Top 250 Tuesday #007 – The Searchers (1956)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #007 on the list, John Fords The Searchers. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.

s1My two main take-aways from watching John Ford’s The Searchers are these:

1) Considering the high ranking of this movie on the list, and that it is the top-listed western, one would suppose that it is the best that the genre (and director Ford ) has to offer.

2) John Wayne’s character of Ethan Edwards is an unrepentant sonofabitch throughout the entire film until the last two minutes of it, when suddenly he isn’t.

Hmmm… Okay, let’s start with number one, which I feel pretty sure will eventually integrate with number two.

Perhaps it’s a case of a movie simply being built up to such high expectations that there was no way it could fulfill them. After all, as I’ve already noted, it’s number seven on this of the supposed 250 best films of all time, and I’ve personally got plenty of friends who consider this movie a true classic and one of the most essential films of any genre. Certainly, it has the pedigree, with Ford behind the camera and Wayne in front, to be something great, and the incredible locations and vistas to really stun the viewer.

And yet…

x2I’ve made the argument in other places and with reference to other movies that they simply have to be seen on the big screen in order to fully appreciate them, and perhaps that is also the case here.  However, considering the facts that a) despite what the opening title card says, this is not Texas, but the immediately recognizable (and oft-used for this type of film) Monument Valley, and b) even with the incredible possibilities this location afforded him, so much of this film is obviously (and I do mean obviously) shot on a sound stage with the location relegated to the background that it could really be anywhere, it simply feels like there are a lot of missed opportunities in the shooting of this film.

s5And maybe that’s part of my problem with the film itself, that sense of missed opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong. There truly are some incredible shots here, but it simply seems like Ford could have done so much more. As a matter of fact, we know that he can, because we’ve seen it in many of his other films. I don’t know what the real cause is here. But there are simply certain scenes that really feel constrained and/or rushed (especially the climactic battle scenes which, while they do at least open things up some, nonetheless still have a confused and therefore anti-climactic feel to them.

s9Even the much lauded last shot of the film, with Wayne walking away from the house is shot from the inside out, thus limiting our view of these wonderful plains to what can be seen through the portal, and yes, while i recognize it as a thematic element which is repeated throughout the film, echoing not only the opening of the film but also other points, along with the inside-out shots from the cave and from Scar’s tent, and that it is meant to signify that Ethan still hasn’t found his own place within a family it is still, in my mind, a wrong decision on Ford’s part.

Oh, and speaking of anti-climactic… (yes, here’s where we get to point number two above).

s6John Wayne’s performance in this film is… wow. Perhaps it is the fact that Ethan Edwards is such a harshly drawn character. Perhaps it’s that Wayne is called upon to be so incredibly, unresolvedly brutal in his hatred toward the Comanches (btw, is there a reason that everyone in the film except for Edwards and the native chief “Scar” pronounce the word with a long “e” at the end, while those two pronounce it as though the “e” doesn’t exist at all? Is it supposed to indicate to the audience a deeper understanding of the tribe that Ethan has as opposed to the rest of the characters?), but his characterization allows none of the onscreen charm we know the actor is capable of to this performance, and that unfortunately adversely affects the sudden reversal and change of heart that Edwards shows at the end of the film.

s4Yes, I get it. Edwards lifts Natalie Woods into the air in a gesture that is reminiscent of his encounter with Debbie earlier in the film and recognizes that perhaps she is family after all, and maybe that’s what matters the most. Yes, I’ve even read the suggestions that she may even be his illegitimate daughter and that that is what persuades him But honestly, the turnabout, as filmed, simply feels false and unearned.

Of course, we also have the sudden and unexplained change in attitude of Debbie herself, who goes from identifying herself as Comanche and not wanting to leave the tribe upon her first encounter with Edwards and her brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), to falling into Martin’s arms and wanting to go home as soon as they return to get her, a character change just as drastic as that of Ethan and even less explored or justified.

s3Perhaps part of this feeling of the ending feeling rushed and the character motivations being unjustified and unearned comes from the fact that this is where the film really deviates from its source material, the novel of the same name written by Alan LeMay. Having not actually read the book, I can’t say, but then, since I am an advocate of letting the movie and written versions of any story stand or fall on their own, I can really only judge by what is presented to the viewer in the film, and in that context, these changes of heart really just don’t work for me.

Anyway, let’s get back to Wayne’s performance on the movie for a moment. I mentioned above that his performance shows none of the charm or charisma that we see him bring to roles both before and after this film. As a matter of fact, if this had been my introduction to John Wayne, if this were the first movie I’d ever seen him in, I suspect that my reaction would have been one of wonder as to why he became such an acclaimed actor and why he is held in such high regard.

s7Again, I find myself falling into the “perhaps” trap. Perhaps this is simply a case of Wayne trying to play things more subtly, though considering the harshness and brutality that Edwards shows towards the Comanche throughout the film especially in the glee he seems to reflect in the bison-shooting scene, and when we see him collecting a scalp of his own that seems unlikely. Perhaps somewhere he is attempting to channel a bit of the underspoken “man with no name” character that served Clint Eastwood so well (no, those films came later). I don’t know. I don’t even really know whether to lay the blame for his performance at the feet of the actor himself, or his director. All I do know is that I really find his entire performance here perhaps not one that I can call “bad”, because he does bring what is necessary to the role, but not great, either.

s8Of course, there are numerous other problems with this film that many other critics have written about: Its brutal portrayal of the Comanche, its inherent theme of “better dead than wed to one of them”, its attitude that the settlers are so much better not only than the natives but the U.S. military (who are used here really only for “comedic” relief that really, by the time it is brought in seems completely out of place and so broad that even it doesn’t work), and its attitude towards women, especially in the form of Vera Miles’ Laurie, who seemingly exists only either to pout or be fought over, but I’ve already written so much about things that I found wrong with this film, that to bring in those topics at this point beyond merely mentioning them would not just make this already longer than usual entry even longer, but could very well be seen as “piling on”.

Obviously, though, this is one of the few cases in this survey of the supposed “greats” of cinema where my reaction to the movie differs from the general consensus, but that’s why I’m actually watching them for myself and not simply taking the “givens” as fact. Because each person’s reaction to any film is going to be different, and that is obviously the case here, where The Searchers, in the end, would obviously not make the top of my list, not only of best films, but I can’t even say it would make the top of my list of John Ford or John Wayne films.

Anyway, as always, here’s the trailer:

So what are your thoughts on The Searchers? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Do you think I’m completely off the mark here, or not? Let me know in the comments below.

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3 thoughts on “Top 250 Tuesday #007 – The Searchers (1956)

  1. I completely agree with all that you’ve said. I was so disappointed and confused by this movie, per everything you’ve pointed out.

  2. This is a really great review. Nice stuff. And my opinion on the film is similar to yours. I am not really sure why this film has such a great reputation. It is decent. But no more for me. Nowhere near #7 on my list and it wouldn’t even be that high on a list of my favourite westerns.

  3. Lana Wood, who played a young Debbie Edwards in The Searchers, is scheduled to appear at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, Sept. 18-20, in Hunt Valley, Md., at the Hunt Valley Wyndham Hotel. Also scheduled to appear are Piper Laurie, Veronica Cartwright, Angela Cartwright, Lee Meredith, George Lazenby, and more. More information is at

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