#6 of the Top Ten Westerns
The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford
Based on the novel The Searchers by Alan Le May
Written by Frank S. Nugent
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood
After the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) has returned to his brother’s home seeking a chance to be close to family. His hope for a new life is quickly shattered when his family is attacked by Comanche. In the aftermath of the raid, his niece is Debbie (Wood) abducted and the rest of the family dead. Alongside his adopted nephew Martin (Hunter), Ethan is going to do whatever it takes to find Debbie and bring her home. Months of searching soon turns to years as the men continue to track the Comanche tribe they believe responsible for the abduction and the raid.
The Searchers marked the twelfth time that John Wayne (El Dorado) and director John Ford (How Green Was My Valley) worked together. In a unique marketing campaign, the film became the subject of one of the first making-of specials, aired on the television show Warner Bros. Presents. The story is based on the novel by Alan Le May (The Unforgiven), with a screenplay written by the talented Frank Nugent (Two Rode Together). In addition to John Wayne, the film features Vera Miles (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), Jeffrey Hunter (The Longest Day), and Natalie Wood (West Side Story).
This movie is widely regarded as one of the best Westerns ever made. The story certainly has a lot to do with this reputation. The nuances and undercurrents in the story give this a depth that’s almost unexpected. The relationships between the characters are complicated, uncomfortable at times, and powerfully delivered. The dialogue is consistently good throughout the film as well. John Wayne’s character is one of the best of his career. The relationship he has with his brother and his brother’s wife is one of the more intriguing complications in a Western. Jeffrey Hunter’s character is also nicely written, giving the relationship between himself and Wayne a lot of needed friction. The supporting characters all have detailed lives as well, adding to the richness of this story. even the ending of this film seems to rise above the expectations most will have for a Western. This screenplay seemed to do everything right.
The acting in this movie is another bright spot for the film. John Wayne might have given one of the best performances of his career with this powerful role. His ability to push the emotional levels up during the movie really seems to give this something special. In addition, he’s playing opposite a number of great actors. Jeffrey Hunter does a great job as the determined young Martin. His role required a number of emotional moments that he delivered nicely. Vera Miles does a great job in her role as well. Thankfully her character rises above the helpless woman of the West. Instead, she’s a strong woman and a force in the film. The rest of the supporting cast do a great job in their roles. Natalie Wood has a smaller part, but manages to do good work with it as well. Overall, one of the better 1950’s Westerns I’ve seen.
John Ford knew how to use a location and capture the natural beauty of the landscape. This time he took his cameras to Monument Valley, Utah for some wonderful scenery. In addition, Ford shot some of this film in Alberta, Canada and also Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The result is a film that truly feels as though it captures the changing seasons over the years the two men searched for Debbie. Along the way, the film uses nicely designed sets and costumes that add to the feel of the film. There is one noticeable issue with the visuals in this one. The director chose to film a handful of scenes on a sound stage rather than outdoors. This seems cheaply done when compared to the beautiful scenery found throughout most of the film. Still, this has all the right things going for it when it comes to the way it looks.
This is one of the best films that John Ford and John Wayne would combine their efforts on. Everything seems to come together around a story that’s got a lot to offer. Although the movie wasn’t recognized by the critics at the time, it’s gone on to become one of the most lauded Westerns ever. In 1989, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry. The film also appears on dozens of top film lists by cinema authorities. If you’re a fan of any of the stars, you need to see this movie. I would also suggest this to anyone who loves Westerns or a good drama. The film is far more emotional and complex than most Westerns, so it’s a nice change of pace for 1950’s movies. I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.
Agreed one of the best if not the best western ever made. I could watch this film a thousand times and still find something new in this rich classic that delivers on every level. A source of great personal inspiration in my own work.
That’s awesome that you love this one so much. I think it’s got so many nuances to the story that it just reads differently every time I see it. Thanks for reading!