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In 1956 the movie western was going through some tough times.
The genre that had been the staple of Saturday afternoons at the bijou
for decades was on the decline thanks to the penetration of television.
Westerns were cheap to make; just get some horses, drive an hour or so
out of LA into the desert and start filming. TV prime time became
filled with western shows, from Gunsmoke to Death Valley Days,
the small screen had a good number of quality western shows to choose from.
If you could stay home and watch a western on TV for free, why bother going
to the movies and paying? After all, there wasn't a huge difference
was in this atmosphere that director John Ford decided to make yet another
western. He'd show everyone that westerns could still fill seats
in movie theaters; you just had to give the public a great film and they'd
come. His 1956 film, The Searchers, was a great film.
It's universally acknowledged as being one of the best westerns ever made,
and it is on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American
movies from the first century of the cinema. It's a still being taught
in film schools across the country, and Entertainment Weekly readers recently
voted it the 15th best movie ever shot. Now this classic of cinema
has come to Blu-ray with a wonderful looking print that will make it look
like you're seeing the movie for the first time.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) left to fight for the Confederacy during
the civil war, and three years after that conflict was ended he returns
to his brother's homestead in Texas. A gruff, easy to anger man,
it's obvious that he's seen a lot, much of it that he'd rather forget.
When a neighbor's cattle are stolen, Ethan joins the posse to go after
the rustlers with his brother's adopted son, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter),
and has his brother stay with his wife and children.
After riding for 40 miles they find the cattle, slaughtered and left
to rot in the desert. Comanche Indians took the livestock as a diversion,
a way to lure the men away from their ranches. The posse turns back
and when they get back to the Edwards farm they discover it burnt to the
ground. Ethan's brother, his wife, and their son murdered.
The two other children, both girls, have been kidnapped at taken by the
starts a long search. Ethan vows to find his missing nieces.
Martin accompanies him on his search, as does Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey
Jr.), the boyfriend of the oldest Edwards girl. The track grows cold,
but that doesn't stop Ethan. As the weeks turn into months, and the
months turn into years, he keeps searching for his niece. At first
to rescue her, but eventually to kill her since so much time has passed
she's taken up the Indian's ways and no better than an Indian herself.
This is an amazing movie that can be enjoyed on many levels. On
the surface it is a solid adventure film with gun fights, battle scenes,
and a tough as nails lead. If you look just a bit deeper however,
this movie struggles with some weighty issues.
The racism of the movie is the first thing that most people notice.
Ethan Edwards hates Indians. He even doesn't like Martin who is 1/8
Native American, barely talking with him at the beginning of the movie
and calling him names for most of the rest. One of the most powerful
scenes in a film that's filled with them is when Ethan and the posse discover
a dead Comanche buried under a rock. Ethan takes out his revolver
and shoots the dead man's eyes out. When a preacher asks him why
he did that he replies: "By what you preach, none. But what that
Comanche believes; ain't got no eyes, he can't enter the spirit land. Has
to wander forever between the winds. You get it Reverend." As the
movie goes on, his hatred of Indians becomes stronger if anything.
Even the other white settlers find his attitude unappealing and Ethan is
shunned from society. The Indians are equally racist. The antagonist,
Scar, hates Anglos as much as Ethan hates Indians, and they are just as
savage as Ethan is because of their hatred. This film shows the ugliness
of racism without being preachy. In the end, Ethan doesn't have any
epiphany that he was wrong the entire time, but he does pay the price for
The movie is also about redemption, and the search for forgiveness.
Ethan isn't just searching for his niece, he's looking for revenge and
he hopes that taking his pound of flesh will make him whole again.
Martin is there almost as his conscience. Martin is always the one
who questions what Ethan is doing, and wondering if what he's doing is
right. What price do they have to pay in order to rescue an innocent
film also deals with honor, morality, love, and friendship. It is
a very layered film, much more nuanced than one would normally think a
western would be. That's the reason that it is such a classic film;
because it transcends the boundaries that usually enclose films of this
genre. It raises above them and comments on humanity and the human
The acting was excellent across the board. In Harry Carey Jr.'s
autobiography, the character actor (who is still alive and kicking by the
way) who appeared in many Ford films (including Three Godfathers and She
Wore a Yellow Ribbon, both with John Wayne) says that Wayne was very different
during this shoot. He was Ethan Edwards both on and off camera.
Whatever he did to get into the role, this was Wayne's best performance.
