The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

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The art of staring into the middle distance, with John Wayne.
The art of staring into the middle distance, with John Wayne.

Twitter Plot Summary: John Wayne’s family are killed by Indians, so he sets out to seek revenge. Captain Pike from Star Trek and Lila Crane from Psycho co-star.

Genre: Western

Director: John Ford

Key Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond.

Five Point Summary:

1. John Wayne: much like modern action stars he can only play one character. Himself.
2. The nephew who isn’t John Wayne’s nephew looks like Donny Osmond.
3. Day for night, my old friend.
4. That bugle can only mean one thing… THE CAVALRY!
5. The Native American leader looks like Sean Connery avec un mullet.

Westerns had their heyday back in the 1950s, and with only a few exceptions have been out of the spotlight ever since. It’s not clear why the genre is so badly vilified by the general public, but I’m sure it’s because many of the films in the 50s are a product of their time and portray the Native Americans in an unsympathetic light.

I’m sure at one point this film was considered perfectly sensible and completely serious. With almost 60 years of hindsight, and having knowledge of Sergio Leone’s efforts in the Western genre, this by comparison feels like a bad parody of the Western genre. Stereotypical representations of Native Americans, John Wayne’s trademark drawl, and directorial choices that are supposed to imply drama yet are actually inadvertently amusing. Scenes where a young girl is telling the family dog to stop following her looks like a case of a badly trained dog not returning to its trainer on cue. Other scenes where the sheriff accidentally fires his weapon when attacked by a tribe of Native Americans looks like a goof that was left in because they didn’t have anything better.

The plot begins as something quite simple. After his brother and family are killed by an Indian raiding party Ethan Edwards (Wayne) sets out to seek revenge and to rescue his two nieces who were kidnapped following the attack. Of course, this being the days before wifi and Google Maps, it takes him years to track down the attackers where he discovers one of his nieces who has since been indoctrinated into the Native American way of life.

Could've easily been Sean Connery. But it isn't.
Could’ve easily been Sean Connery. But it isn’t.

The dialogue isn’t anything to write home about, subtlety doesn’t exist in a world where shouting your dialogue will do. John Wayne’s typical approach to acting grates for a short time, but once you acclimatise to his style of delivery you realise he’s pretty good – indeed, how many other people have had as many starring roles as John Wayne? His character Ethan Edwards is as nuanced as can be for the time of the film’s release. He’s a compelling and interesting lead, Hardcore Star Trek fans will rejoice at the presence of Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley – for those not in the know, Hunter was the original captain of the Enterprise, Christopher Pike, in the first Trek pilot The Cave. Hitchcock fans are also well served by the presence of Vera Miles who played Lila Crane, sister of the ill-fated Marion in Psycho.

The locations are gorgeous to look at, and are lovingly photographed from every angle known to a cinematographer. It’s a stunning backdrop and really bestows the virtues of location shooting as you get a real sense of the setting and can suspend your disbelief much easier than with obvious CGI or stage shoots.

From what I’ve read about the film it’s considered an all-time classic and one of the greatest films ever made. I’d dispute that. After a shaky opening 30 minutes with the aforementioned flubs and issues, it settles into an entertaining and multi-layered Western that balances drama with comic moments. There are questions to be raised regarding the motivations of some of the characters and I’m not entirely convinced by the ending, but all the same it’s a generally solid film.

Favourite scene: The Natives are following John Wayne and co, leading to a fight and a shootout.

Quote: “Two letters in one year! By golly!”

Silly Moment: The girl telling the dog to go home, and the dog not listening.

Score: 3.5/5

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