Thursday, November 01, 2012
Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/5/10 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Based on the Alan Le May novel, The Searchers tells the story of a Civil War veteran returning home only to encounter tragedy concerning his family. With his nephew, the two go on a journey that spans a few years to find his niece who had been abducted by the Comanche Indian tribe. Directed by John Ford and screenplay by Frank S. Nugent. The film explores a man’s search for his niece where it gives its star John Wayne a role that is complex and dark. Also starring Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Lana Wood, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood. The Searchers is an evocative and thrilling film from John Ford and his star John Wayne.
Returning home to Texas a few years after the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) arrives to meet his brother Aaron (Walter Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordon), and their children Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ben (Robert Lyden), and the youngest named Debbie (Lana Woods). Arriving to the family dinner is Aaron’s adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) whom Ethan is uncomfortable with since Martin is half-Cherokee while the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) arrives the next day to meet the family where he asks Martin and Ethan to join the Texas Rangers. Ethan and Martin aids Clayton to find out who has been stealing cattle from the nearby Jorgensen family where Ethan makes a chilling discovery as he realizes it’s a trap. Ethan and Martin return home to find their home burned with the family dead prompting Ethan, Martin, and Lucy’s fiancee Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) to go search for the Comanche tribe that had probably captured Lucy and Debbie.
The search proves to be troubling after Ethan, Martin, Brad, and the rangers were almost trapped by the encounter with the Comanche forcing Clayton to call off the search. Ethan, Martin, and Brad decide to continue the search where Martin goes on the search for a trail where Ethan makes another discovery that leaves Brad devastated. With the trail lost and winter approaching, Ethan and Martin seek shelter at the Jorgensen family as Martin is greeted by old childhood friend Laurie (Vera Miles). Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) and his wife (Olive Carey) give Martin a letter about someone who knows Debbie’s whereabouts while Ethan meets a trader named John Futterman (Peter Mamakos) who also reveals clues about a dress Debbie wore a few years ago. Ethan and Martin continue their search where Martin writes his recollections to Laurie where the search goes on for a year. After meeting with some cavalry men at a fort, Ethan and Martin learn about the women who had been captured by the Comanche.
After meeting a Mexican man named Emilio Figueroa (Antonio Moreno) who reveals the whereabouts of the tribe and their leader named Scar (Henry Brandon). Ethan and Martin arrive to the tribe camp where they find another shocking discovery about Debbie (now played by Natalie Wood) as it troubles Ethan prompting he and Martin to return to the Jorgensen home where some incidents occur when Clayton makes a plan. Even as Martin is worried about what Ethan might do to Debbie as he has a plan of his own.
The film’s story about a man and his adopted nephew taking a five-year search to find a young girl who had been captured by Indians is a simple story. Yet, it’s the journey and the study of its characters that makes the film far more compelling in its presentation. It’s really about a man trying to find his lost niece while his adopted nephew is learning about his uncle’s dark side. Despite Ethan Edwards’ sense of hatred towards the Comanche, he is a man devoted to his family and his hate over their slaughter is the drive for the search of Debbie. For Martin, he too is devoted to family and wants vengeance. His character serves as a conscience of sorts though he is immature and inexperienced into how to find the Comanche while he would later have an encounter with an Indian tribe where he would end up marrying one for a brief period.
Screenwriter Frank S. Nugent succeeds in creating a story that is truly complex in its tone. At times, there’s some humor to balance out the drama and suspense of the film while there’s also characters that do more than what is expected in the archetype of the western genre. Particularly Laurie Jorgensen who is a frustrated yet loyal woman who loves Martin but has a hard time waiting for him to come home. Another female character that is a main drive to the plot, though is only seen briefly is Martha, Ethan’s sister-in-law. It is suggested that Ethan is in love with her but there’s no dialogue nor any story that alludes to that relationship but rather in subtle body language. The film’s antagonist in Scar is also complex since he’s a man who has the same kind of hate that Ethan has but towards white men over tragedies made by white men. Nugent’s study of character, surroundings, and the exploration of racism is truly mesmerizing as well as provocative in its approach. The result is a story that is engaging and thrilling in its journey.
Capturing all of this on screen is the legendary John Ford whose direction is truly hypnotic and at times, breathtaking. Shooting on location in parts of Monument Valley along with other locations in Utah, Los Angeles, & Canada. Ford creates a world where there are rules but they can limit to what is possible. Those rules was something for Ethan and Martin as they care about searching for Debbie. Ford’s direction is stunning from the way he framed the opening and closing shots to how captures close-ups with zoom lenses. Even for wide shots to capture the world of Monument Valley with an amazing depth of field is truly jaw-dropping. Even as he captures the action with tracking camera shots to get the momentum and drama of what is happening.
