John Ford is often regarded as one the finest filmmakers ever, he is a winner of four Best Director Oscars (a record) and is Orson Wells’ greatest influence. Ford is best known for his Westerns, and The Searchers is regarded as his greatest film of his career and thus the best collaboration between himself and John Wayne. It’s the brilliance of so many factors that range from Winton C. Hoch’s incredible cinematography, Ford’s faultless direction and Wayne’s stunning performance that makes The Searchers the genre defining film it is.
The story of John Ford’s classic is a simple one, but the many factors involved make the simple story more powerful on screen than it appears on the page. The Searchers is based on the little known novel by Alan La May (also entitled The Searchers) the film concerns Ethan Edwards’ quest for revenge after the brutal slaughter of his brother’s family, and the abduction of his youngest niece by an Indian tribe. This quest becomes a five year trek in which he discovers the humanity within him. It is a story of revenge, one that has been told so many times in cinema before, but there is something extra special about the way the story of Ethan Edwards is told.
The first shot we get is the back of Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordon) standing in the doorway, the camera follows her into the open and we see the lifeless desert of Monument Valley (a scene that is replicated in Saving Private Ryan), the opening shot is staggering as we witness the first look at the sparse lawless landscape. We then see Ethan Edwards on horseback trotting towards the house (a scene that has also been referenced in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia), Such is the legacy of The Searchers that the great films of second half of 20th century feel a need to pay homage to John Ford’s piece of craftsmanship. Great films are always replicated, or are referenced to as these are the films that influence other budding directors into becoming a filmmaker.
There are many factors that make The Searchers a great film, John Ford, John Wayne are just examples, but Winton C. Hoch outstanding cinematography became the definitive method at how to shoot landscapes which epitomises the vastness of the wildernesses of the Western era of American history. Hoch makes stunning use of the sandstone rocks, and places these characters in such gigantic landscapes that they almost melt into nothing, become nothing but a dot on a never ending landscape. However it takes a special character to become more then a dot on the landscape, and we get exactly that in the shape of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.
Ethan Edwards is a perfect example of an anti hero, a man who is not just spurred on in an act of vengeance, but also to meet his own illegal and moral desires and his blatant hatred of Indians. It becomes apparent later on in the film the drive was more than just a quest of vengeance, but one that was driven by racism. However against the odds the audience remain sympathetic to Ethan’s loss and cause because his sheer resolve and dogged determination as he battles the elements of loneliness and starvation to rescue his youngest niece and avenge the brutal massacre of his family. However it is easy to be caught in the middle in the opinion one makes of this complex character, Ethan clearly reserves a hatred for the Indians that causes to become almost cowardly, merciless and downright brutal in his actions. The hatred, frustration and repressed love causes him lash out as he consumed by his dark feelings towards Indians.
Ethan Edwards is a character with great psychological depth, and his five year quest becomes an enlightening one that starts off as a quest for revenge but finishes as a quest for personal redemption. This complicated character driven by illegitimate desires works so effective due to John Wayne’s grand performance. Wayne’s career best and profound performance captures the aguish felt at the slaughter of his family and the growing sense of hate and furious anger toward Indians. Ethan feels that the Indians are nothing but brutal savages, however it turns out that Scar (Henry Brandon), the leader of the tribe that killed Ethan’s family, and Ethan are not so different as Scar also acted out in vengeance as his sons were killed by white men. John Ford makes it perfectly clear that the ‘civilised’ white people are just as brutal as the Indians who are defined as brutal animals by white people.
The themes of sexism, racism, revenge and redemption are brilliantly woven into the story by Frank S. Nugent compelling and occasionally witty script. The script also subtlety shows the unspoken love that Ethan Edwards and Martha Edwards (the wife of Ethan’s brother) share between each other, and the transgression from Ethan’s racist beliefs, his attitude towards Martin "Marty" Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) is cold and uninviting because of Martin’s Indian background, to a state of acceptance. Supporting John Wayne’s memorable performance is a collection of fine supporting performances from Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton and Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgenson. The only slight flaw comes in the shape of Hank Worden whose rocking chair obsessed character is a rather large tonal shift to the dark dialogue and main story of revenge and racism.
The Searchers set the benchmark for all western films to meet, very few films match the brilliance of John Ford’s classic, with a few exceptions of Clint Eastwood’s best picture winning Unforgiven and Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western trilogies being the major highlights of the post 1956 Western genre. The Searchers did not even receive one single Oscar nomination for the year 1956, a year in which the greatest film of year was Around the World in Eighty Days, a film that nobody in the present day really cares about. John Ford’s western classic is still popular today and is regarded as one the greatest films ever made (voted the fifth greatest American film ever made), and deservedly so due to the use of the sparse landscapes, John Wayne’s masterful performance and Ford’s impeccable direction.