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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 31.58%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 1.75%
Total Crap: 1.75%

2 reviews, 45 user ratings

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Searchers, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The sort of movie you WISH seemed to take five years."
4 stars

There's evil everywhere in The Searchers, and obsession, too. It's about how, though we often need the services of people who can handle a gun, we should often be wary of the people who are comfortable wielding them. It may contain John Wayne's best performance, although you'd have to ask someone who has seen many more of his films than I have to get a useful perspective.

That role is Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate officer who appears to have continued soldiering after the war ends. When he arrives at his brother's Texas ranch, the kids are excited to see him, although he makes their parents a bit nervous - he's larger than life, and not always pleasant, especially around Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), whom the Edwardses took in as a child; his being a half-breed didn't matter to the rest of the family like it does to Ethan. Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), the teenage daughter of neighboring farmers, doesn't seem to mind, though. Some of Ethan's prejudices seem validated when a Comanche attack leaves most of the family dead, and youngest daughter Debbie (Lana Wood) kidnapped. Ethan joins a posse to find the kidnapped girl, but it will soon be reduced to just him and Martin seeking Debbie (by now played by Natalie Wood). But is Ethan still looking to rescue her?

The Searchers takes place over several years (at least five; probably more), which is at once a source of its power and a potential weakness. It speaks to the mental state of these characters that they will keep looking for Debbie despite the increasing odds that she's dead or impossible to find, and it doesn't necessarily have much to do with the girl. Edwards is gripped by a powerful hate, and is perhaps more interested in finding the kidnapper than the victim (indeed, if she's been assimilated into Comanche culture, she may be considered forfeit); perhaps a part of him realizes that he's not cut out for a normal life, and this quest is his way of remaining a soldier for as long as it lasts. John Wayne gives a fine performance, not really hiding Edwards's monstrous side, but making us believe that people will happily look the other way or exploit it by showing what a competent and able fighting man he is.

Martin Pawley, on the other hand, never sees his goal waver from rescuing the girl he sees as a sister, but there is within him a need to prove himself. Ethan is the only one who makes any overtly racial comments toward him, and he's probably the only one thinking them, but after the attack, Ethan is the closest thing to family Martin's got, and how would Laurie look at Martin if he just gave up? Of course, this line of thinking doesn't take into account that a girl can't very well wait forever. Jeffrey Hunter is a nice contrast to Wayne, playing younger than his age, making his character optimistic and determined. He's pleasantly naive at times, not quite knowing how to deal with Laurie but having the strength to stand up to Ethan.

A potential issue modern audiences may have with this film is that Ethan's hatred of the Indians is pretty much accepted. Sure, he's looked at as crazy by the end, but a good part of that is because he's willing to kill a white girl who has been tainted by her association; he goes too far, but his base attitudes don't seem unreasonable in the context of the film: The vast majority of the Indians shown in the movie are either vicious or pathetic. There's also the issue of the passing time - we know it must pass, for Debbie grows from being played by one Wood sister to the other, and if a great deal of time doesn't pass, then Ethan's motives don't begin to shift; also, the fact Ethan and Martin each feel the need to continue so long is what makes their characters worthy of further examination and speculation. However, the movie often doesn't feel like time is passing; Debbie is the only character whose appearance changes in the ensuing years (and even then, the sisters playing her look so much alike that one speculates that it could have been done with makeup and costuming). When Ethan and Martin return to the Jorgensen farm in the latter half of the movie, it's not obvious whether they've been gone two years or ten.

These concerns are more than offset by what's done right, though - the leads are good, of course, but so are the supporting characters, whether they be Vera Miles and Natalie Wood as the women or smaller parts, like Ward Bond as Samuel Johnston Clayton, a preacher who was also Ethan's commanding officer during the war, and looks at Ethan as a sort of dangerous friend. The Civil War looms over The Searchers in a quiet way, as history between the older men and why they doubt the younger ones (they didn't serve; they don't know), and in the odd mixture of tension and respect ex-Confederate and Union soldiers have around each other. The story is simultaneously epic and intimate.

It also goes without saying that John Ford can direct himself a Western. As ugly as the antagonists' hearts are (and Henry Brandon's "Scar" is just short of a demon), the land is beautiful. Ford probably invented a lot of the genre's conventions back in the silent days, and he knows just how to get the best use out of them. He also does large-scale action as well as anyone, whether it be Ethan and Martin alone against Scar's men or a full-on battle between the army and a Comanche war party.

