The Searchers Review
The Searchers is a 1956 Western-drama written by Frank Nuget and directed by John Ford. It was based on a book of the same name by Alan Le May. The film is considered to be one of the best Western films of all time, named the Greatest American Western by the American Film Instituted and chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) comes back to his brother's home dejected and tired of life. However, when his niece is kidnapped by a tribe of Comanche Natives, he and his adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) set out on a years-long quest to rescue her and take her home.
If you're expecting something fast paced like I was going into this film you'll probably be disappointed. There's a lot of adventure, but the characters don't really make much progress in finding the niece until the very end. It's like a road trip movie; there is an end goal in mind, but it's mostly about the journey, not the destination.
The characters are all likable, for the most part. Ethan is the tired, bitter cowboy who must regain his humanity and Martin is the naive child who must learn to be a man in the wilderness. The main problem I have with the characters is that I don't feel like they formed a real connection, even though that's what's supposed to happen. Near the end of the film Ethan shows Martin a big gesture of affection and I remember thinking, "Where did this soft heart come from?" All throughout the film they've been nothing but pains in each other's sides; Ethan has been verbal abusive and mean and Martin has always responded in kind. Ethan even practically disowns Martin at the start of the film by saying he's not his uncle. I guess the idea is that Ethan is supposed to be the old, racist uncle that Ethan can't help but love because he's family and Ethan is supposed to have a heart of gold somewhere deep down, but I never got that feeling. There is no sense of love or affection between the two men, which is kind of a big deal when they're our two main characters.
There's a subplot in the film that deals with a woman Martin left behind to go on the quest and how she's being courted by another suitor. I wish that they would've either cut this storyline entirely or given it a different ending. SPOILERS: At the end of the film she's going to get married to the suitor and him and Martin end up fighting for her hand. The weird part is that she seems to like having two men fight over her like this. I know that this was made in the 50s and the sexes were portrayed a lot differently than they are now, but it was just seriously uncool. I wish they would've left that storyline alone after he left her to go on the quest. It would've been symbolic, like he'd chosen the life of the wild loner over a normal life of being a husband. Personally, I think that would've been cool. Or maybe he could've lost the fight for her and just had to deal with the decision he made to leave her. Oh well.
A lot of the conversations between characters only take place in one or two different shots. For example, Ethan is having a conversation with a bartender and we have a shot over John Wayne's shoulder. Then the cut happens and we look of the bartender's shoulder and that's it. Those are the only shots used in the whole scene. The takes are long and unbroken by any editing with very few close-ups. There's maybe one in the entire film of Wayne's face and that's it. The landscape shots are pretty to look at, mostly because they just had nice locations. I need to give credit, however, to the director for one shot at the beginning of the film. When the family first realizes that the Natives are coming to kill them the parents keep a secret from the children. When the daughter tries to light a candle the mother frantically blows it out. The camera does a zoom in on the daughter's face as she realizes what's coming and she screams her head off. Her entire thought process is portrayed through the camera, with no dialogue. I know it's something we see all the time now, but I was really impressed when they did it in this film, maybe because I know that they didn't do a lot of things like that in this era of film.
Another unique storytelling device I saw in this film was the technique of having narration turn into visuals. When Martin's lover gets a letter from him and as she reads it out loud we see Martin and Ethan doing what she's narrating. At one point the narration stops and we just see what his letter is telling her and the story keeps going from there. Once again, I know we see that kind of thing all the time in modern films, but I thought it was impressive for the time period.
The set and costume design are unremarkable, but believable. It looks like the set of every other Western you've seen from this period of Hollywood, but it doesn't look bad or lacking in detail. It's just ok. Kind of fake looking, but also kind of authentic, if that makes sense.
I was wondering why everything looked so fake in the movie and I think it's because of the lighting and the color they were using. Every scene is brightly lit, giving no sense of time of day. Even at night it's brightly lit, with the fire lighting up everything on the set. There's an especially poorly lit scene where they try to make it look like late evening by putting a dark filter on, but you can still clearly tell it's day time; the sky is too bright a blue and all the shadows are day time sharp rather than evening soft. The technicolor doesn't help either, as it already makes things look fake without any help.
The acting is ok. John Wayne is, in my opinion, not a good enough actor to portray somebody like Ethan Edwards. He doesn't have a lot of range and his vocal inflections are usually the same no matter what his dialogue is. Jeffrey Hunter is a much better actor, portraying a wider variety of emotions than Wayne.
The first and final shots of the film are amazing. At the beginning, we literally open the film with a door opening and somebody walking out, symbolizing that we're starting our journey. At the end of the film we have somebody going back inside, symbolizing the return from our journey. I thought that was very clever symbolism, personally.
Summary: The Searchers is an adequate entry into the Western genre. It doesn't have the heart of the original True Grit or the fun of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but it's a good enough adventure with some innovative for the time film techniques.