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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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Searchers is perhaps John Ford's greatest film. The character
studies are rich and complex and never too revealing, adding mystery
and depth. The location in Utah's Monument Valley is magnificent. The
Technicolor is simply stunning. And of course, the story set a standard
for all action movies to come. The plot is simple and engaging and the
subplot allows us to take a break from the relentless search. John
Wayne's portrayal of Ethan Edwards is memorable. The dark, anti-hero
persona gives the movie an edge not seen in those days. Jeffrey Hunter
(Martin Pauly) and the rest of the cast give solid performances that
are very natural and spirited. All of this is credited to the brilliant
directing of John Ford. It is a great movie to watch. It is a great
outdoor movie that should be seen on a big screen.
People say that this movie is very racist and stereotype Indians. I disagree. I think this movie is about racism, period. Both races are ruthless and barbaric in this movie. Let's take a look:
1. The calvary massacres an Indian village.
2. Ethan's hatred of Indians consumes him. But his hatred has a reason. And he is not naturally racist.
3. Ethan is a loner, hated and feared by his own people.
4. When Ethan and Marty are hiding out in the canyons, they shoot the Indians in the back as they retreat. Not very noble, is it?
5. Ethan shoots three white men in the back during a shootout. I guess Ethan can do it to his own people as well!
6. When Ethan sees a group of tortured white women who were rescued from the hands of "savage" Indians, he fears for the worst. But when Lucy is found, she looks well and cared for. Ethan, upset with this unexpected result, decides to kill Lucy because she has turned 'injun.'
7. Marty accidentally marries an Indian woman. Although ridiculed by Ethan, the Indian woman is portrayed favorably throughout the film.
8. Marty and a friend fight for Laurie's love (Marty's fiancée). It is a civilized fight among gentlemen. Ethan and Marty meet with Scar, the Indian chief who abducted Lucy. Scar realizes who they are but does not kill them on the spot. Why? It is a Commanche code of honor not to kill someone when he is at a disadvantage.
9. Both races are good and evil in this movie. Ethan and Scar are both driven by revenge. One dies in the end, the other continues to live a life of a loner, dead in the eye of society.
There are many reasons why I love The Searchers. It is a very simple story, yet says a lot. It is very entertaining and never boring. Unless you are a meat-head who cannot handle anything except mindless action sequences, this is the movie that stands the test of time, up there with Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Godfather.
Enjoy! Watch it on the big screen if possible. The special edition 2-Disc DVD set from Warner Brothers is an absolute must. If you are a fan, you will not believe your eyes when you see the new transfer. The film has been restored to its original VistaVision widescreen, color by Technicolor!
On a final note, the last scene is pure poetry. Truly one of the greatest moment in film's history. John Ford really struck gold with this one.
The Searchers(1956) has been reflected to death by many filmmakers in
own work with main ideas, situations, and plot as guide. Many elements of
The Searchers(1956) influenced film directors ranging from Brian De Palma,
George Lucus, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Sergio Leone. There are
scores of other movie makers whom I cannot list at the top of my head that
were affected by this one film. Obvious film influences are Once Upon a
Time in the West(1968), Obsession(1976), Taxi Driver(1976), Star
and Hardcore(1979). It shows that great works of cinema are also able to
inspire many admirers and disciples. Only films(stories) by Akira
has been reflected more often by film directors than The
John Wayne was legendary American film star and big box office draw by 1956. The Searchers(1956) lends creedence to John Wayne being an exceptional actor enforced by his multi-layered performance. In a career that spanned five decades, The Searchers(1956) is the efflorescence of John Wayne. John Wayne gives a complex/flawed portrait of a man looking for redemption and salvation. One fine moment that examplifies the multi-layerness of John Wayne's performance is the look on Ethan Edwards face as he feys over what will happen to his brother and family. The Searchers(1956) was to John Wayne's career what Treasure of the Sierra Madre(1948) was to Humphrey Bogart and Vertigo(1958) was to James Stewart.
