The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers – 1956

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood

In my review of the another John Ford, John Wayne, western on this list, I complained about the fact that the story seemed shallow, the characters didn’t seem invested in what was happening to them, and that Wayne couldn’t act.  Stagecoach was a blueprint for most of, if not all of the westerns that came after it, The Searchers included.  But where Stagecoach attempted and (in my humble opinion) didn’t succeed, The Searchers passes with flying colors.  Everything from the scenery, the plot, and the acting was leagues better in this film.  Apparently I spoke too soon.

The Searchers, despite the trip that drives the plot, is really about the relationship between two men.  One, played by the perfectly crotchety Wayne is a hardened soldier, Ethan Edwards, who after having fought for the south in the Civil war, has an intimate knowledge of the evil that men can do to each other.  The other, Jeffrey Hunter, plays the slightly naive Martin Pawley, the adopted, half Native American son of Ethan’s only family.  At first, Ethan both distrusts as well as dislikes Martin because of his nationality, but eventually the two men find themselves working together when most of the family gets brutally massacred by Comanche indians, and the women are taken hostage.

Edwards and Pawley set out on an epic journey to find the two lost women, and in the process reveal a good deal about themselves.  Their ride takes them from New Mexico all the way north to the Canadian border.  They slog through the heat, rain and snow for 5 years looking for the elusive band of indians that are responsible for the massacre and kidnapping. 

The real revelation for me with this film, was Wayne’s acting.  He doesn’t just play a stereotype version of himself.  While Ethan is tough, and smart, he is also mean and wounded.  He’s been hurt before, by the Union, by Comanche indians, and he’s not about to let himself be hurt again.  Wayne plays him realistically, blemishes and all, flexing his acting muscle and in my eyes earning the notoriety that surrounds him.  Hunter’s Pawley is essentially the relief from Wayne’s gritty performance.  It balances the tone of the movie, keeping it moving forward on an even keel.  Hunter’s is not nearly as profound of a performance as Wayne’s, but it is exactly what is needed from his character.  The film both starts and ends with an image of Wayne in his element, and he is truly the character that changes the most.

Cinematographically, this film is miles beyond what we saw in Stagecoach.  One major element is the brilliant Technicolor that it was shot on.  The saturated blues and reds of the landscape mix and accentuate nicely with the passion of the character’s emotions.  Everything is bright, shocking, and powerful.  The vistas of Monument Valley have never looked as good as they did here (fully taking care of one of my complaints about Stagecoach), and the full range of climate, weather, and time of day was on display in this film.  Oppressive snow storms, rain, hot sun, and nighttime action are all on display here.  Our characters live in a hard scrabble, dangerous, yet beautiful environment, one that they must be wary of at all times. 

The aforementioned shot of Wayne that opens and closes the movie, is such a fantastic way to introduce the character at the start, and illustrate how he has changed by the end, it is by far my favorite part of the film.   Before I started it, I was more than expecting to see Stagecoach 2, but instead I got a thoughtful, elegant film with masterful performances by its actors, and subtle yet powerful guidance by its director.  The Searchers more than deserves to be on this list of best movies ever!

6 thoughts on “The Searchers (1956)

  1. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List « 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die!

  2. John Ford was a veteran well before “Stagecoach”, but I whole heartedly agree “The Searchers” is definitely a superior movie. Probably my favorite John Wayne movie with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” in a close second. Both of these were well before the grizzled “Duke” that came to be known in his later years when he was riding on his name, rather than his talent. “The Alamo”, “True Grit”, “Chisum”, “Big Jake”, “McQ”; all of these were just “John Wayne movies” while they may have been welcome in their time, were a far cry from the quality of John Ford’s movies that happened to star Mr. Wayne. Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy” (in my opinion, the wrong one was picked to be included in “The Book”, no way “Rio Grande” is better than “Fort Apache”) even the light “Donovan’s Reef” holds a special place in my heart.

    You might also be interested in “The Informant” starring Victor McLaglen as an IRA member that sells out with hopes of leaving the troubled Ireland, but who’s conscience will not let it happen easily.

    • I think The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance is on the list…if so, I’m looking forward to checking it out. Before Stagecoach and The Searchers my only exposure to Wayne as an actor was from the god-awful Green Berets. Essentially a propaganda film for the US stance on the war in Vietnam, I don’t think many people liked it too much.

      I will totally check out The Informant. Based on your description it sounds like The Informant and The Searchers was blended together to make “Duck You Sucker!” (Also known as A Fist Full of Dynamite) a fairly unknown (as far as I know) film from Sergio Leone, with Rod Stieger and James Coburn. I recommend it pretty highly if you like the spaghetti westerns.

  3. I don’t think it’s on the list of 1001 movies, but The Shootist is another great Wayne performance you should catch up with, it was also his last.

    • I don’t think that it is on the list, but I will definitely check it out. I think the most fun part about watching all of these movies that are so famous they’re almost notorious is when my preconceptions are completely off base.

      Truely I didn’t think Wayne had it in him to make something as good as The Searchers, but I’m glad I was wrong. I’d love to be proven doubly wrong!

  4. I have to say that I didn’t like “The Searchers” as well as you did. I agree that the outdoor landscapes were beautiful, and the beginning and ending scenes showing John Wayne silhouetted, alone, against the landscape, were very effective.

    I liked Jeffrey Hunter’s character better than John Wayne’s. I guess that Wayne did show more depth in this performance than in Stagecoach, but I still think that he has a pretty limited range as an actor.

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