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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #29: Die Hard

This year I have been going all over the place with this Greatest Movies List, sometimes reviewing the next movie on the list, sometimes reviewing one I saw a few weeks ago. Since I am playing fast and loose with the rules, and since this is the Holiday season, why not skip down the list to what is arguably one of the all time greatest Christmas movies, Die Hard (1988)? Some people like to spend the Christmas season watching an angel get its wings, some like to watch a millionaire learn the meaning of Christmas, I like to watch Alan Rickman read the words “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.”
After five movies I think even the most die-hard fans (wink) would agree this franchise has gone on for too long, but the first three movies are some of the best action movies of the 80s and 90s. I actually watched them out of order, starting with the second one, followed by the third and eventually making it to the one that started it all at Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve. Watching those movi…