Story is about drifting, trying find something which is self-meaningful. Ethan Edwards is such a drifter who is always in search of a purpose. The Searchers(1956) is really about drifting in the American Frontier and search for self-discovery. There were many drifters like Ethan Edwards in the Old West especially in the wake of the Civil War. The Cowboy drifter in the Old West is almost the equivalent of the Samurai ronin in Tokugawa Japan Era. These drifters were men who were on the go, had temporary employment, and always wondered about their existence in life.
Rare individualistic motion picture in the old studio system days when many Hollywood films were studio controlled. The Searchers(1956) defies the typical 1950s Hollywood film presentation because its a director's picture. Excells on a visual level with interesting camera placement. Camera framing also plays a psychological and visual role in representation of two conflicting worlds(Civilized West and Wild West). Helped by crisp and flawless editing that flows the plot along effortlessly. Shades of Homer's THE ODYSSEY are penetrated into the heart of the story with irony.
Deals with racial prejudice with honest and truthful gusto. Racial prejudice in The Searchers(1956) is filmed in terms of emotional and psychological depth. The racial prejudice of the protagonist echos the prejudice of many white people in the Old West felt towards native Americans. The relationship between Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley is met by distrust, prejudice, and sarcasm. Only towards the end does Ethan Edwards begin to show some sign of acception and respect for Martin Pawley. Shows that people are willing to change if they are willing to confront the dark side of humanity.
John Ford was the one director who was able to channel the talents of John Wayne to full heights. He made it possible for John Wayne to become an American film star by casting him in Stagecoach(1939). The other major director John Wayne had great success with was Howard Hawks. The Searchers(1956) is the greatest film of the Ford-Wayne tandem. Each are at their highest and most professional peak as film artists. In film working relationship they were halves of one and one of halves.
Ethan Edwards fullfills the requirements of hero and villain in narrative plot structure. This makes him an anti-hero with human strengths and flaws so typical of this type of protagonist. Its funny that John Wayne detested Italian Westerns and yet played a character in The Searchers(1956) who fits the mold of the Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Ethan Edwards is the closet thing to a villain John Wayne played in the movies. At the beginning Ethan Edwards lives only for hate and revenge. By the end he becomes merciful and forgiving.
On-location photography gives the film its rugged character. Monument Valley is depicted with beauty, mystery, and savagery. The people in the story are represented by their environment and location. Monument Valley was a favorite film location of John Ford who was obsessed by its untamed and individualistic nature. Monument Valley site is explored on a physical, psychological, and social level. Scenery is an important character of the Classic American Western and none so more true then in The Searchers(1956).
Another major motif in The Searchers(1956) is redemption. The path of hate and vengeance is replaced by compassion and forgiveness. Its this motif as well as others that makes the story a subtle Catholic driven tale. Redemption is the saving grace for a destructive and negative character like Ethan Edwards. Revenge until the climatic moment takes importance over everything else in Ethan Edwards life. Redemption is one motif from The Searchers(1956) that influenced Scorsese and Schrader.
Martin Pawley goes with Ethan Edwards on revenge pledge as way of following path of fealty. The moment of Ethan picking up his niece and holding her with compassion is a tender one. Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley provides a nice foil to John Wayne's Ethan Edwards. Cinematography in The Searchers(1956) is forceful and graceful. In time The Searchers takes place, drifters like Ethan Edwards are dime a dozen but by the period depicted in films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinaph, they are nearly extinct. The Searchers(1956) is a milestone in both American and World cinema.
OK. First of all, I have seen quite a few movies in my time, and the
complexity of this film makes this one of the top 5 movies of all time.
Steven Spielberg said (in an early 90's interview) that this movie was
possibly the greatest of all times, due to the depth of the character
studies. The interplay between Ethan & Martha (his brother's wife)is subtle,
yet screams of an undying, yet unfulfilled love that has endured for several
years. You have to see the scene where Ward Bond is left in the house eating
doughnuts, and witnesses the final, tender goodbye, while
looking straight ahead, coming to the realization of what it all means, and
how hard it is for the two of them to keep it from everyone else.
