There are few more tragic losses in the history of Hollywood film than the disappearance of the western. Once one of the most popular genres in cinema, the myth of the west has been replaced with box-office focused action movies which dedicate more time to explosions than to character development or setting the scene. The true magnitude of this loss cannot be appreciated without seeing the John Ford 1956 classic The Searchers.
The Searchers is the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who, along with his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), goes on an arduous, years-long quest to find his kidnapped niece Debbie (played first by Lana Wood, then elder sister Natalie). Whilst this may sound like the standard cowboys and Indians fare (and much of the film is), there’s also a significant amount going on under the surface, not least in the sense that Ethan’s highly questionable racial views make his motives for finding Debbie highly ambiguous. It’s a fascinating take on the conventions of the genre, made all the more intriguing as it was directed by Ford, the man responsible for the establishment of those generic tropes in early westerns like Stagecoach (1939), and starred Wayne, the archetypal western hero.
There is not one scene in the entire two hour duration in which it is not evident that you’re watching a film made by a master. Ford made well over 100 films, and this is arguably his greatest achievement. The pacing of the film is perfect throughout, there are no superfluous scenes, and most importantly, it’s utterly engaging. The film flits from a riveting action sequence, to a quiet discussion between Ethan and Marty, to a scene tinged with comedy, effortlessly.
Wayne delivers the best performance of his illustrious career, a deeply nuanced turn which confounds those who criticise his acting ability; his transition to a broken man without a purpose is simply breathtaking, and deserves a place in the pantheon of all-time great film performances. That’s not to say he’s the standout performer by any means; Hunter is fantastic as Marty, as he struggles to balance his desire to aid Ethan in his search and his knowledge that he will have to protect Debbie once the quest is complete, and Ward Bond provides a memorable turn as the Reverend Captain Clayton.
One of The Searchers’ many outstanding features is the way it looks. From the first iconic shot of Wayne framed against the ‘contemplative grandeur’ of Monument Valley, in Utah, to the mirror-image that closes the film, The Searchers is a testament to the fact that you don’t need 3D, digital film or higher frame rates to create a stunning, timeless spectacle. To look at it, you wouldn’t think the film was six years old, let alone nearly sixty. The soundtrack, as you would expect from a western, is a rousing epic score, with clever musical motifs throughout underscoring the main themes of the film, once again showcasing Ford’s mastery of the art of filmmaking.
The Searchers is, in my opinion, the epitome of the western genre, and essential viewing for anyone with any level of interest in the genre, be it passing or impassioned. The skill with which it both embodies, and deconstructs and subverts generic tropes is without equal, and makes repeated viewings hugely rewarding. An indisputable masterpiece.