by Waitsel Smith
5-Star Masterpiece - Best Western Action 1956 - starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter; direction, John Ford - Warner Bros., C.V. Whitney Pictures
This is probably the best western both actor John Wayne and director John Ford ever made. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier who visits his brother's family and, while there, sees them wiped out by Comanches. His niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), is carried off by the Indians, which sparks Ethan to go on a five-year crusade to find her. He is accompanied by an adopted member of his own family, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who is part Cherokee. Martin want's to save Debbie, but the family worries that Ethan has something else in mind: something dark and vengeful.
This is Wayne's best role because he covers the gamut in emotions and covers them well. All his relationships are interesting, but especially the one with Martin, who is younger, yet just as determined. The climax of the film is when he finally finds Debbie and realizes his greatest fear: she has become the squaw of a Comanche brave. In Ethan's mind, that is a fate worse than death. What will he do? Martin has a pretty good idea and is determined to stop him.
This movie is gorgeous, shot in Technicolor and VistaVision in the famous Monument Valley of Utah. As usual, Ford fills it with folksy characters and authentic customs that add to the Western flavor. I think his handling of the Indians is balanced. Ford was anything but a prejudiced man, and still knew men who had lived through the Indian uprisings to reference. But in this day and time, you're going to get comments about stereotyping and revisionist history. For Ford, that's an absurd accusation.
The Searchers is not your typical Western because it is some of the finest filmmaking by one of the finest filmmakers in history. It's based on the novel by Alan Le May and has been called "The Greatest American Western" of all time by the American Film Institute and Entertainment Weekly. It is listed in around tenth spot for the top 100 movies of all time by both the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute. It is, without doubt, Ford's masterpiece, and that final shot in the doorway is a classic.
Most memorable quote: "That'll be the day." - Ethan Edwards
"Ethan Edwards was one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created." - Critic Roger Ebert
Waitsel Smith, August 20, 2013
Text © 2013 Waitsel Smith. Photos © 1956 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.