When Orson Welles was asked by an interviewer who he thought were the top three American directors of all time, he simply said: ‘John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.’ If that wasn’t enough, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa simply called Ford the best director who ever lived, American or other. However, if you were to ask most film students who directed My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Searchers, they’d stare at you as if you asked them who was the father of tap dancing (sorry, Bojangles). Truth be told, there is a certain anti-patriotism going on in modern cinema studies, and don’t get me started on the current attitude towards Westerns (most find them boring or overly chauvinistic). It doesn’t matter what your attitude is; the minute The Searchers begins, it’s impossible to look away.
In rural Texas, Ethan Edwards (the immortal John Wayne) returns from the Civil War, where he fought for the Confederacy. His brother and his family welcome him home, but it’s obvious that there are problems between the brothers, especially when Ethan is introduced to his adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who is part Indian. While out one day, Martin and Ethan trade barbs that bring out Ethan’s chilling racism, but that dissipates when they return home to find the brother’s house burned down, most dead, and the two girls, Lucy and Debbie, missing. Ethan and Martin quickly find Lucy, raped and murdered, and set out to find Debbie. While they are searching, Martin falls for Laurie (Vera Miles), a white girl whose family offers them a place for the night.
They finally track Debbie (Natalie Wood) down, only to find that she has forgotten who she is and that she has become the wife of Scar (Henry Brandon). She has slept with Scar, which fires up Ethan’s racism to the point that he wants to kill her instead of rescue her. It leads to a climactic battle against Scar and his people where we see the true nature of both Ethan and Martin.
John Ford, who was always a subversive S.O.B., had spent years trying to face the inherent racism that was brooding in his chosen genre, but it wasn’t till this film that he really got to dig into it. Ford faced the idea that the cowboy figure didn’t consider Indians a race, but more of a disease, a parasite that Scar had injected Debbie with and made her unworthy of him. He learns to accept Martin, but he never really warms to him. Where this racism was embraced as hero logic before, Ford now saw it as the deep, mortal flaw in the cowboy hero. Ford was making a radical gesture: Maybe the hero isn’t perfect; maybe he’s a real scumbag.
Of course, these days this doesn’t sound so crazy, but the image of the cowboy hasn’t been this rocked since Heath Ledg… well you know where I’m going with this. Even on a purely aesthetic level, The Searchers, shot in Arizona’s Monument Valley, is a stunning piece of work, with Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch using depth and layering to define the spare, haunting atmosphere of the film. The film’s last shot, with Ethan framed perfectly, alone in a doorway, is the kind of imagery that never gets old and maintains its powers for centuries. Some argue that High Noon has more power and mythic subtext. Ha! That’ll be the day.
Extras on the two-disc ‘utlimate edition’ are copious, including intro by Patrick Wayne, commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, and a pair of featurettes about the film. Substantial archival footage is included along with reproductions of a 1956 comic book of the film, the original press book, and still photos from the set. It’s all boxed up in a handsome package, a real must-have for the John Wayne fanatic.