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The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)

Directed by: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood

One of the most famous closing shots in cinema history

Those of you who have been following my thread might have noticed that most of my reviews are lengthy paragraphs in praise of my favorite movies. That¡¯s because while I enjoy film criticism, I¡¯m not good at the actual ¡°criticism¡±. Providing a logical opinion that leans towards negativity is more difficult than positive ramblings. So this time, I'm stepping out of my comfort zone by criticizing a film that is regarded as a classic, but feels rather dubious to me.

Attacks made toward The Searchers usually revolve around the film's blatant racism, but my review will not discuss it. I¡¯m not avoiding controversy; this is because in a Ford Western starring Indians and white heroes, racism is an obvious content inside the package. Not expecting it, then getting offended is a lack of prior knowledge.

Now it's time for the actual review. The plot is fairly simple, and the script knows that it has to in order to work. Emotions are propelled by the fact that Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley) are obsessed with hunting down the Indians responsible for burning down their home, and kidnapping Debbie, who is Ethan¡¯s niece. This is well complemented by Ford¡¯s signature wide-lens shots of valleys, rivers, and plateaus etc. which have a bold but striking color tone. They are beautiful, and the picture I used for my review is a great example.

The Searchers is a film that tells its story through individual scenes that gradually build into a burst of action(s), instead of scenes solely having the purpose of plowing through a story a film needs to tell so that audiences can be entertained. When Ethan and Jeffrey are hunting for clues under winter weather, it isn't important to the eventual outcome, so it could have been easily covered with a quick shot, but Ethan stops to shoot a herd of buffaloes, so ¡°the Comanche won¡¯t have anything to eat during the winter¡±. It reminded me of Taxi Driver when Travis has the idea of assassinating a candidate.

Situations get more and more intense as the search drags on for many years, which causes a few deaths, lots of arguments, and Ethan¡¯s desire for a proper revenge, shown in dialogue loaded with hatred. Ford seems to realize that what he¡¯s dealing cannot be viewed in a light mood, so he adds comedic moments that conveniently pop up when tension climaxes. A lot of them attempt to generate laughs from Mose Harper (Hank Warden), a friend who lacks intelligence. This ends the character¡¯s description. You know someone is one-dimensional when they can be described with one word and its synonyms. There¡¯s also John Wayne one-liners, dancing, fighting, and laughing, but I'd rather see Mose complain about how he doesn¡¯t have his own rocking chair. Another aspect I didn't buy is the awfully forced romance between Jeffery and Laurie. But it¡¯s not important enough to criticize.

Thus, the two main protagonists are definitely the main highlight. John Wayne is being John Wayne, but in this film, his eyes are always occupied. There's a wonderful shot where the camera is looking at a sand dune, in the same direction as Edwards¡¯s glaze, then he turns around and almost stares directly at the screen. It last for about 2 seconds, yet it is an artistic achievement as well as a great character study. Martin Pawley often sticks out like a sore thumb – Hunter¡¯s acting makes him a whiny little boy disturbed by first world problems, or a reasonable man whose presence next to Edward is a nice balance.

Characters play an important role in a Western, when guns aren't blazing and horses aren't galloping across a brilliant plain. In a barren desert, people are more than figures; they bring color and liveliness. All the classic American Westerns I liked had characters I wanted to hang out with, have a drink, and could maybe teach me how to hunt game. In The Searchers, there are two characters that I care about, but obviously do not need my help, or friendship. There¡¯s a disappointing distance between me and this film, even though I admire its achievements, and influence on cinema. I can¡¯t wait to check out another Ford Western.