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1 rating: 1.0
A movie directed by John Ford

A classic Western regarded by many as the best of the genre, John Ford's THE SEARCHERS has been acknowledged by several directors who came into their own in the 1970s, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, and George Lucas, as a … see full wiki

Tags: Movies, Westerns
Cast: Natalie Wood
Director: John Ford
Release Date: 1956
MPAA Rating: Unrated
1 review about Searchers

What I Found About The Searchers: It's Decent

  • Oct 27, 2007
Pros: I can't think of anything smart today

Cons: Not for this either

The Bottom Line: Least of all for this waste of a box

John Ford won four Oscars for Best Director. That’s a hell of an achievement in any film era, especially in these days when directors work when they want – not when the studio makes them – and many are lucky to direct four movies at all. Ford, however, is rarely celebrated in your local college. He often gets passed over in lieu of foreign directors like Fellini and Antonioni. This is just as well. With a considerable bulk of classic movies on my critics’ resume, I’ve seen all of two John Ford movies. Both were overrated. The first was How Green was My Valley, which earned its infamy as the movie that beat Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar in 1941. The second was The Searchers, which didn’t take home any hardware whatsoever but is the more influential and acclaimed of the two.

The Searchers stars the ever-inflexible John Wayne as Confederate war hero Ethan Edwards. The tagline of The Searchers tells you that Ethan is out searching for his niece, who was kidnapped by Comanche Indians who also massacred his family. This naturally doesn’t sit well with Ethan, so out he goes to shoot up the Indians – including dead Indians. But then the tagline lies to you. Classic movie buffs love to tell you how moving it was when Ethan not only discovered his niece, but his own humanity. This is not true, and in the course of this review I’m going to tell you why. Since that requires me to spoil a sizable chunk of the movie, I advise those who plan to see The Searchers to hit the back button now, because I’m throwing every movie critics’ rule to the wind with this review and giving away this movie like a skin cream sample.

There’s this family in the old west. They have this uncle who the kids really like named Ethan Edwards, who’s played by John Wayne. They also have this occasional problem with attacks from a local Comanche tribe. One night, the Indians are coming again, and the family begins getting ready to mount a defense but the daughter ends up having to go outside. It’s just for a second, what harm can possibly come to her? Well, as it turns out, the Indians arrive during that second and take her away. I have to praise Ford for the way he handled the scene where we first see Scar, the Comanche chief who takes away the niece. The first time we see him is rather intimidating. Anyway, the family is slaughtered and the daughter is off to become one of the Comanche.

The big mistake of the Comanche, of course, was to not stick around long enough to kill off Ethan. Ethan is armed with a seething hatred of the Comanche well as encyclopedic knowledge of their ways and fluency in their language. Off he goes with his small team of ragtag cowboys to hunt down the bums who took away his niece and killed his family. Ethan is one of the worst bigots ever seen in the movies, about as bad as Rod Steiger’s character from In the Heat of the Night. It’s also clear from his knowledge of the Comanche culture that Ethan has a grudging respect for the people he’s trying to kill. But once Ethan’s hatred really starts to boil, there’s no way to believe he’s ever going to find any humanity within himself. There’s a very good scene near the beginning of the search which tells you how much Ethan hates the Comanche: When the searchers have to dig up an Indian cadaver, Ethan Takes his six-guns to the dead Indian’s already closed eyes and shoots them out. Why? Because without any eyes, he won’t be able to find his way through the spirit world. Yeah, real humane.

Ethan is an unstoppable madman during his five-year search for his niece, and only one of his boys stays with him through the loneliness, hunger, and unkind elements. The reason he stays with Ethan is to protect Ethan from himself. Ethan is indeed angry, but if anyone needs protecting, it’s the niece – who has pulled a Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves and gone native by the time they find her. Ethan is naturally angry to find this out and his love for the niece is left in favor of his hatred for the Comanche. When she refers to the Comanche as her people, the first thing Ethan tries to do is shoot her. At the end of the movie, his feelings are slightly softened, but only just enough so that he decides to take her home at the end when she asks him to. They hug in the final scene and he takes her off into the sunset.

My biggest qualm is that my definition of finding your own humanity is apparently different from John Fords. Ethan is clearly softened, but I don’t believe not shooting his niece qualifies as discovering his inner humanity. I hate to sound like a PC nut here, but to me, finding his humanity would have left Ethan with the feeling that maybe the Comanche aren’t so bad after all. But Ethan does nothing to make me believe his hatred of the Indians has lessened to that degree. I don’t blame him for not softening that much either. The Comanche wasted five years of his life.

The Searchers also has a side story about the engagement of one of Ethan’s men to a woman. This is a waste because there’s no conclusion and because there’s no point to it being there. It’s clearly forced in, which shows because the couple’s letter sending is one of the movie’s only sources of comic relief. In one funny scene, the character in question makes a trade with some Indians and receives more than he bargained for when he and Ethan realize that he has inadvertently accepted a wife! Well, he writes a letter back to his girl to tell the humorous story to her. The whole sequence, however goes over the top because he’s dumb enough to begin it with the sentence Let me tell you how I got a wife… You can probably guess how she reacts.

The movie’s photography is simply gorgeous. It ranks right up there with anything David Lean or Stanley Kubrick have ever shot. And the PC crowd may have problems with the portrayal of Indians – The Searchers was made back in 1956, before movie cowboys quit shooting the Indians and started training their six-guns on each other. The impression I got of The Searchers was that is was a pretty good movie which once had a lot of influence. But time went by, and that magic produced by this movie was stolen by the Time Monster. While I enjoyed the movie to a fairly large extent, I can’t honestly say my continuing movie education was in any way enhanced by watching it. It feels pretty standard-issue in this day and age. I’m going to place a recommended stamp on it because I liked it just enough to do so. But to say John Ford holds sway as an influential director or that The Searchers is a masterpiece? That’ll be the day.


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