The Searchers (1956) / Western-Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for violence and adult themes
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Anotnio Moreno, Hank Worden
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent (based on the novel by Alan Le May)
Review published February 26, 1999
The Searchers is an entertaining Western by the quintessential oater duo of director John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance) and star John Wayne (The Quiet Man, Rio Bravo). As the years progress, the crowd grows larger that touts this as the greatest Western ever made; in fact, some feel it is the greatest movie ever made. I speculate that those of this opinion are struck by an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, respecting the film's place in the Western arc rather than in a critique of the film wholly on its own. Although I did like the movie, some of you will probably see this as a negative review, simply for the fact that I do not give it five stars. While I would have loved to agree with those who laud this endlessly, if there is something magical about The Searchers, it continues to elude me.
Wayne stars as Ethan, a tough ex-soldier in the post-Civil War Old West who, along with his adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter, Star Trek: The Cage), goes out to chase a tribe of Comanches in hopes of finding his niece, Debbie, possibly the last survivor of a vicious raid which saw Ethan's brother and family slaughtered.
The first half hour of The Searchers is embarrassingly hokey, with stilted dialogue and goofy characters that are portrayed in over-the-top fashion to provide moments of comedy. Instead of sincere laughs, these characters mostly provide noise and tedium. The film's momentum finally begins to emerge when most of this cast of fairly bad actors are left behind or killed off. -- especially when Wayne and Hunter are the only ones left of the posse, making the film as a whole quite entertaining and intelligent. Although a cultural icon, Wayne has never been the best of actors, but his presence is always formidable, and his character here is one of the more complex he's played. Hunter, as the film's heartthrob has his moments and does a better job than many of the untalented supporting cast.
Underneath the muck, there are undeniably brilliant moments, particularly in the confrontations between Scar (the Comanche antagonist) and Ethan, and a terrific final shot that sums up the film, and perhaps the Western genre at the time, ingeniously. Yet, on the down side, there's also no denying the ill-conceived moments, the chief among them being the annoying attempts at cheesy humor. I suppose some find endearing, but as for me, I found that the many "hick" dialects and over-the-top fight scenes marred the overall mood of the film, making it greatly uneven.
Despite my quibbling, The Searchers will always be a must-see for Western fans, and John Wayne fans in particular. While I can't endorse the film as a masterpiece, or even excellent there are enough great moments to respect it as a worthy effort, even if I can't join in with those who champion this as one of the greatest masterworks in the history of cinema.
-- Remade as the made-for-TV movies The Quest (1976) and Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (1990)
©1999 Vince Leo