It is true that the film was filmed in Utah with the story taking place in Texas, but that quickly becomes a moot point. There is not space to extol all the virtues of this movie The relationship of Ethan & Martin, Martin & Lori, and the raw emotion experienced by all members of the cast are worth the rental price. No cast member came back from making this movie the same way they were when they left. Watch the film, it gets inside you. Watch it again, and you'll find things you never saw before, no matter how many times you see it.
Until next time!
If John Wayne was ever cornered about what his favorite movie role was
he'd be answering Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Proof of that is
obvious, he named his son by his third marriage John Ethan Wayne.
Ethan Edwards takes his time in returning home to Texas from the Civil War to the home of his brother and his family. But soon after he does the family is massacred in an Indian raid. The two young daughters are taken prisoner and Wayne with Jeffrey Hunter and Harry Carey, Jr. go off in search of them. Carey is killed early on, but Wayne and Hunter go on for years, both driven men for different reasons.
Ethan Edwards is probably the most racist man Wayne ever portrayed on the screen, yet we feel sympathy for him at the same time. It's been a hard and bitter life on the frontier for him. Just as it's been for the Indians as well. Chief Scar, played by Henry Brandon, is Wayne's opposite number and he makes clear what he thinks of whites. Two of his sons were killed and he's going to take many white scalps in reprisal.
My guess is that Ethan Edwards war service involved him seeing the war of desolation waged by William T. Sherman in the deep South. Small wonder he goes out and starts killing buffalo with a maniacal intensity that Wayne never showed before or since in film. Not an aspect that is normally brought out by reviewers.
Wayne's relationship with Jeffrey Hunter is a strange one. He found Hunter as a toddler during a raid on a wagon train. Hunter is a distant cousin of the Edwards family and one eighth Cherokee. But to Wayne he's an Indian. He gains a grudging respect for him on the trail though.
But Hunter's there to stop him. The oldest Edwards daughter is discovered dead early on. That by the way is an intense scene where Wayne's facial expressions register more than pages of dialog. Wayne had one of the great faces for close-ups and John Ford well knew it.
The younger daughter has grown up and is played grown up by Natalie Wood. Wayne feels he has to avenge some family code of honor because Wood's been taken as a bride by Henry Brandon. Hunter just wants his cousin back on any terms.
John Ford as he always does, gets some good comedy relief of the broad kind in the film. Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles who is Harry Carey's sister have a thing going, but when she doesn't hear from him she almost ups and marries Ken Curtis. Hunter and Curtis's confrontation is pretty funny.
Ford also probably made his best use of Monument Valley in this film. Though Stagecoach and Fort Apache are also among his best photographed films, The Searchers being in color is in a class by itself. Proof of that is the scene at the Edwards home at twilight just before the Indian raid. Beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Ward Bond has a great role as Reverend/Captain Samuel Clayton, parson and Texas Ranger at the same time. A difficult job for some to reconcile, but I'm sure Bond believes that conversion of the Indians is not uppermost on his mind. Bond also has some great blustering comic moments with Patrick Wayne who plays an earnest young army lieutenant.
The Searchers is usually found on just about every top ten list of best westerns ever made and it surely belongs there.
Even if you've never seen John Ford's THE SEARCHERS, you will have,
undoubtedly, seen a film that owes it's 'style' to the film. DANCES
WITH WOLVES, THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES, UNFORGIVEN, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, and
OPEN RANGE are just a few westerns that have 'borrowed' from it, but
THE SEARCHERS' impact transcends the genre, itself; STAR WARS, THE
English PATIENT, THE LAST SAMURAI, even THE LORD OF THE RINGS have
elements that can be traced back to Ford's 1956 'intimate' epic. When
you add the fact that THE SEARCHERS also contains John Wayne's greatest
performance to the film's merits, it becomes easy to see why it is on
the short list of the greatest motion pictures ever made.
The plot is deceptively simple; after a Comanche raiding party massacres a family, taking the youngest daughter prisoner, her uncle, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), and adopted brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), begin a long quest to try and rescue her. Over the course of years, a rich tapestry of characters and events unfold, as the nature of the pair's motives are revealed, and bigoted, bitter Edwards emerges as a twisted man bent on killing the 'tainted' white girl. Only Pawley's love of his 'sister' and determination to protect her stands in his way, making the film's climax, and Wayne's portrayal of Edwards, an unforgettable experience.
