Friday, December 30, 2011

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers ★★★★★ 5/5

This is my absolute all time favorite Western. Hands down. I am not a fan of John Wayne. While I know he epitomizes the essence of Westerns, he comes off flat to me. I don't feel he is an actor. I feel that his performances are all extremely similar and there is no variation from one film he stars in to the other. However in The Searchers the character he plays has great depth. His character, Ethan Edwards, is conflicted. While he claims to care only about himself and his motives, his actions say otherwise.

The film opens upon the majestic scenery of the glorious west. John Ford uses the camera and the cast magnificently. From the front porch of a ranch, the camera looks out red rocks. In the foreground, a woman in a blue dress looks out to the plains. Out from the horizon comes a Civil War vet on a horse. That man is Ethan Edwards. The woman is his sister in law,Martha (Dorothy Jordan). He is soon greeted by his Brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and their children: Ben (Robert Lyden), Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood as a child and Natalie Wood as teenager). The family settles in getting reacquainted with Ethan. As dinner starts, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) joins the family. He is an adopted son of Martha and Aaron. He is also 1/8 Indian heritage. Ethan shows no hesitation in making that known and even less hesitation declaring his dislike for Indians.

Within the first few scenes, the audience knows two things. First, Ethan despises Indians and is fueled with racist thoughts towards them. Second, he longs to be with Martha. It is never spoken of or acknowledged, but it is made clear from the way he looks at her. It has been suggested by some critics and observers that Debbie may actually be Ethan's daughter. This observation comes from Ethan giving Debbie a medal from the Civil War and her age calculated with when Ethan was last there. But this is all speculation.

The family is interrupted by Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and a group of his men who ask for Aaron and Martin to join them in tracking some stolen cattle. Ethan offers to take the place of Aaron and the group head out to find the cattle. They come across prize cattle slaughtered in the desert. Ethan advises that the killing of the cattle was a diversion and that it meant only one thing - that the Indians were looking to ambush nearby homes. The men split up and go to their respective families. Ethan and Martin ride to the home of Martha and Aaron. The scene they approach is very, very similar to the scene from Star Wars where Luke returns to his Aunt & Uncle's burnt down home and dead bodies. In The Searchers, Martin finds Martha and Aaron's home - and it is worth mentioning he refers to them as his Aunt & Uncle - completely charred and their bodies to be burned. One could easily find the influence of The Searchers in the similar scene of Star Wars.

Ethan and Martin decide to hunt down the Indians to see if they may have possibly kept Lucy and Debbie alive and kidnapped them. Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.), Lucy's boyfriend rides along with them. While on the trail of the Indians, Ethan finds Lucy's body. She had been raped and murdered by the Indians. Upon learning this, Brad raids the Indians and is murdered by them.

The story continues for the course of 5 years. Through this time, there are some additional plot lines. Martin has a girl whom he plans on marrying someday. She does not want to wait and proceeds to marry another. The wedding is abruptly cancelled when martin rides into town. At the same time the US Calvary enters to inform the group that they need help capturing the Indian chief Scar (Henry Brandon). Scar is the Indian that Martin and Ethan have been looking for. After a raid on the Indian camp, Martin finds and rescues Debbie. Ethan however has an extreme resentment towards her and no longer considers her an equal human, feeling that now she was an Indian.

By the end of the film, he does two things that show his character development. While he doesn't feel that Debbie is kin because she has lived with the Indians for so long, he overcomes this in the rescue and does eventually save her rather then shoot her. He also at one point makes a will and leaves everything to Martin. Which completely goes against everything that we were initially introduced to early in the film.

The film is compelling and solidly written. The plot is clear and not clouded by unimportant details. Throughout the film you hear John Wayne say "That'll Be The Day." Yes, this line was the influence to the Buddy Holly song of the same name.

A great film and more then worthy of being on the list of movies to see. Pay close attention to the beautiful cinematography. Appreciate the brilliance of the score. Connect with the characters and follow their growth. Pay attention to what is not being said. enjoy it!

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