Rio Grande takes place after the Civil War when the Union turned their attention towards the Apaches. Union officer Kirby Yorke is in charge of an outpost on the Rio Grande in which he is ... See full summary »
Ethan Edwards, returned from the Civil War to the Texas ranch of his brother, hopes to find a home with his family and to be near the woman he obviously but secretly loves. But a Comanche raid destroys these plans, and Ethan sets out, along with his 1/8 Indian nephew Martin, on a years-long journey to find the niece kidnapped by the Indians under Chief Scar. But as the quest goes on, Martin begins to realize that his uncle's hatred for the Indians is beginning to spill over onto his now-assimilated niece. Martin becomes uncertain whether Ethan plans to rescue Debbie...or kill her. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The best western ever made is how many regard this 1956 John Ford classic. Its star John Wayne gave his most winning performance and it is reputed to have been his favourite movie even to the extent of his naming his last born son Ethan after the character he played. Ford's beloved Monument Valley in Arizona never looked more spectacular in Vista Vision and colour and over the years the picture has gained cult status. An integral part of the combined elements that makes THE SEARCHERS great is Max Steiner's outstanding score. It is the picture's driving force - its backbone. Steiner's music propels the film forward, unifies the narrative and gives greater density to its key scenes. In fact without his music much of the picture's impact would be considerably diminished. Yet I am consistently amazed and at a total loss to see here on these pages - where the best part of 400 reviews appear - that Steiner's music is hardly referred to at all by any of the writers. Not only that but even on the extras of the last DVD release three well established film directors, Martin Scorsese, John Milius and Peter Bogdanovitch each speak glowingly of Ford's masterpiece but fail to mention Steiner's exceptional contribution. Bogdanovitch, at one stage, briefly mentions the music and how good it is but never puts a name on its composer. I find this not only doctrinaire but quite bizarre that these three men, who you would imagine should know better, would have such a detached attitude concerning one of the most perfectly conceived scores for a motion picture. Therefore I will attempt here to amend this anomaly and the afore mentioned omissions and give some deserving credence to Max Steiner's exceptional music for THE SEARCHERS which has well earned its place in the history of cinema.
A veritable orchestral explosion opens the picture in the form of a fanfare over the Warner Bros. logo. As the credits roll we hear the haunting Stan Jones ballad "Song Of The Searchers" wonderfully rendered by Ford favourites The Sons Of the Pioneers. The composer later interpolates this song into his score as the theme for the racist protagonist Ethan Edwards (Wayne). Then a lovely version - scored for guitar, solo trumpet and strings - of the traditional ballad "Lorena" plays under Ford's evocative 'frame within a frame' opening scene as the door of a remote homestead opens to reveal an approaching rider. It then skillfully segues into "Bonnie Blue Flag" to point up the rider's confederate allegiance. The "Lorena" ballad later becomes the family theme and is especially effective on solo violin for the scene where Ethan gives the young Debbie his wartime medal as her "gold locket" ("Oh, let her have it - it doesn't amount to much" declares Ethan somberly). And later it is arrestingly heard on spinet as Ethan bids farewell to the family and rides out with the posse to begin what effectively will be his great search. But where the score really shines is in the powerful music for the Indian sequences. Here there is a palpable authenticity in the scoring. Aided by the clever orchestrations of Murrey Cutter and some virtuoso playing by the Warner Bros. orchestra (particularly in the percussion section) Steiner fires on all cylinders adding realism, pathos and a sense of foreboding. There are echoes of the composer's "King Kong" (1933) in the cue for the scene where the Indians surround the posse and the music becomes rhythmically savage for the charge at the river and for the attack on the Indian camp near the finale. The composer's celebrated "Indian Idyll" (which he originally wrote five years earlier for the Burt Lancaster picture "Jim Thorpe-All American") comes into play and can be heard to splendid effect in the Indian camp sequences and as the motif for Look, Martin's (Jeffrey Hunter) new Indian "wife". Hearing these cues one can't help but wonder how remarkable it is that this most romantic of film composers - steeped in the musical tradition of late 19th century Vienna - his birthplace - should be so ethnically proficient at musically depicting the native American. More akin to what we have come to expect from this composer are lovely cues such as the sprightly theme for Martin and the lush and sweeping music for Martin and Laurie (Vere Miles). The score - and the movie - ends just like it began with "The Song Of The Searchers" playing as Ethan and Martin finally bring Debbie home and conclusively the door of a homestead closes on Ethan where a brief fortissimo quotation from that explosive fanfare closes the picture.
Alongside the great film music works of Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin and others Max Steiner's music for THE SEARCHERS stands head high as one the finest scores ever written for one the finest films ever made and as such should, and must, be alluded to in any dissertation or essay on the film.
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