He plays the anti-hero masterfully, giving Ethan depth and dimension.
The scene where Ethan hands Martin his will to read has Wayne acting both
tough and nervous, and yet he's very believable. Of course the climax
of the film, which I won't give away here, is a cinematic classic.
Wayne's performance is stunning in its intensity. The first time
I saw the ending to this movie I wanted to turn away because I didn't want
to see what I knew was going to happen. This ending is still just
as powerful today.
John Ford was a good director, but he surpassed himself here.
The vistas and beautiful scenery would be glorious to watch even if the
film itself was a dud. As it is, Ford's eye (no pun intended) makes
this a gorgeous movie which adds to the impact. He also uses the
language of film to impart more information to the viewers; information
that isn't nessisarily spoken. The look on Ward Bond's face, just
staring blankly ahead, when Ethan says goodbye to Martha, his brother's
wife, says a lot about the relationship between those two people.
The way Ford has the ending mirror the beginning also says a lot about
Ethan's fate without being too direct.
This Technicolor/Vistavision film looks marvelous. It was restored
just this year and the folks at Warner Brothers did a magnificent job.
The colors are bright, bold, and accurate. The flesh tones, an area
where color restorations usually have a hard time, look lifelike and realistic,
while the big open sky is achingly blue. The blacks are solid and
strong too. One of the real highlights of this film are the gorgeous
vistas of the old west, and the plateaus and desertscapes look just fantastic.
There is a lot of dimensionality to the picture, especially the exterior
scenes, and the image pops off the screen nicely.
The detail in this film is wonderful. You can see the cracks in
John Wayne's face, especially at the end of the film, and this gives the
movie and even more powerful emotional impact. The fine lines are
strong and solid even in low light situations. The picture is sharp
and well defined. There are no specks or scratches on the print.
Although the label claims that this movie is presented with an aspect
ratio of 1.85:1, the frame is actually 1.75:1 which is how the film was
The film comes with the original mono soundtrack in English, Spanish,
and French. There were no multichannel mixes included. While
some may bemoan the fact that a DD 5.1 track wasn't included, I enjoyed
listening to the film as it was originally intended to be heard.
(I'll admit that some scenes would have worked better with a surround mix
however. The scene where they are sneaking up on the Comanche camp
for the first time and hear animal calls that may be Indians would have
been very effective with the calls coming from all around to mimic the
characters reactions.) Being filmed 50 years ago, the audio track
is rather flat. There isn't much in the way of bass, and ever the
few instances were highs are recorded they sound clipped. The
audio has almost no hiss or background noise, and the dialog is reproduced
nicely. While it doesn't compare to a recent film's sound, this audio
fits the film nicely.
After screening so many Blu-ray discs with anemic extras, I get a thrill
when I come across a disc like this one that has a good number of bonus
features. WB wisely waited until 50 GB discs had been perfected in
order to have everything fit. The disc starts off with a two or three
minute introduction by John Wayne's son Patrick Wayne. Patrick had
a small role in the film, and gives a nice intro.
There is an interesting commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.
He does a great job of giving some background on the film and insight into
Ford's technique. While I enjoy these scholarly-type commentaries,
I'll admit it's a bit on the dry side. More lively was The Searchers:
An Appreciation. This half hour documentary has filmmakers Curtis
Hanson, John Milius, and Martin Scorsese talking about how much this movie
affected them when they first saw it and how it influenced their style.
One of the better featurettes I've seen this year, it is mandatory viewing.
A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne, and the Searchers
is another half hour documentary. This time voice-overs are placed
over scenes from the film and behind the scenes footage to tell the story
of the film's production. While not as good as the previous featurette,
it is still an entertaining look at the movie.
Also included are four vintage clips that were aired on TV to promote
the film when it was first released theatrically. Made to air after
WB movies, these feature host Gig Young who interviews Jeffrey Hunter and
Natalie Wood as well as taking a look at the Monument Valley shooting locations
as well as discussing how difficult it was shooting at such a remote location.
The bonus items are rounded up by a couple of trailers.
This is a powerful strong film that has influenced a generation of directors.
Not only is it John Ford's best film, it's also the movie that proves that
John Wayne was an excellent actor. This Blu-ray disc looks magnificent
and really brings this classic film to life. The disc is also filled
with extras that aren't you're normal fluff pieces. A great film,
wonderful transfer and solid extras. What more could you want in
a disc? DVD Talk Collector Series.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.