Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Searchers (That'll be the day)

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother's home after several years of absence, the first few spent fighting on the losing side of the Civil War while the latter are never mentioned, exactly, but Mexico and money are inferred. The local Comanche Indian's attack the Edwards family farm, killing most of the women but kidnapping the two youngest daughters. Ethan sets off to find his young nieces accompanied by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a half-breed youth who, as an infant had been discovered under a bush by Ethan following the slaughter of Martin's family, had been raised by Ethan's brother as one of their own. Martin wants to rescue his sister but Ethan wants to kill her because in his view, she would already have suffered a fate worse than death by being deflowered by a savage. They spend five years on a lonely quest to hunt down the tribe and their leader Scar (Henry Brandon) with hate and revenge driving Ethan's every step. There is no question concerning Ethan's determination or if he'll every give up the search, the question is who , if anyone, will survive when he finds them.

The Searchers is not only one of the greatest Westerns (often referred to as the greatest) of all time, but this year The American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films listed The Searchers in twelfth place and it normally ranks in the top twenty (Sight and Sound poll) of the greatest films ever made.

I can't really say that I disagree. The more I watch this movie and see past the typical clichés, the more I'm amazed at the depth and beauty of this movie. John Wayne's character is a true anti-hero and his portrayal of Ethan is spot on. Granted, Ethan's hatred of the Comanches borders on racism but, in my opinion, never actually crosses the line - it's simply pure hatred caused by past events. Ethan hates the Comanches because of what they've taken from him and the depth of his losses become more apparent the more closely the film is watched. For example, it's never mentioned how Ethan's mother died but, early in the movie, as the character of young Debbie is hiding from the Comanches in the cemetery, a headstone bearing the name of Ethan's mother (Mary Jane Edwards) can be seen and the engraving states that she was killed by Comanches roughly sixteen years before.

Another terrible loss for Ethan is also one of my favorite parts of the movie because of it's subtlety. Paying close attention to the reactions and mannerisms of Ethan and Ethan's brother's wife, Martha, when they are within close proximity to one another is very telling. There is never a word said regarding it but it's obvious, at least to me, that they are in love with each other and probably have been for some time considering that, as the film begins, they haven't seen each other in years. An excellent bit of directing by John Ford adds an additional layer of loss to a character that is no stranger to pain. When ever I watch this movie, for days afterwards, I find myself trying to imagine a back story between Ethan and Martha. Any movie that can evoke mental meanderings several days after being seen is a classic example of great film making.

Another reason not to miss this movie is it's sheer beauty. A majority of the film was shot in Utah's Monument Valley and it is truly breathtaking. I most recently watched the film in a high-definition transfer on Blu-Ray disc and I could not believe how amazing this movie looked having been filmed over fifty years ago in 1956. The colors were vibrant and life-like and the depth perception was practically three dimensional. From what I understand, Warner Bros. spared no expense for the 50th anniversary re-release of The Searchers on a two-disc standard dvd and the high-definition HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs. The only problem was that the original print was unusable for the restoration process and a new one had to be created using the black and white negative, which meant that the original colors were left to interpretation since John Ford and his crew have all passed away. There has been some debate regarding the final color choices but, again, in my opinion, the movie looks wonderful and improves with each subsequent viewing.

The Searchers is, in many, many ways, a prime example of a master director and his incredible team at work and, not surprisingly, can be enjoyed and appreciated by movie fans who don't necessarily watch Westerns. Do yourself a favor and pick an open afternoon, rent or buy the dvd or hi-def disc (if you're hi-def capable), make some popcorn, turn off the phones and enjoy a nostalgic ride through one of the greatest Westerns ever made. And remember, pay attention.


Chris said...

Ah Sigur Ross. I just discovered then last November whilst flat sitting. Fabulous band, apparently they're great live too.

John Taylor said...

hi chris-
You're officially the only other person that I know who has ever heard of those guys and it really doesn't surprise me that none of my friends here in the States have never heard of them even though I know I've heard a song or two used on the television show CSI. I first heard the band on the soundtrack for Vanilla Sky back in 2001 - and have listened to them a fair amount, since. I really enjoy reading while listening to their work.
Maybe I'll get to see them live at some point in the future.
Thanks for noticing, by the way.