With all of Ford's unique 'touches' clearly in evidence (the doorways 'framing' the film's opening and conclusion, with a cave opening serving the same function at the film's climax; the extensive use of Monument Valley; and the nearly lurid palette of color highlighting key moments) and his reliance on his 'stock' company of players (Wayne, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Carey, Jr, Hank Worden, and Ken Curtis), the film marks the emergence of the 'mature' Ford, no longer deifying the innocence of the era, but dealing with it in human terms, where 'white men' were as capable of savagery as Indians, frequently with less justification.
Featuring 18-year old Natalie Wood in one of her first 'adult' roles, the sparkling Vera Miles as Pawley's love interest, Wayne's son Patrick in comic relief, and the harmonies of the Sons of the Pioneers accenting Max Steiner's rich score, THE SEARCHERS is a timeless movie experience that becomes richer with each viewing.
It is truly a masterpiece!
John Ford is a classic Western filmmaker (though certainly not the only
genre in which he excelled), employing the classic Western film star, John
Wayne, in perhaps one of the most underappreciated films of our time. Ford
builds a thoroughly entertaining movie which explores classic Western
without necessarily relying on these themes to drive the
Like any good Western, we are inorexably drawn to a kind of Cowboys vs. Indians saga, but Ford manages to draw us into the conflict in such a way that the mere "Cowboys good, Indians bad" aesthetic isn't really applicable here. While relying on the archetypical roles of the two groups to set up a conflict, Ford is ahead of his time in managing to characterize the Indians as more than "noble savages". Wayne's character's (Ethan Edwards) hatred of "the Commanch" is called into question a number of times, especially in his stormy relationship with adopted nephew and fellow searcher Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who we are told is a quarter-Indian himself, and cannot bring himself to find the same sort of hatred for the Indians that Ethan holds.
Ethan was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, returning to his brother's Texas homestead after the war. A group of Commanches, led by the ominous Chief Scar, route and kill his brother's family while Ethan and Martin are investigating a cattle rustling, the Commaches' diversionary tactic. The Indians took the family's youngest daughter, and the majority of the film has us following Ethan and Martin in their attempts to track down Scar and take back the girl, Debbie (played by Lorna and Natalie Wood, at different times).
Such a situation sets up one of the many moral ambiguities that make this more than an ordinary Western: the Commanches slaughtered Ethan's brother and his family - he seemingly has reason to hate them with the almost crazy passion that he does. Yet the more naive Martin cannot bring himself to hate them in such a way, and the split between them becomes a major point of contention when it becomes clear that Debbie has more or less been adopted as a Commanche (the two "Searchers" chase after her for about five years in film time). Furthermore, when the two "Searchers" actually meet Scar, who they've been chasing for years, he is presented as a rather intelligent character, although certainly one filled with vengance - he, too, has his reasons for waging war with the likes of Ethan and Martin, and cannot merely be written off a the type of bloodthirsty savage that is typical of the portrayal of most Indians within the genre.
The film relies on enough classic Western material to imbue with the feel with the sense of such pictures. Aside from the question of Ethan's morality, Wayne plays him with classic John Wayne freewheeling confidence and swagger that made the actor such an icon, and it comes off quite well. We are also given a side story involving Martin's romance with the hard-as-nails Laurie Jurgensen (played by Vera Miles, best known for playing Janet Leigh's sister in "Psycho"). The relationship is from a classic, archetypical Western mold - the two have been in love since they were kids, but Martin has responsibilites to his family that stop him from making the proper time for his beau, and his rough frontier-uprbringing leave him seemingly lacking the proper sensitivity for dealing with Laura (though he does, of course, have a heart of gold).
