The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers

  • Heralded by the American Film Institute, amongst others, as the best western ever made, The Searchers is an excellent movie.
  • Famed director John Ford makes a political statement on racism and the genocide of indigenous Americans. While the white characters receive the most screen time and development, their behavior is, in many ways, more offensive than the native’s, not least because we see their worst crimes.
  • It is a manipulative and effective ploy. After the Comanches raid the Edwards’ farm, Ford shows us the burning house, but not the dead bodies. Compare that to White soldiers’ raid of a Native American camp, where we see destroyed structures and murdered people, one of whom we even know and like, at least a little.
  • Consider the characters, as well. Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) speaks softly, and remains mostly approachable, despite his attempts at intimidation.
  • What about Ethan Edwards (John Wayne)? He is obsessive, remorseless and coldly ruthless, all of which make him scary.
  • Even Lorie (Vera Miles), one of the film’s most sensible characters, tells Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) that his kidnapped sister is no longer white. Her hatred, like everyone else’s, is chilling.
  • In other words, director John Ford ensures we understand that European Americans victimized indigenous peoples.
  • Thankfully, neither he nor writer Frank Nugent sacrifice narrative for theme. Ethan, for example, is layered by intelligence, sense of humor and obvious, perhaps even inappropriate, affection for his brother’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan).
  • The other important characters, especially Martin, are also well developed.
  • Plus, Ford and Nugent pace their plot rapidly, moving their story along, ensuring we are never bored.
  • Likewise, Ford’s many striking visuals impress. The Searchers is downright beautiful, even sixty-plus years after its creation.
  • John Wayne’s nuanced performance deserves praise, as well.
  • Though some of the other actors, like Hunter, are less skillful.
  • And Nugent’s 1950s colloquialisms distract. After all, it’s unlikely nineteenth century frontiersmen used phrases like, “Go steady.” Nugent would have been wise to pattern dialogue on the period in which his characters reside.
  • But The Searchers’ flaws are minor. It is so well made, in fact, that it has value for all viewers, both fans and non-fans of westerns or John Wayne.
  • Final Grade: A-

23 thoughts on “The Searchers (1956)

    • I can see why. It is very good.

      I personally don’t much like westerns, usually. While this exemplary in its genre, it’s still a western. So I don’t know how quickly I’ll be running out to re-watch it. πŸ™‚

  1. You know what, it’s weird. I have always found this to be really overrated. Don’t get me wrong I like it. But I have just never loved it with the same intense passion that plenty of others have.

    • Honestly, either do I. But that is primarily because it’s a western, a genre I don’t typically like. I think this am exceptionally well made western, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, but I still won’t be in any hurry for a repeat viewing.

  2. I love Westerns and I enjoy the work of John Wayne. Yet I have never watched this…..

    Shame eh? The political elements look strong and worth of our attention! Racism is still a strong topic in today’s world….generally…so it can even still apply!

  3. I think this movie might be a little overrated. Mind you, it is still a very good movie and Wayne gives one of his best performances. But . . . I don’t know. I found it somewhat contradictory. I realize that Ford was exposing the violence and racial hatred of both the white settlers and the Commanches, but at the same time, some of his portrayals of the Commanches and occasionally the whites seemed hamfisted and one-dimensional. I would have to write an entire review or essay to explain what I mean. And aside from Wayne and Brandon, the rest of the cast seemed to be giving hammy performances. Even Jeffrey Hunter would occasionally get rather loud and hammy.

    I think “THE SEARCHERS” is still a pretty good movie, but perhaps a little overrated.

    • That is a fair opinion. I think the Comanches were well represented, especially given the era in which the film was produced, but I agree some of the whites are one dimensional. And I think the Native American characters are under-utilized.

  4. Lana Wood, who played a young Debbie Edwards in The Searchers, is scheduled to appear at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, Sept. 18-20, in Hunt Valley, Md., at the Hunt Valley Wyndham Hotel. Also scheduled to appear are Piper Laurie, Veronica Cartwright, Angela Cartwright, Lee Meredith, George Lazenby, and more. More information is at http://midatlanticnostalgiaconvention.com.

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