The Searchers is a solid, well-acted and well-shot Western. If it really felt like the years-spanning epic it wants to be, it would be just about perfect, but as it stands, it's very, very good.

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originally posted: 06/09/05 09:52:51
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User Comments

7/06/20 morris campbell terrific western 4 stars
9/01/15 Billy34 Visual poetry. A movie that refuses to compromise itself and The Duke is terrific. 5 stars
4/07/15 stanley welles a powerful wild west odyssey 5 stars
10/08/14 Lisa C Beautifully filmed, multi-layered masterpiece 5 stars
1/20/14 Pj hannah Greatest ever western 5 stars
8/23/13 David Marsden Possibly the greatest western ever committed to celluloid. 5 stars
4/26/12 tan hongtao the several movies that you can say it is art. 5 stars
2/15/11 reuben reuben A masterpiece. Watch it at least once a year. Best western movie by a mile 5 stars
7/16/10 forest gump Greatest movie ever made 5 stars
6/01/10 User Name John Ford's greatest western; hell, it may even be THE greates western. 5 stars
5/15/10 foster kane anthony hernandez must have watched another movie 5 stars
11/11/09 harry wills A masterpiece. One of the great American movies 5 stars
9/29/09 harry lime how is "awsome" only 56% when 25 out of 32 voted "awsome" anyway great movie 5 stars
9/01/09 good fella If Jim Bean is "the bourbin" "The Searchers" is the movie. 5 stars
8/05/09 chicken george greatest ever western. maybe greatest ever movie 5 stars
6/03/09 chicka fergy This is the best western ever. Nothing else comes close 5 stars
5/22/09 bud cham all time favourite movie 5 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic Timeless classic. THE great american western 5 stars
6/13/07 fools♫gold A very solid 9/10, perhaps more. "THE western?" Sure, butonlyone of THE westerns. Watch it. 4 stars
4/11/07 todd t stunning cinematography 5 stars
7/04/06 roger harris best film i have ever seen 5 stars
6/25/06 MP Bartley Disjointed editing doesn't taint the achievements here. Quite possibly THE western. 5 stars
5/14/06 mr.mike wayne and ford's best 5 stars
6/23/05 Nobody Very overrated film. Uneven, disjointed plot, bad ending, unremarkable acting, etc. 2 stars
2/22/04 art eckstein it really is Ford's masterpiece, and Wayne's greatest acting. 5 stars
12/26/03 tim super 5 stars
12/09/03 john a deeply felt film - John Wayne has never been better not even in True Grit 5 stars
9/29/03 Kyle One of the better westerns. 4 stars
9/17/03 Alan Wayne's best movie. Possibly Ford's best. 5 stars
7/24/03 Max I agree that this is the best work of Ford and Wayne. 5 stars
6/30/03 Ken A complex study of obssession. Ford and Wayne are superlative. 5 stars
3/13/03 Josh C One of the best westerns ever made! 5 stars
3/04/03 Bruce Silot Like Shane, a poignant picture about someone unable to fit in with society. 5 stars
9/07/02 Ramblin Wreck There is a reason the Duke is so fondly remembered........this is one of them!! 5 stars
12/19/01 wrench_b182 It's cool 4 stars
12/05/01 Lucy Alligan Inner torment perfectly played by John Wayne 5 stars
8/14/01 Mr. Hat This movie is pretty good. 4 stars
7/05/01 Barbara Williamson-Wood I would like to kknow who played old moese harper in this film 5 stars
2/20/01 Steve in Prague Lucas said THIS is the movie that inspired Star Wars....'nuff for me 5 stars
2/09/01 billy bob brubake That'll be the day! 5 stars
1/04/01 R.W. Welch One of Wayne's best, but a notch below Stagecoach and Red River 4 stars
7/11/00 Matthew Bartley Stunning and moving 5 stars
5/13/00 Anthony hernandez Total crap 1 stars
3/26/00 MICHAEL SKY-EAGLE SMITH The best damn western ever. The Duke is pure gold. 5 stars
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Directed by
  John Ford

Written by
  Frank S. Nugent

  John Wayne
  Jeffrey Hunter
  Vera Miles
  Ward Bond
  Natalie Wood
  John Qualen

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