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Searchers, The (HD DVD)

Warner Bros. // Unrated // August 22, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 2, 2006 | E-mail the Author
"Injun will chase a thing 'till he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter who'll just keep comin' on. So, we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em...just as sure as the turnin' of the earth."

One of the most frequently asked questions in the earliest days of HD DVD was ", when are they going to release something good?" With the studios' release slates mired in the mediocrity of dreck like Doom, Joel Schumacher's The Phantom of the Opera, and Van Helsing, it's understandable why some cineastes may have decided to sidestep HD DVD at launch. Warner Bros., the studio with perhaps the most eclectic selection of movies on the format, is gradually turning that perception around. As I write this, the likes of The Dirty Dozen and Errol Flynn's 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood are just a few short weeks from a high-definition release, but the opening salvo of Warner's classic film volley is The Searchers.

This 1956 film from prolific director John Ford transcends its genre, often heralded as not just one of the best Westerns of all time but among the greatest films ever made. The Searchers opens in 1868 as the embittered Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), still stinging from the Confederacy's loss during the Civil War and perhaps some transgressions in the intervening years, visits the Texan home of his brother Aaron and his family. Ethan offers to lend a hand in the search when some cattle go missing but quickly discovers that this was a Comanche ploy to draw most the men away from the farm. Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) return to find much of the family massacred and the farm in smoldering ruins. Ethan believes his nieces are still alive, having been kidnapped by the roving Comanche warriors to be reared as their own. Much of the remainder of the film follows Ethan and Martin as they spend years tirelessly trailing Scar (Henry Brandon), the Indian chief responsible for the raid, unwaveringly confident that they'll one day be reunited with young Debbie once again.

Westerns -- especially classic Westerns -- are often dismissed for their simplicity. As the stereotype goes, the good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black, and a bar brawl and climactic shootout in the thoroughfare later, the hero and his best girl leisurely ride off into the sunset together. Regardless of whether or not that's a fair assessment of many Westerns, it's a perception that certainly doesn't apply to The Searchers, a film with a great deal of depth that rewards repeated viewings.

Despite its Western setting, The Searchers reflects the feverish racial tensions in the United States at the time of its production. John Wayne isn't the stoic hero audiences would have expected; Ethan Edwards is a racist, scornfully looking down on Martin and refusing to acknowledge him as family in large part because of the young man's partial Indian heritage. In one of the film's most cringingly memorable moments, Ethan pulls out a pistol and shoots out the eyes of a fallen Indian, knowing what fate the warrior would then be resigned to in the afterlife. When his search eventually does bring him in touch with Debbie (now played by Natalie Wood) once again, Ethan's first instinct is to destroy the teenaged figure that stands before him. The Debbie he loved is long dead, her animated corpse having been replaced by a Comanche squaw. Ethan views it as a necessity...a mercy killing rather than an act of murder.

Ethan's racism is repulsive, but that's rather the point, as most of the characters find Ethan's behavior as abhorrent as any rational viewer would. The Searchers is fairly even-handed with the treatment of these different races, though; a number of the film's white characters are shown to be as capable of cruelty and violence as any of its Comanches, and its Indians are painted more as a force of nature rather than stock movie villains.

Ethan is thoroughly unlikeable in numerous ways, and his motivation for setting off on this search seem more selfish than heroic. Still, his intensity and an unspoken sense of isolation and longing make him an engaging character. There's a great deal of emotion in The Searchers, and it isn't conveyed by epic monologues or melodramatic acting but quietly and subtly; some of the most powerful dialogue in the movie comes in the form of sentences its characters can't bear to finish. This is a movie that could have been unrelentingly bleak, but John Ford deftly mixes in some humor as well, doing so without stripping away any of the dramatic impact. Ford's direction as a whole is remarkably accomplished and strikingly beautiful, set against the backdrop of his preferred location, Monument Valley, resulting in a film so richly layered that subsequent viewings of The Searchers never fail to reveal something new.

The Searchers is such a substantial work of art that a full exploration is better suited to a term paper than a home video review. This is a masterfully composed, well-acted film that's as entertaining as it is thoughtful. The Searchers is the first truly classic film to arrive on HD DVD, and early adopters of the format would do well to add it to their collections.

Video: Filmed in 1955 and released theatrically the following year, The Searchers is by a considerable margin the oldest film to be released on HD DVD as of this writing. The Searchers was shot using Paramount's VistaVision process, providing a higher resolution image than could be obtained through traditional 35mm photography at the time, and the resulting 1.78:1 high-definition presentation is nothing short of extraordinary.

The time and effort that went into the film's restoration is immediately apparent; the image is free of any speckling or visible wear, black levels are deep and substantial, and the presence of film grain is tight and unintrusive. The most dazzling aspect of this HD DVD is the level of detail. Ford's compositions favored wider shots, and the director was especially fond of placing tiny figures in front of the enormous ruddy plateaus and mesas of Monument Valley. A figure on horseback that would be an indiscernable inch and a half smear on DVD is now clearly defined. Rock formations in the distant background are impossibly sharp and exhibit a clear texture that would be lost in a lower resolution format. The fine patterns in the wardrobe of several characters would be problematic on lesser formats but present no such concerns here. The high definition image looks so good that it can be a distraction; there were several times where I was paying less attention to the story and ogling the immaculately detailed vistas of Monument Valley instead.

