the fresh films reviews

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The Searchers (1956)

John Ford
119 minutes
C. V. Whitney
Screenwriter (based on a novel by Alan Le May):
Frank S. Nugent

Cast includes:

Ethan Edwards John Wayne
Martin Pawley Jeffrey Hunter
Laurie Jorgensen Vera Miles
Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton Ward Bond
Debbie Edwards Natalie Wood
Lars Jorgensen John Qualen
Mrs. Jorgensen Olive Carey
Scar Henry Brandon
Brad Jorgensen Harry Carey Jr.



The Searchers, one of John Ford's later Westerns, represents a change in focus and depth for the director, paying attention to thematic ambivalence and different points of view (something alien to his early films) to augment the experience. The film is amazingly shot in technicolor, framing some of the most wonderful pictures in the history of the genre. Still, Ford's limitless compositions and vast use of open terrain location shots stand in stark contrast to some very questionable studio takes. This gives the film a constrained feel of space, which it suffers from - spanning five years and taking us through large parts of the west.

Despite receiving not too favourable contemporary reviews, The Searchers' reputation was given a massive boost by the critics of the 70s who hailed the complexity of the John Wayne character; in his searching for his niece, and in his interaction with the Comanches. But even if his motivation is well accounted for, and different tribes of Indians are being presented in varied ways (some more favourable than others), they are still very one-dimensional. That becomes a problem especially in scenes in which that particular banality is being utilized for comic relief - as with a woman nicknamed "Look" who sets off an ineffective subplot involving the not too impressive Jeffrey Hunter, who throughout the movie has most of the film's comedy on his shoulders.

It is obvious that Ford tries hard not to be stereotypical here, and he largely succeeds. The obvious racism and malicious determination of Ethan isn't approved by the director in the way that early studio films would have done - going thematically slavishly hand in hand with the protagonist. Still though, it is very much there and stands central throughout the film, even if Ford leaves most answers to his dilemmas out in the open and lets the narrative diversity speak for itself. Ethan is actually a very interesting character, and one can read quite a bit into him. But with that said, his static persona struggles to make his quest poignant or thought-provoking, leaving the film thematically rich, but still banal (very much to the contrary of one of Ford's more subtle Westerns, Stagecoach).

Copyright 15.3.2006 Fredrik Gunerius Fevang