The Searchers (1956)
Searching for the Best John Wayne Movie
Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He'll put a bullet in her brain - Ethan
John Ford and John Wayne made a lot of movies together, probably the greatest actor/director partnership which cinema has every witnessed. In amongst their numerous collaborations there are stand out movies such as "Stagecoach", "The Quiet Man" as well as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "The Searchers" is most definitely one of their stand out movies. From the screenplay based on Alan Le May's novel, through the acting from all involved to the direction and cinematography "The Searchers" is a triumphant movie, a grand western by every means of the word which delivers as simple entertainment but also at a deeper level with complex characters.
The year is 1868, 3 years after the end of the war and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne - The Conqueror) returns to the family home where his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) live with their children. But not long after his return Comanche's attack the home killing everyone except Ethan's niece Debbie (Natalie Wood - Never a Dull Moment). Determined to get them back Ethan and his mixed blood adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) along with some law men start the search for the Comanches. As days turns to weeks and weeks become months then years only Ethan and Martin keep up the search for Debbie, but as Martin wants to rescue his adopted sister Ethan has darker plans fuelled by his hatred of the Comanche and everything or anyone they touch.
Like so many great movies the storyline to "The Searchers" is rather simplistic, we watch Ethan and Martin going in search of Ethan's niece Debbie who has been kidnapped by Comanches in particular one called Chief Scar. As such this journey has what you could call cliche elements as this duo with various other characters who occasionally involve themselves in the search encounter danger along the way as well as heart break and disappointment as it goes from days, weeks, months and onto a mammoth 5 year search for young Debbie. This is not a criticism as it means that "The Searchers" is a movie which works if you just want to be entertained via western action, drama and the occasional stroke of comedy.
But there is a far darker more complex level to all the goings on from the relationship between Ethan and Martin, a young mix blood who he saved as a child who he actually dislikes, through to Ethan's hatred of the Comanche. There is layer upon layer of depth such as the way Ethan feels towards his sister-in-law Martha and the fact that it is insinuated that in the 3 years since the war finished Ethan has been a criminal. I could go on because in every aspect of "The Searchers" there is another level, the fact that Ethan plans to kill Debbie when they find her because she has been with the Comanches as one of them and that Martin who idolises Ethan learns that he is a dark man makes it a movie which every time you watch it reveals another aspect of it self.
The fact that "The Searchers" works on so many different levels is partly down to director John Ford who creates such a magnificent cinematic experience. Visually "The Searchers" is stunning the clever opening and ending going from a dark room to the vibrant outside is breathtaking as are all the marvellous shots which capture the stunning backdrops. As such Ford's whole crew from the camera men, the artistic directors and so on all combine to create a western which sets the benchmark very high and very few ever get close to matching.
But it is also the performances which Ford gets from his stars which help turn "The Searchers" from being a very good western into one of the best. In what for many is John Wayne's greatest performance he delivers such a complex character in Ethan Edwards, a man with a dark side as his hatred of the Comanches comes to the surface. What is so good is that this isn't John Wayne being John Wayne; this is John Wayne creating a stunning character one who draws us in to the dark crevices of his mind. Yet at the same time Wayne delivers that heroic aspect which we love, his almost arrogant humour as he makes fun of those around him especially young Martin. Very few actors ever really deliver a character who is mesmerising but in "The Searchers" as Ethan Edwards John Wayne achieves this from the moment we set eyes on him right to the moment the credits roll.
But it is not just the performance of John Wayne as not a single actor puts in anything other than a great performance. From Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley, Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton through to Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgensen every single performance gives another level, another aspect of depth to this story which sprawls across 5 years, different seasons and emotions from vengeance to love.
What this all boils down to is that "The Searchers" truly is a stunning western, not only one of the best of the John Ford and John Wayne collaborations but one of the best westerns ever made. Watched for pure entertainment this sprawling tale of a search for a young girl delivers everything you could want from action through to romance and comedy. But it is also a movie which has more layers as the characters are explored and as such the acting from John Wayne and everyone else is first rate.
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