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We Were Movie Gangsters

The Searchers (1956)

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“We’ll find them in the end, I promise you…We’ll find them.” This line is my first recollection of The Searchers. I was about seven years old and we were in Disney for our family vacation. Back then at Christmas, all the rides would have two hours+ waits, including The Great Movie Ride; but that didn’t bother me. Instead, I was in awe of the larger than life movie screen in the faux-Gruman’s Chinese Theatre, playing trailers of various classic films featured in The Great Movie Ride, such as Footlight Parade, Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, etc. and, of course, The Searchers. I can’t tell you why that particular line stuck out to me; perhaps it was the determination and grit in John Wayne’s voice or the composition of the shot. Whatever the case, it did and it made an impression on me.

I’ve never been a fan of the Western genre, mostly because its setting doesn’t appeal to me but also due to its treatment and view of Native Americans. I pushed this film off for quite some time because of those reasons; but once I began watching the films of the 1970’s (ex. Taxi Driver), I knew that it was probably time to watch The Searchers. Brushing aside my bias for Western films, I sat down and began the film.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother’s home three years after the Civil War. Still bitter about the Confederate’s

An example of framing the shot from inside the cave.

An example of framing the shot from inside the cave.

loss, Ethan comes off very cynical, somewhat cocky, and hard-edged but also very alone. Ethan is pleased to see his brother, Aaron, and his family again but takes an instant dislike to Martin (Jeffery Hunter) because of his part-Indian blood. Right off the bat we learn that Ethan is racist towards the neighboring Indians. The next day, a neighbor’s cattle are stolen and Ethan and Martin go along to help find the culprit. When the men find the cattle dead, they realize it was all a trick by the Comanche Indians to lead them away from their homes and families. Ethan and Martin come back to find that Aaron, his wife, and his son were killed and their two daughters kidnapped. Ethan and Martin go on a search for both daughters Debbie (played by Lana Wood and Natalie Wood) and Lucy. Ethan eventually finds Lucy dead near the Comanche camp but does not find Debbie. The rest of the film covers the next five years of their search for Debbie and ‘rescuing’ her.

I’m really not sure what to say about this film. I’ll admit that if it wasn’t for Martin, I don’t think I would have been able to stand it. Ethan came off very strong and almost dislikable to me. Martin didn’t allow Ethan to keep pushing him around and stood his ground; plus his story line offered comic relief in a few scenes. It was hard to put aside my contempt for the representation of Native Americans in this film but that was where Martin helped.

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Notice Debbie in the far back, almost like a black dot. Gradually gets larger as she runs towards Ethan and Martin.

Let’s establish the fact that John Ford is an absolute genius with the camera and Winton C. Hoch’s cinematography fully captures the tone of the film. Ford frames as many of his shots as he can through some sort of opening, such as a cave or a door. I love this idea as it helps focus the attention and emphasize the landscape of the shot. Ford also utilizes depth very well. Perhaps the most obvious is the shot of Debbie running down the sand towards Martin and Ethan. Overall, Ford is a master at making a Western a GREAT Western by going above and beyond.

I’m going to have to watch The Searchers again just to appreciate Ford. I think it will be better because I won’t focus so much on “what happens” but rather the directing and acting. For me, watching a movie a second time is very beneficial because I know the story so I can focus on the little things that I missed before. Even as I was going through the film to take screencaps after I finished it, I was stunned by the composure and set-up of his shots. Perhaps I will add more Ford films to my list but I think it’ll still take me awhile to warm up to John Wayne and the Western genre.

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It’s very clear to see why this film was such an influence on films in the 1970’s; there were so many aspects of The Searchers that I saw in Taxi Driver. But perhaps the one most similar to it is their disconnect from the world. We meet Ethan and he is alone and by the end of the film, after five years of searching and riding with Martin, he is alone. I love the last shot; Wayne standing in the doorway and to me, he almost seems unsure of himself. No one is there is to say thank you to him for bringing Debbie home as they’ve already gone inside with her. But the inside is black and empty and Ethan stands outside of it. It’s foreign to him; then the door closes. We don’t see what happens to Ethan. So what does happen to him? What is his purpose now? What will he do? The answer: we don’t know.

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