Obsession and Reality

The Searchers (Theaters-March 1956; Streaming-May 1999) Rated: PG  —  Runtime: 119 M Searchers 1956minutes

Genre: Adventure-Drama-Western

els – 8.0/10

IMDB – 8.0/10

Amazon – 4.0/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics – 8.9/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience – 4.0/5

Metacritic Metascore – NA/100

Metacritic User Score – NA/10

Awards: 1 Golden Globe

Directed by: John Ford

Written by: Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Alan Le May (book)

Music by: Max Steiner

Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood

Film Locations: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Kayenta – Mexican Water – Monument Valley – Red Mesa – Teec Nos Pos, Arizona; Los Angeles – Culver City, CA; Aspen – Gunnison, Colorado; Goosenecks State Park – Mexican Hat, Utah; USA

Budget: $3,750,000

Worldwide Box Office: $NA (commercial success)

As Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) looks out of her home onto a stretch of Texas scrub and hills, the camera, inside the house, framing her in the door from behind, watches as her long absent brother-in-law, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) slowly rides on his pony towards the ranch house. Ethan is coming home to his brother’s ranch in 1868, returning after 8 years of war; first as a confederate in the US Civil War and then as a mercenary in the Mexican Revolutionary War. He’s tired and wanting, needing, some peace in his life and to be once again near his secret love, Martha, his brother’s wife. With one night’s rest, Ethan and the rest of the Edward’s family are informed by a company of Texas Rangers that a Comanche raiding party has run off with a neighbor’s cattle. The Rangers, plus Ethan, go after the Indians to retrieve the cows. They soon realize that the theft was a ruse, to draw off the Rangers, with the real crime occurring back at the Edwards’ ranch.  Returning to the ranch they find the buildings burning, Ethan’s brother, wife and son dead, and their 2 young daughters missing, taken by the Comanche for wives and ransom. Ethan, his nephew Martin (Jeffery Hunter), and the Rangers, again set out to find the Indians and retrieve the girls.  Thus begins a five-year odyssey, searching for lost relations but knowing the girls innocence and maybe their lives are lost forever in the Texas hills of sand and scrub.

John Ford created, along with John Wayne, a movie that has transcended its time and its genre to become one of the greatest films ever made. His western landscapes of splendor and greatness have inspired directors ever since. The red sands and blue sky panoramas, the geometries of lines and curves are beyond human capacity to measure; we can only hold our breath and treasure the vision. Ford tells a somber story of a different time, an earlier time when the Comanche were terrorists, a time when the settlers were conquerors. He tells the story with little mercy; raw in emotion, yet, with a large dose of hope.  Roger Ebert believes Ford, in making this movie, was apologizing for the white settlers racism and ethnic cleansing. I believe John Ford knew his history and presented it as it was, maybe unpleasant, but real; not racism: living. The Comanche were battling for their home, their freedom, and in the end, their existence by any means possible, and those possibilities were brutal and savage.  The white settlers for battling for a new beginning, their freedom, their families, their future; and their methods were brutal and savage.

Ethan Edwards was likely John Wayne’s greatest challenge as an actor. A part that wasn’t in his “good guy, tough guy” repertoire. A part where he’s a grim and dark loner, an outcast that has lived too much of his life on the losing side. A part where he still believes in himself, exemplified by the classic line, “That’ll be the day.”, but were time has passed him by and he struggles to find himself; trying to feed an obsession that exists in the past while the world has moved on.  He’s the toughest guy, capable of making the toughest choices but very slowly gaining an appreciation for nuance, for the shades of gray in his black and white world, a world that is constantly testing his beliefs. John Wayne rises to this challenge and produces a character in all the dimensions of good, bad, and yes, ugly, that usually don’t materialize in him or his movies.

In the final scene, the camera focuses on the outdoors from the inside of a house, a door with its straight lines, framing the ill lit inside against the bright outside.  John Wayne, with his back to the camera, steps outside, pauses, and then starts walking away. Wayne as Ethan Edwards, always on the outside but maybe, in the end the stark outline of his shadow is gentler, softer, more at peace with his soul.

This movie is a classic and most likely the greatest Western ever made. Interestingly it keeps rising up the ranking lists with the passing of time, as it should. This is a movie to judge as it was, a chronicle of the past, not an apology, and certainly not a testament to our present.

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