THE SEARCHERS (1956)

Debbie is kidnapped by Comanche
  • Release Date: 26/05/1956
  • Cast: John Wayne, Vera Miles, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Henry Brandon
  • Directed By: John Ford
  • Written By: Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Alan Le May (Novel)

John Wayne delivers his best performance as a grizzled and tattered soul in one of the most influential American Westerns of all times

The Searchers is based on the book of the same name by Alan Le May and was adapted for the screen by Frank S. Nugent who was the director, John Ford’s son-in-law, and a prolific writer of westerns. 3 years after the end of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) rides back home after faithfully serving the Confederates. Ethan is unmarried and has only his brother and his family to call his own. When the local reverend comes to their house to recruit Ethan’s brother to go up against a band of Comanche who has stolen some livestock, Ethan takes up his place to keep his brother safe. Sadly his action is of no use as the Comanche had used the act of stealing the livestock as a ruse to lure the fighting men out of the settlement. Once Ethan and the company have left, the Comanche attack and brutalize every soul that they can lay their hands on. Ethan’s brother and his family are butchered and their ranch burned down. It is only his two nieces, Lucy and Debbie whose bodies are not found and Ethan takes it upon himself to go after the Comanche and find the girls.

John Ford was a major proponent of the western genre and he made some of the best westerns ever to have graced the silver screen. His teaming with John Wayne was especially auspicious as the duo gave films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) together. However, none of the Ford-Wayne films had the kind of impact and extracted the kind of emotions that The Searchers did. This is the film that in many ways set the benchmark for what American-Westerns was all about. The film had its distinctive style that it partly inherited from the long legacy of how westerns were made in America and from the book (by Alan Le May) on which it was based. Very recently I had immersed myself in Sergio Leone’s westerns that are considered to be spaghetti-westerns meaning that they are rooted more in Italian sensibility than the true American version of the Wild Wild West. While both the variants have a common set of defining factors, they are so different from one another in terms of the treatment and the execution that they feel like two different genres.

Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne in a still from The Searchers

Leone’s films are very little about character development and intricate storylines involving subplots. They bank on the brilliance of individual sequences and their organic transformation into the subsequent sequences to invoke awe and entertainment. While the characters and their traits are well-defined and their motivations properly laid out, Leone’s films tell us very little about their pasts and do little to invoke emotional investment in them from the audiences. We are so engrossed in the individual sequences and how they build up with their own three-act structures that we never stop to ask questions about character development, motivation, etc. In Leone’s films, even characters who get killed within matters of moments invoke thrill because of how they are portrayed and built up. Leone is heavy on style and on-location cinematography. He almost always has an enthralling soundtrack (invariably composed by the maestro Ennio Morricone). His films have very little dialogues and most of the talking is done by the actor’s expressions and mannerisms.

John Ford’s The Searchers is a picture that takes a departure from everything that I mentioned above. The film is dialogue-heavy and it is through the dialogues between the different characters that we understand their psyche and motivations. Ethan calmly tells Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) that a Comanche would take over the horse of a dead man, ride it for 20 miles more and then eat it. Through these lines, we get an idea of how he views the Comanche. Ethan respects them for the danger that they pose and their abilities in the field of battle but hates them for their barbaric ways just as much and is open about it. In another memorable sequence, we see Ethan shoot the eyes of a dead and buried Comanche just to desecrate the body and brutalize their beliefs of a safe passage into the other world. As the story progresses, we see several examples of his savagery towards the enemy that equals their barbarism and sometimes overshadows it.

Vera Miles and Jeffrey Hunter in a still from The Searchers

When Ethan finally finds Debbie amongst the Comanche he is not sure whether to take her back or shoot her as now he feels that she has been desecrated by the Comanche and is not a white girl anymore. This just goes on to show how blinded he is by his hate for his adversary. John Wayne sells this aspect of the character wonderfully. Here is a man who has evidently fought a hard war and has, in all eventualities done some terrible things. He is dismissive of most people and looks down on someone like Martin, who was raised by his brother, with disdain as he considers him to be 1/8th Comanche. Towards the end of the film, he reveals a key piece of information to Martin that informs us that Martin might even be his son by chance. He is someone who not only hates the Comanche but wants to bury the whole race for in his blind hate. Wayne, through his dialogue delivery and mannerisms, invokes the right vibes for the character. It is easily one of his most authoritative acts and also one that plays to his strengths.

The film has its share of action but there aren’t nearly as many action sequences as one would expect in a spaghetti-western. I have a few issues with the action sequences as even in those days we had many examples of films that invoked completely realism in the action sequences. Here, the heroes never run out of bullets. We see a gang of 6-7 people beat back hordes of Comanche that makes it extremely difficult for these sequences to be taken seriously. Having said that, the climactic battle still worked well for me. I have to admit that Leone and his brand of ballistic action, gun battles, and Mexican standoffs will always have a wider appeal and reveled in a greater sense of art, beauty, and technicality at use.

Henry Brandon in a still from The Searchers

The manner in which the different characters are portrayed and drama flows are also very different in Ford’s version of a western. While Leone had used close-ups extensively to accentuate the facial expressions and mannerisms, Ford’s frames are populated by more characters. The great thing about these compositions is that each of these characters lends their own perspective and character to a particular scene and adds a lot of richness to what is unfolding on screen. The camera focuses and intercuts between these characters as they mouth their lines that are plenty. The wonderful thing about these sequences is that they never get too verbose and that the dialogue is so intelligent and quirky that our interest is sustained. The compositions are so beautifully envisioned that the beauty on display ensures that we are hooked further to what we are experiencing.

There are certain things that feel odd in an otherwise perfect film. The placement of certain characters for comic relief was unwarranted. If that was not weird enough, there were a few musical cues for the audiences to laugh out loud. The romantic track between Martin and Laurie (Vera Miles) felt tedious, boring, and made me restless. I desperately wanted to get back to the somber and ruthless world of Ethan but I was forced to sit through scene after scene of this superfluous and irritating romance. This problem reaches its crescendo when we have Martin literally get into a fight with the character of Charlie played by Ken Curtis for the right to marry Laurie. In a brief cut, we see Laurie smiling and basking in the glory of the two men fighting over her even though she knows well who she would marry irrespective of the result. These sequences felt odd in an otherwise tense, harrowing, and morose story involving a protagonist who was tattered and was just a few steps short of being just as bad as the antagonists. It would have served the film better to have followed Ethan’s journey alone without taking any detours.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

Here is the link to the film :

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