Thursday, June 17, 2010

No. 96: The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)

Starring: John Wayne, Vera Miles, Jeffrey Hunter

Director: John Ford

Awards: None… How is that possible?!

Fred and Ginger, Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy…great screen teams, right? Well, in my opinion, there’s no better team than John Wayne and John Ford. Sure, they never acted together in front of the cameras. Fine, they didn’t have some catchy duo name. What they did have was real friendship, and you could see it in the love they put into their movies.

The Searchers is commonly regarded as one of - if not the - best Western ever made, as well as one of the best movies, period. I agree with both claims. Why? Well, you can read my list at the end of the post, or you can go watch the movie yourself. My vote is for you doing both!

Ethan Edwards (Wayne), a racist Native American-hating soldier, returns to his brother’s home to reunite with his family. After he's drawn out of the house by a ruse, the nearby Comanche tribes go on a killing spree. Ethan finds his brother’s house burned down, and everyone's dead but his two kidnapped nieces, Debbie and Lucy. The tribe eventually kills Lucy, but keeps Debbie. Ethan and his nephew Martin (Hunter) chase the kidnappers and after five years of searching they find Debbie, who’s now part of the Comanche tribe. They lose her and return home, where Martin is reunited with his maybe-fiance (Miles) and Ethan prepares for a final showdown with the Comanches. In a tense ending scene they do find Debbie, and Ethan brings her home. What happens to Ethan? Well, he strides off by himself. Who knows.

This movie is so gorgeous and so brilliant that it’s inspired many other movies (and… music?). One familiar example is in
Star Wars: A New Hope. The scene where Luke comes home to find a fiery house and his aunt and uncle’s smoking bodies? Straight from The Searchers. The desert scenes from Lawrence Of Arabia? Yeah, David Lean studied John Ford. There was also a band called The Searchers, and Buddy Holly wrote a song based on Wayne’s catch phrase in the film, “That’ll Be The Day.” Who knew?

While there's a lot of funny trivia about this film, the overall movie is anything but funny. Wayne as Ethan Edwards is brilliant - the quintessential anti-hero, but the character is sometimes so erratic and painfully biased that it hurts to watch. Unsurprisingly, the Native Americans are portrayed as caricatures, shown as tomahawk-throwing scalping beasts. And then there’s the deeper message. By the end of the movie, you realize that wanting to save Debbie isn't what drives Edwards; he’s driven by rage, and his own prejudice. John Ford was trying to make a serious comment about racism, and he succeeded. It’s just not easy to watch.

In short, if you like:

* The Duke
* John Ford
* Absolutely GORGEOUS cinematography
* Crying
* Badly stereotyped Native Americans
* Cowboys

Then you’ll like
The Searchers. Believe me, this is a movie anyone can like, and everybody should like.

I can’t even write about the next movie without being scared: No. 95,
Pulp Fiction (1994), starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. I'm not a big fan of splattering brains. Know how I said I was going to faint watching Unforgiven? Pshh. That was nothing. Well, at least you’ll have fun reading about me passing out. Stick around and read about it… I guess?


  1. I'm starting to see a movie critic career in your future.

    Another lovely story wrapped around a solid review.

  2. The most memorable part for me was when John Wayne shoots out the eyes of the dead Indian in order to insure that his soul wanders forever between the winds. Scorsese talks about it in his documentary on the history of American film... about the fact that Wayne's character basically ends up consigned to the same fate, even though he isn't actually dead.

  3. My husband tried to talk me into this movie and the more he told me about it, the less I wanted to see it! I fear I'm a happy ending kind of girl. But I truly enjoyed your review! Your writing style is so hilarious!

  4. Weirdly, I really do like badly stereotyped Native Americans. But I'm an awful, awful person.

  5. That's a great point that Scorcese (via @minconian) makes about the fate of John Wayne's character in this dark film. Although I prefer John Ford's My Darling Clementine, The Searchers is impressive. I just have a really hard time with the unrelenting Indian hating in the movie.

  6. Well, you know how much I love the Duke. An inappropriate amount, big as Monument Valley.

    More good Searchers trivia: teenage Natalie Wood plays older Debbie, and her little sister, Lana Wood, plays younger Debbie. I guess that makes her part "Little Debbie."