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The Searchers: Western Deluxe
by Asa Butcher
2009-08-23 09:28:22
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The Searchers
Directed by John Ford
1956, Warner Bros. Pictures

John Wayne made 142 films throughout his life. He was the leading man in all but eleven. He became synonymous with director John Ford with whom he made 14 films, so it is appropriate that the film for which many regard as the pinnacle of The Duke's career was directed by the aforementioned director. The Searchers, as if you hadn't guessed, is a film rarely absent from All-Time Greatest Film lists, inspired Buddy Holly's 1957 hit “That'll Be the Day”and even resulted in John Wayne naming one of his sons after his character Ethan Edwards.

Love him or hate him, John Wayne was certainly a character larger than life. If you ever have a spare moment to scroll through the trivia written about him on the IMDB actor database, then please do because you will discover that he certainly knew how to divide and rule, not only Hollywood, but the political arena too. If you are worried that the review is going to transform into a piece on John Wayne then you are justified in your concerns because, during the period when The Searchers was made, audiences just wanted John Wayne to be, well, John Wayne. He portrayed himself in almost every later role, including his performance as Ethan Edwards.

Returning to the 'divide and rule' idea, John Wayne seemed to even apply it to himself. On February 22 1956 a new John Wayne film hit screens across America; it was called The Conqueror. Can you imagine John Wayne as Genghis Khan? Well, nor could many other people resulting in a film that should never have been made and would make Wayne shudder whenever somebody would mention it for years to come. But, this is the John Wayne but, on March 13 1956, less than three weeks later The Searchers redeemed his reputation.

Premiere Magazine ranked his performance at #87 in their “100 Greatest Performances of All Time” list and later ranked him #23 in their “100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time” list. The accolades may have been in scarce supply upon the film's original release, with no Academy Award nominations, but Hollywood certainly knows how to make amends by voting it 12th in the America Film Institute's “Greatest Movie of All Time” list and finally first in its list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Western".

Impressive stuff, huh, but does the film deserve any of the praise that is still heaped upon it 53 years later? I guess the answer is right there: it still gets extolled for its brilliance five decades on and still outclasses any of the hundreds of Westerns that have been made since. To ask 'why?' has been answered through countless books and essays, but for me it is a film that has both Ford and Wayne working at their peak, complimenting the other's skill and producing a Western that shows some of the darkness of the Great American West – that is before Sam Peckinpah came along with The Wild Bunch and really showed the dark side.

This dark side is fully explored through the character of Ethan Edwards and his relentless quest to find the Comanche tribe that have taken his two nieces hostage and brutally killed the remainder of his brother's family – if you also pay close attention to a gravestone that the little girl Lucy hides behind, you'll see further motive! Ethan's thirst for vengeance is all-consuming taking him on a journey that lasts almost five years, yet more disturbing is the realisation that he doesn't plan to rescue the one surviving niece, but rather kill her because she has become assimilated with the tribe.

Today the Westerns of the '40s, 50s and 60s receive a great deal of criticism concerning the negative portrayal of Native Americans and The Searchers has also been accused as being racist, but in its case I would argue the opposite. The Comanche tribe are portrayed as honourable and fair, while Ethan Edwards is, quite simply, a bastard. He desecrates the body of a dead Comanche, he shoots at the retreating tribe killing some with bullets in the back, he scalps the head of the dead chief and uses countless derogatory terms with his search partner and one-eight Indian nephew Martin Pawley. Edwards even shoots three fellow white men in the back, so it seems he just hates everybody!

Balancing out Edwards' hatred for the world is Martin Pawley, played by Jeffery Hunter, the man who went on to play the first U.S.S. Enterprise captain in the pilot of "Star Trek: The Original Series". Pawley is the comedic relief, the eye candy for any ladies accompanying their man to the Pictures and a great screen partner for Wayne. Together they bring a gentle balance to the story, occasionally delving into melodramatic, but managing to keep the mostly masculine story on track and keep you liking the irascible Edwards, who really shouldn't be worthy of any other emotion than sympathy.

While on the topic of balance and Jeffery Hunter's character Martin Pawley, it is a great moment to discuss the actress who plays his boisterous love interest and also the most prominent female character in the film. Vera Miles, who turned 80 on August 23rd, played Laurie Jorgensen with enough style that you finish watching the film wishing that there had been a little bit more of her, which may explain why The Searchers is credited as the film that launched her career.

Vera Miles is perhaps most famous for her role as Janet Leigh's sister in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho – the one that discovers the “mother” - but, like all actresses, she started off relatively unknown. Miles must have made quite an impression on Ford and Wayne because they all worked together again six years later on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which would be the last Western John Ford directed before his death in 1973. John Ford is now a name intrinsically connected to the Westerns genre, but, incidentally, from 1950 through 1959 he made only one Western and that was The Searchers.

The Searchers has all the trademarks of the Great American Director, who could take the overwhelming stunning canvas of Monument Valley and actually improve upon it. He could capture its immensity and keep it intrinsic to the story; stories that would usually take the myths of the Old West and simply turn them into historical fact! His Westerns bring words like 'majestic', 'sweeping' and 'breathtaking' to mind and then with the characters' camera shots who are further reminded what a storyteller the man is, yet the man was incredibly modest: “Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it's not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people's eyes.”

From people's eyes to sandstone buttes, from John Wayne's swagger to depicting raw human emotion, John Ford was note perfect with his 1956 film The Searchers and continues to deserve every accolade and appearance in every Top Ten Film list going. Whether you are a fan of Westerns or not, I encourage you to explore the beauty of John Ford's masterpiece made with the hard-as-nails John Wayne, who finally shows us at the end that Ethan Edwards really does have a heart.... does The Duke cry? Ha, that'll be the day!

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Emanuel Paparella2009-08-23 11:29:46
The above is an accurate and intriguing description of John Wayne's persona. Indeed, John Wayne as an actor always came across as larger than life and he never repudiated that persona. Once, in an interview for Playboy magazine, he was asked if he ever felt any regret for having acted in so many films where the native American is portrayed as a blood-thirsty savage. He replied that he was just portraying historical events and he had never personally killed any native Americans. When pressed however he reluctantly admitted that perhaps some of his ancestors had done so. And here is the issue: one is left wondering if it ever occurred to John Wayne that to truly love one's country, to proudly parade the flag on the fourth of July and declare oneself a super-patriot, also means to take a modicum of responsibility for the flaws, the shadow side and past mistakes of one's country and make reparations for those past events, even when one may be personally innocent of those past crimes of one's ancestors.

Clint2009-08-24 21:16:41
Top Man, Top Movie Five Stars

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