Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #164: The Searchers

Ever since it was discovered people would pay to see movies, Westerns have been popular in one form or another with many towering American actors willing to strap on a pair of six-shooters and ride into the sunset. I have a preference for Clint Eastwood’s movies, but John Wayne can definitely boast being the king of the genre. His politics off-screen became too far to the right for many audience members as time went on, but he remained an American screen hero until his dying day. In The Searchers (1956), one of many films he made with master director John Ford, Wayne does not play a hero or a straight-up villain, but rather a man caught in between because of his intentions and quest for vengeance. This is what makes this John Wayne movie a great movie whether you like Westerns or not.

Some movies are so good you could write essays on them, which is exactly what I did with The Searchers while spending a semester at the University of British Columbia in 2009. The class was Hollywood Cinema from 1930 to 1960, and it allowed me to watch classics from those decades and write about their themes and characters. How’s that for a homework assignment? In addition to helping me gain some university credits over the summer, the course allowed me to discover classics, and in the case of The Searchers prepare me for the ending of Breaking Bad season 5. Series creator Vince Gilligan admitted in an interview that creatively speaking the show writers are thieves, but they steal from the best.

Despite setting the film in Texas, Ford shot the movie in Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah, one of the best places to shoot a Western due to its scenic beauty. Ford makes good use of this landscape, opening the film with Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards riding towards the house of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in the hope of a better life after violent times. His dreams of a peaceful life are quashed after a group of Comanche raid and burn Aaron’s home killing everyone inside. The only survivor is Ethan’s niece Debbie (Lana Wood) who has been taken alive. Along with Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) Ethan sets out to find her and kill anyone who will stand in his way.

Ethan and the younger Martin make for an uneasy pair. Whereas Martin is focused on rescuing Debbie, Ethan seems intent on inflicting as much pain as possible on the Comanche, going as far as shooting the eyes of a Comanche corpse so that he will wander the spirit world blind. Their search takes them to snow-covered forests, dust-filled valleys, and the scorching desert. Eventually they learn their prey is a Comanche leader named Scar (Henry Brandon) who has a great name for a villain, but by the time they get to him in New Mexico, Ethan has done things that are not exactly worthy of a hero.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that the search has taken so long that by now Debbie is a teenager, played by Natalie Wood, who actually feels more at home with the members of Scar’s tribe than with Ethan and Martin. To Martin’s horror Ethan decides he would rather kill her than let her live as an Indian. Did they really travel this far and for so long just to murder a member of their own family?    

Apart from some awkward pauses in the search to focus on Martin’s relationship with the feisty Laurie (Vera Miles) there is little humour in The Searchers, but it is definitely beautiful and thought provoking. By today’s standards it is not very violent, with the bloodiest of Ethan’s actions happening off-camera, but it was a bold story for the times.

The film’s final shot says a lot, with Wayne framed by a doorway as he heads off alone into the prairie. Like his character he seems destined to be a part of the western landscape until it swallows him.


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #85: Blue Velvet

Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #90: When Harry Met Sally...

There is an age-old question regarding whether single men and women can be just friends. In real life the answer is obviously “yes,” but in movies and TV the answer always has to be that at some point two single characters will get attracted to each other and move beyond friendship. On TV I find this to be contrived and overused, but some movies can have a lot of fun with the concept, most notably Rob Reiner’s comedy classic When Harry Met Sally…(1989). It may not change your view on love and friendship, but it forever changed the meaning of the phrase “I’ll have what she’s having.”
On paper this film’s premise sounds like another rom-com, but seen by oneself during an evening of Netflix binging it does make you think about deep stuff like the long-term impact of your decisions on your life. A person you meet during a tense trip might turn up again sometime later down the road in the most unexpected ways. If there is one thing I believe in it is infinite possibilities, and Nora Ephron…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #83: Brazil

Dystopian movies from the 1980s are a funny thing since we now live in the future of those movies and if you look at the news for more than five minutes it will feel as though we are one bad day away from being into a dystopia. On the plus side, if it ends up looking like the dystopia portrayed in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) at least we will have lovely architecture to look at while the government is busy telling us how to think. This might not be a movie that will cheer you up, but the production design is amazing, the performances are great throughout, and you get to see Robert DeNiro play a maintenance man/freedom fighter.
I first saw Brazil as a Terry Gilliam double feature at the Universit√© de Sherbrooke’s movie club paired along with 12 Monkeys around ten years ago. Those two films are similar in that they both feature a rather dour future and, as with most Gilliam movies, incredibly intricate sets. However the dystopian future in Brazil is somewhat scarier than the disease-ra…