"What makes a man to wander?/What makes a man to roam?/What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home?/Ride away, ride away, ride away."
This sad and beautiful song accompanies the opening credits of what may be the finest and most ambitious film from director John Ford, America's premier poet of the Western. Part of what makes this classic film so remarkable is that these questions are never answered directly--an oddity for a
product of Hollywood where loose ends are rarely allowed. This is the ultimate cult film for the new Hollywood. It is quoted and alluded to in numerous films such as HARDCORE, TAXI DRIVER, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and STAR WARS.
As THE SEARCHERS begins, we hear the extraordinarily beautiful strains of Max Steiner's score over darkness. A cabin door opens to reveal the harsh beauty of the arid Monument Valley in the distance. The silhouette of a frontier woman moves into the doorway. Far beyond we see a tiny figure on
horseback approaching. "Ethan?" queries the woman uncertainly. The figure dismounts and walks toward the house. The woman is Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan), the wife of Ethan's brother. She is joined on the porch by her husband, Aaron (Walter Coy), their teenaged daughter, Lucy (Pippa Scott),
10-year-old Debbie (Lana Wood), and teenaged Ben (Robert Lyden). Ethan's clothes are filthy and he wears a faded Confederate coat. The children chant "Uncle Ethan! Uncle Ethan!" Ethan Edwards has finally come home--three years after the end of the Civil War.
John Wayne gives the performance of his career as Ethan Edwards, one of the most intriguing characters the American cinema has given us. Ethan is a mysterious obsessive man who rides in from the wastelands of Monument Valley into a small frontier farm settled by his brother years earlier. He has
been missing since the end of the Civil War in which he fought for the Confederacy. He never turned up at the surrender to give up his sword and saber. He is also inexplicably carrying a large quantity of gold and, in the words of the local captain of the Texas Rangers, Reverend Samuel Clayton
(Ward Bond), Ethan "fits a lot of descriptions."
The last family member to arrive is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Now nearly grown, Martin was saved years ago by Ethan when his parents were slaughtered by Indians. Ethan left him in the care of Aaron, who has raised him as his own son, but because Martin is one-eighth Cherokee, Ethan now
treats him as a boarder rather than as one of the family.
The tranquility of the Edwards' lives is shattered when the local Commanche tribe goes on the warpath. Most of the men are lured away from the farm and the Edwards' farm is attacked. Most of the family is brutally murdered and the two daughters are abducted. The men form a search party and go off
in hot pursuit. The ravaged body of the older girl is found and buried while the search for Debbie continues. When the winter snows come, most of the men turn back. Ethan is undaunted by this temporary setback. He and Martin resolve to continue the search and they do--for seven years. As the
months drag on, Martin is amazed by Ethan's knowledge of the Indians' ways and his ability to read their signs and speak their language, but comes to realize that his guide is also a fanatical racist who intends to kill Debbie when they find her because she has become a "squaw."
THE SEARCHERS is an extremely rich film that continues to reveal new nuances with each viewing. The genre's traditional opposition between "Civilization" and "Wilderness" has rarely been as powerfully represented dramatically or visually. Ethan sees himself as an agent of civilization but his
skills ally him with the forces of wilderness. He can find nowhere where he can be at peace and accepted. His difficulty in accepting a Native American as part of his family mirrors America's tensions regarding civil rights and integration in the 1950s. In a genre that has often be justly
condemned for its racism, THE SEARCHERS--while hardly politically correct by modern standards--was a major breakthrough for Ford, Wayne, and the genre. The traditional Western hero and the Cavalry is shown in an unusually critical light. Furthermore the Native American point of view is considered
for a change. By balancing points of view, Ford deepens and informs our understanding of the story. Equally well managed is the film's balance of drama and humor. THE SEARCHERS is essentially a tragedy, and without its humorous passages the film would have been almost too grim to bear (as was Alan
LeMay's novel). The humor grows out of and illuminates character; even the hard-driven Ethan reveals a sense of irony and wit.
Ford's poetic visual sensibility has never been more richly demonstrated. The film provides an opportunity for numerous striking portraits of John Wayne set against the western vistas in color and widescreen. If you had to pick an ultimate Western still, it would probably come from this film. THE
SEARCHERS is also that rare sound film in which more is revealed through facial expression, physical stance, and subtle gesture than through dialogue. Deep and complex insights into characters are all beautifully conveyed by body language. All in all, this is about as good as Hollywood filmmaking
gets. A deeply emotional experience that is also a grand entertainment, THE SEARCHERS is a true American masterpiece.
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- Review: "What makes a man to wander?/What makes a man to roam?/What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home?/Ride away, ride away, ride away." This sad and beautiful song accompanies the opening credits of what may be the finest and most ambitio… (more)