THE SEARCHERS - Blu-Ray (WB 1956) Warner Home Video
There are those who regard John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) with irreverence as the greatest western of all time. It’s rather difficult to argue with such assessment, particularly as Ford and his star, John Wayne appear to be functioning from a vantage as two well-seasoned talents in complete creative symbiosis. That Wayne and Ford often clashed behind the scenes, mostly as Ford increasingly came to resent Wayne – regarding him as the ‘star’ he alone had made with Svengali-like precision, Wayne, thus owing Ford everything, and, to be owned by him exclusively, the Ford/Wayne alliance was, by 1956, leaning in favor of Wayne’s longevity, star-power and box office cache. While Ford could ostensibly argue his early movies had helped put Wayne’s star on the map, he could no longer suggest that, without his influences, Wayne was nothing at all. Nevertheless, the caustic friendship endured between these two, the result of Wayne’s unerring – if slightly misguided – loyalties to Ford. While increasingly finding it difficult to tolerate Ford’s condescension and humiliations, Wayne nevertheless continued to sign on to Ford’s pictures at his beckoned call.
The purveyor of so many classics to have extolled the virtues of the Old West, Ford undertook a revisionist’s take on his view on heroism in The Searchers, a darkly purposed and brooding saga into one man’s soulless ambition to avenge the death of his entire family. Ford is undoubtedly the ideal director to take on this formidable challenge. After all, he practically invented the American West’s mythology, exploiting its arid and starkly surreal backdrop as a tableau, populated by honorable men, desperadoes, saloon-styled whores wearing hearts of gold on their sleeves, and, blood-thirsty 'red skins' looking to exact their pound of flesh in human scalps from the innocent settlers, guiding their wagon trains into the new frontier. Such, at least, was Hollywood's concept of 'how the west was won'. And so, it has largely remained a main staple of the screen since Ford's time, the legacy of Ford's fabrications eclipsing the morally ambiguous historical record. So, perhaps it was Ford’s entitlement – practically to own the copyright on the Hollywood western – that lent him the chutzpah to mature it now from these limited precepts here. For decades, historians have suggested Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay was inspired by the 1836 raid and kidnapping of 9-yr.-old, Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche warriors. Parker would spend 24-yrs. with the Comanches, wed to a war chief with 3 children, before being ‘rescued’ against her will by Texas Rangers. The girl’s uncle, James W. Parker, had spent much of his life and fortune in an obsessive search for his niece, mirroring Ethan Edwards’ unrelenting quest to reclaim the fictional, Debbie (Lana Wood, as a child, Natalie Wood as an adult) in the movie.
The Searchers stars John Wayne as that solitary seeker, Ethan Edward - a rover who returns to his brother, Aaron’s (Walter Coy) ranch house somewhere in Death Valley. Upon his arrival, Ethan is welcomed by Aaron’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), son, Ben (Robert Lyden), and daughters, Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood). Alas, their happy reunion is short-lived. When Ethan is called to investigate an assault by Comanche on a nearby cattle ranch, he returns to Aaron's farm a few hours later only to discover the homestead burning and his entire kin massacred. The pain over this loss turns rancid when 'half breed', Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), taken in by the family and reared as their own, decides to accompany Ethan on his quest for revenge. Ethan is a racist who, even on his good days, barely tolerates the Indians as people. Now, he is out for blood and looks upon Martin as a traitor to the white race, lurking in his midst. The one body not among this brutal carnage is Debbie. Ethan suspects the Comanche have carried her off. The rest of The Searchers is basically Ethan’s journey to reclaim Debbie. But the desire that fuels this journey is hardly noble. In fact, it contains a kernel of overriding and all-consuming unconquerable rage, hellbent on the slaughter of the tribe responsible for his family’s demise.