There has been a good bit of concern about the palette of both the newly-released special edition DVD and this HD DVD, and film preservationist Robert A. Harris discussed some of these complaints with Warner Bros.' Ned Price on a recent Yellow Layer Failure column. Although there is a noticeable golden tint to a fair amount of the movie, leaving fleshtones appearing somewhat sickly, I was so in awe of every other aspect of the disc that I found this to be a minor gripe at best.

This HD DVD has been so lavished with praise that my expectations were hovering somewhere in the stratosphere, and still this high definition presentation of The Searchers looks better than I ever would have thought possible. It may have been filmed five full decades ago, but a movie of this age looking so spectacular leaves The Searchers easily ranking among the most impressive HD DVDs to date, and I'm now even more eagerly awaiting Warner's impending releases of other classic films.

Audio: The Searchers is only the second HD DVD to date to include the film's original monaural soundtrack and the first to eschew any sort of multichannel remix. Especially considering the age of the film, this Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 soundtrack approaches perfection. The track is almost entirely devoid of any hiss or background noise, and both the film's dialogue as well as the score by the legendary Max Steiner have a reasonably robust presence and are rendered cleanly and clearly. It's appreciated that Warner took the time to restore the audio instead of myopically focusing on the film's visuals, and the end result is an admirably strong effort. There are also monaural dubs in French and Spanish as well as subtitles optionally offered in each language.

Supplements: The first of the extras is a brief introduction by Patrick Wayne, who acted alongside his iconic father in The Searchers and a number of other films. It's just a few short, kind comments taped at perhaps the most instantly recognizable location at Monument Valley.

Although none of the extras on this HD DVD are provided in high-definition, the interviews in the anamorphic widescreen documentary "The Searchers: An Appreciation" are almost in the same league visually as some of the talking head footage I've seen on cable HD channels. One hallmark of a truly extraordinary documentary or featurette is that it compels me to watch the movie again immediately afterwards, and I was left with that rare reaction here. The documentary is driven by directors Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), and Martin Scorsese, and instead of the rote behind-the-scenes routine, their comments are primarily technical and thematic, describing the profound influence The Searchers and John Ford's direction had on the three of them as filmmakers. The title of the documentary is appropriate in that it captures the awe and enthusiasm these directors have for The Searchers but is substantial enough to provide me with a new appreciation for the film as well. A second half-hour documentary, "A Turning of the Earth", is an unconventional but entertaining look at the production of the film through a series of voiceovers, also incorporating a smattering of behind-the-scenes footage and even some random snippets such as shots of slate markers during filming a half-century ago.

Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote and helmed the 1971 documentary Directed by John Ford, contributes the disc's audio commentary. This too is a fairly scholarly examination of the film, placing most of its emphasis on Ford's technique as a director. Bogdanovich comments on the economy Ford's days in silent filmmaking brought to his later work, his ability to get the precise shots he envisioned without overshooting or getting coverage from every possible angle as is the norm today, his limited use of close-ups for maximum impact, and the director's preference for letting happy mistakes creep onto the frame. He also comments on the backgrounds of many of the actors and actresses, including a few who had throwaway roles in The Searchers but were part of Ford's larger repertory cast in his other films. As Bogdanovich knew Ford and, to a lesser extent, star John Wayne, he's able to provide some of their thoughts on the film, such as its director's displeasure with the amount of music in the movie. I enjoyed the commentary, but there's fair amount of dead space, and Bogdanovich occasionally merely describes what's happening on-screen or reiterates a point he's already made once or twice before. I'm left thinking that perhaps it would have been ideal if Bogdanovich had participated in "The Appreciation" documentary instead of providing an audio commentary, but I still found this commentary track to be a rewarding, if uneven, listen.

There are also several vintage promotional featurettes, and I'm continually intrigued with the way older featurettes and trailers document the marketing of movies over the years. These clips hit all of the generic-'50s-television marks, complete with a well-coiffed Gig Young hosting with a cigarette permanently affixed to his right hand. There's a good bit of behind-the-scenes footage as well as some interviews with its younger actors, and it's interesting to see how much of the strength of The Searchers is sapped away when the excerpts alter the framing and remove all color and context. These featurettes run around 22 minutes in total and include interviews with Natalie Wood and Jeffrey Hunter, a tour of the Monument Valley locations, and glimpses of how a production of this scale in the middle of nowhere is executed.

The extras are rounded out by a standard definition, anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer for The Searchers as well as a letterboxed, non-anamorphic plug for the upcoming The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Although the HD DVD release carries over all of the digital extras from the recently released DVD, completists may want to bear in mind that it's missing the printed material from the two-disc special edition DVD set.

Conclusion: The Searchers is an undeniably important film and widely considered to be among the very best the Western genre has to offer. That alone would make this HD DVD worthy of a purchase, but the disc is further bolstered by a solid assortment of extras, and it's startling how a film shot fifty years can look this spectacular in high-definition. The Searchers is the first HD DVD release I've seen that I consider to be an essential purchase, and hopefully it's just the first of many. DVD Talk Collector's Series.
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