As a side note, this film should prove immensely interesting to any serious fan of the "Star Wars" trilogy (the original one). While those films undoubtably draw a great deal of inspiration from Kurosawa's samurai films, there is most certainly a great deal (especially in the film subtitled "A New Hope") drawn from here. One scene in particular (when Luke returns to his farm after stormtroopers have blasted in pieces) is virtually ripped straight from "The Searchers". Ford's film is also full of the sort of gallows humor present throughout the trilogy, and even incorporates some rather goofy characters, the half-cracked Mose Harper (Hank Warden) and the incredibly over-the-top rival for Laura's hand Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis), without ruining the overall serious feel of the film, but managing to squeeze laughs out of absurd situations (such as a fight between Martin and Charlie) without compromising the ability to quickly return to a solemn tone. Such deft touch, as well as the addition of wise-cracking dialogue (provided largely by Wayne and Ward Bond here) are a large part of what made the original trilogy so successful, and it's strikingly similar to the type of paradigm on display between various characters here.
Regardless of ranting and raving about Star Wars, however, this is an excellent film on it's own merit.
Whenever I read critic's reviews of "The Searchers," I'm continually astounded by how they beat into the ground the racial aspect of the movie. Yes, it is undeniably an important theme in the plot, but no one ever touches on its more simple and beautiful qualities: the harshness of life in the Old West; the pioneer spirit so eloquently described by Ma Jorgensen. And most importantly, the fierce dedication to family shown by Ethan and even more so by the true hero of the film, Martin Pawley. As for the allegedly racist views of Ethan Edwards, go read the book, as Amos (the Ethan character in the book) had very real reasons to despise the Indians. People do ugly things to each other. Life is complex and viewpoints are often the results of one man's experience.
John Ford's classic Western, has inspired many quest movies and tv series since its release. The film is a series of episodes linked by the 10 year quest for a niece stolen by Indians as a child. Wayne's Ethan Edwards, an embittered Confederate veteran shows only hatred for all redskins and is uncomprimising in his intended treatment of his niece when he finds her. Modern cinema audiences may find this uncomfortable, especially since western folklore has been reassessed over the last 20 years. But don't let this put you off. Ford's treatment is a modern allegory and Ethan can be forgiven his sins when, at the final denoument, one act of kindness gives us hope, and we feel Ethan has learned an important lesson. Tolerance. Everything about this film makes it a classic and perhaps the best in its genre. Ford's direction is as impeccable as ever, Frank Nugent's script and Winton Hoch's cinematography give us some of the classic images of the cinema. John Wayne, as ever, doesn't even need to act. He just sits tall in the saddle and perpetuates the myth.
About ten minutes into the film, there is a shot which begins with
Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) slamming a door behind two children who
were teasing two young lovers, Lucy and Brad. There follows a wordless
interior shot, lasting maybe a minute, wherein Aunt Martha takes out
Ethan's Confederate overcoat, tenderly caressing it before she hands it
to Ethan. I noticed the sequence when I recently watched the film
again, and I had to rewind and play it once more because I found it so
stunning--all of the information and emotions conveyed without a word.
I'd watched the film previously maybe a dozen times and had never
noticed the power of this sequence.
Don't for a second tell me that Ethan is a stereotype, because there is so much more at work here. Obviously we are not supposed to sympathize with Ethan's prejudices, but notice that Ethan is not the only one who feels that way. Laurie (not at all disapprovingly) tells Martin that Aunt Martha would have preferred her daughter to be killed after being defiled. Interestingly, Martin is one-eighth Cherokee, which under the old racial percentages of the Confederacy would make him the equivalent of an octoroon, and therefore non-white. Martin's intended marriage to Laurie, on racial terms, would have been as taboo as Debbie marrying Scar: Laurie believes that death is preferable for Debbie, but she intends to do likewise with Martin. The contrast is that Debbie was abducted, whereas Laurie would willingly go. And note at the end that Laurie walks right by Debbie, as she heads for Martin.
The final shot is famous, but I noted the doorway theme throughout the film: the message of an open or closed door, whether the character enters the door or just looks in, at other times, the character is inside looking out. And all of this in a 50's western.
The movie is not perfect: I could have done without some of the comic relief. However, this is John Wayne's best work (The Shootist is a close second). Those who think this is the best film of all time have good reason to support their belief.
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