needed...

  4. I haven't seen the film but director Ron Howard has stated in several TV interviews that "The Missing" (2003) is an updated remake of "The Searchers" (1956).

    1. Okay, yeah...I think I may have known that. I think I MIGHT have see The Missing but it's been 10+ years ago and I don't remember a lick of it.

  5. .. And thanks from me to you all for picking up on my comments. (I was hoping you would drop by Amanda.. I looked on your site to see if I'd said something there .. but I guess you did it before I caught up with you )
    Some very good points you both raise about how to look at this .. (or even if we should try and read too much into it). I like Amanda's point that perhaps the bad thing is the hoards of baying rednecks who will be cheering him on.
    As far as Ford / Wayne go.. I think they really believed in him and his mission. I mean, c'mmon, Wayne named his son Ethan. You don't do that for nothing.

    1. I did not know he named his son Ethan. Interesting.

      I think we've compiled an even better review here in the comments section than I put together above. Thanks to everyone who joined in on the conversation.


SINS OF OMISSION - Entry #69: Re-Animator (1985)

Running Time: 105 minutes Directed By: Stuart Gordon Written By: Dennis Paoli, William Norris, Stuart Gordon, based on the story Her...