Some of the dramatic moments in the film has Ford doing some great things about what not to show in order to intensify the dramatic elements of the film. Even as Ford manages to play around with the rules that were restricted at the time as he, like other filmmakers at the time, were starting to push boundaries. While it may not have the grit of the westerns to come from Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Ford does add a classical element that is truly sweeping as he creates what is definitely an archetype of what the western should be.
Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch does a spectacular job with the film’s photography from the wide, epic canvas look of the exteriors in the day time with some more intimate, darker shots for the nighttime scenes. The interior shots are done with little lighting while some scenes that have a mixture of interior/exterior is filled with shades or evening shots on the outside to exemplify the beauty of the West. Even if it has a sense of darkness that is happening as Hoch’s work is superb. Editor Jack Murray does excellent work with the film’s editing where it moves fast during the film’s climatic battle scene while creating wonderful transitions from scene to scene. Notably the sequence where Laurie narrates Martin’s letter about his journey as it moves back and forth quite seamlessly as Murray’s editing is a highlight.
The art direction of James Basevi and Frank Hotaling, along with set decoration by Victor A. Gangelin, is brilliant for the set designs on the cabin homes of the Edwards’ home along with the ranch of the Jorgensen family. Even as it maintains a sense of authenticity of what it looked like in post-Civil War era of the American West. Costume designer Charles Arrico is very good for its look and how it reflects on that world of the old west while the dresses that Vera Miles and the other actresses wear are beautiful. The sound work of Hugh McDowell Jr. & Howard Wilson is superb for its layering in capturing the action that goes on from the shootouts and locations that the characters are surrounded by.
The music score by Max Steiner is wonderful for its excitement for many of the film’s action and suspense scenes to more somber pieces in the dramatic moments. Mostly an orchestral score, the music also has more humorous scenes involving Martin and his Indian bride. The title song that’s played in the opening and closing credits is a slow yet old-school western ballad by Stan Jones that is sung by Sons of the Pioneers.
The casting for the film is phenomenal as it includes some noteworthy appearances from John Wayne’s young son Patrick as a young cavalry lieutenant, Antonio Moreno as a Mexican man who leads Ethan & Martin to the Comanche, Robert Lyden as Ethan’s young nephew Ben, Pippa Scott as Lucy, Harry Carey Jr. as Brad Jorgensen, Beulah Archuletta as Martin’s Indian Bride, and Hank Worden in a hilarious role as Mose Harper. Other noteworthy small but memorable roles come from John Qualen and Olive Carey as Laurie Jorgensen’s parents, Ken Curtis as the simple-minded Charlie McCorry whom Martin doesn’t like, Lana Wood as the young Debbie, Walter Coy as Ethan’s brother Aaron, and Dorothy Jordan as Martha Edwards, whom Ethan adores.
Henry Brandon is excellent in a small but eerie performance as Chief Cicatrice aka Scar who has a deep hatred for the white man while explaining his own actions as Brandon brings a complexity to his role as the villain. In one of her early film roles, Natalie Wood is very good as the 15-year old Debbie. A young woman changed by the Comanche while pleading to be left alone only to become a target of her uncle. Ward Bond is great as Rev. Col. Samuel Johnston Clayton, an authority figure who means well but doesn’t understand Ethan while getting into things he isn’t fully prepared for. Vera Miles is amazing as Laurie Jorgensen, a hard-headed woman who loves Martin but is put-off by his immaturity and unwillingness to get married while being the one person to ground him. Jeffrey Hunter is superb as Martin Pawley, Ethan’s adopted nephew who goes along the journey to find Debbie only to discover more about his uncle. Hunter’s performance is remarkable in a man who starts off immature only to grow up to realize what is needed to be done.
Finally, there’s John Wayne in what is definitely one of his most iconic roles of his career. In the role of Ethan Edwards, Wayne displays a sense of wisdom but also a character who seems troubled. When he loses his family, Edwards intent for revenge and to find Debbie shows a man knowing what it takes to survive and to bide his time. Yet when he finds Debbie and what she’s become, the dark side of Edwards is revealed as Wayne’s complex, layered, and brooding performance shows all of that but in subtle tones. Even in the more humanistic, compassionate side of Edwards is rarely seen but it is done with light moments of body language. It is definitely a brilliant performance from John Wayne who doesn’t get a lot of credit for his acting.
The Searchers is a thrilling western by the late John Ford and that features a mesmerizing performance from the late John Wayne. Anyone who is new to the western genre must see the film for its visual language, themes, and character study as it lives up to all of benchmarks expected in the genre. Anyone new to the work of John Ford will see this as truly, worthy introduction to one of the greatest directors in cinema. Filled with amazing action, chilling suspense, some fine humor, and subtle drama, The Searchers is truly one of the most defining films of the western genre that can only come from the vision of John Ford.
© thevoid99 2012
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Great review of an iconic Western masterpiece. Love everything about this flick, and the influence it had over some of our finest living directors.
It is truly one of the great westerns. The ending is definitely an image that will be instilled in film buffs for eternity.
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