For years, Martin and Ethan travel these lonely trails, visiting trading outposts in search of Debbie, but to no avail. Martin's girl, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) grows weary, fearing Ethan's search will turn Martin into the same hollow shell of a man she perceives Ethan to be. In truth, Laurie is not too far off the mark where Ethan is concerned. He is consumed by hatred, incapable of maintaining any relationship that does not resolve itself at the point of a gun. Arguably, Ethan belongs to the vast openness of the west. He thrives best in its untapped soil. Alas, Martin is not meant for this life. Eventually, Ethan and Martin meet with Scar (Henry Brandon) the Chief of the tribe that slaughtered Aaron and his family. And although the years have matured Debbie into a young woman, Ethan and Martin clearly identify her among the other Indian women, reared perhaps, though hardly one of their own. Ethan believes Debbie has been brainwashed to forget her family. His quest now, to devastate the tribe, rather than rescue her. Mercifully, Martin prevents the inevitable from happening. Forced to choose between saving or murdering Debbie, Ethan reaches for his pistol, then just as quickly seizes Debbie in his arms before informing he has finally come to take her home.
In hindsight, The Searchers is one of those devastating gestalts, to mature the entire genre from its time-honored bang-bang in ‘cowboys vs. Indians’ tradition. The movement away from these intrinsic values, however, was not entirely Ford’s doing, as other filmmakers, most notably, Anthony Mann, with Winchester ’73 (1950) and Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952) had sought to reexamine the fallibility of these ‘warrior-like’ escapades that galvanized the western genre’s wild popularity with American audiences, and yet, to have kept it as hermetically sealed and firmly ensconced within such an optimistically framed ideology for several decades. John Wayne was perhaps the ideal choice to mark this revision – Wayne, already earmarked as the legendary hero of these mythologized promised lands. His was the archetype all others had tried to copy. Now, Ford and Wayne were moving that marker ahead of the pack – hopefully, yet again, to reestablish Wayne’s preeminence as Hollywood’s premiere protagonist – with flaws, primal doubts, and, at least in The Searchers, some fairly repellent character traits, a sobering precursor to the more anti-heroic figures yet to emerge on the cinematic horizon in the mid-60’s and beyond. It is safe to suggest that without Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ would not have been possible. In The Searchers, Wayne becomes the antithesis of his own legacy. He inverts our expectations with a truly haunting, often unlikable, and, fairly un-glamorous portrait. Winton C. Hoch's cinematography, in magnificent VistaVision, is sumptuous. It may sound strange to refer to it as lush, given the stark and arid landscapes of Monument Valley, but Hoch's camera lens evokes a moody, elegant isolation, to envelope and invite. Max Steiner gives us another memorable score – marking his supremacy inviolate as the dean of American film scoring. An interesting aside: when Steiner, by now a seasoned professional, revered among his peers, approached to do the score for 1959’s A Summer Place he was asked by the twenty-something interviewer, fielding for director, Delmer Daves, to provide a list of his previous accomplishments. Without batting an eye, Steiner simply smiled, leaned back in his chair and added, “Sure…you first!” In the final analysis, The Searchers remains one of John Ford’s most prolific and engaging westerns - not to be missed and forever ‘never’ to be underrated.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray yields a visually resplendent VistaVision image. The benefactor of a 2002 ground-up photochemical and digital restoration, what we have here is a dramatically arresting visual presentation, truly to live up to VistaVision’s claim in motion picture hi-fidelity. Interestingly, the Blu-ray, culled from the same restored source materials used to create a DVD release 2 years before, now favors a more yellow-leaning palette. Earth tones that were ruddy orange and brown on the aforementioned DVD appear almost sepia-toned and much truer to life. Curiously, blues and reds are more prominently featured and flesh tones look superb. Background information is clean and razor-sharp, and film grain looks indigenous to its source. Contrast is slightly darker with more deeply saturated blacks. The audio is rechanneled 5.1 Dolby Digital. VistaVision was only capable of mono or Perspecta Stereo. On this remastering effort, Max Steiner's score is the real benefactor. Dialogue is still very frontal sounding. But Warner Home Video has done an outstanding job repurposing these tracks for a faux stereo presentation. Extras on the Blu-Ray are all direct imports from Warner’s lavish DVD box set and include ‘an appreciation’ featurette, the 1990 feature-length documentary on Wayne and Ford’s collaborative efforts and personal relationship, an audio commentary from Peter Bogdanovich and vintage ‘behind the scenes’ segments from Warner Bros. Presents television show. What we lose here is the swag that accompanied the original DVD set. So, no deluxe packaging, no reproductions of lobby cards or poster art, and, no reproduced comic book of The Searchers originally made available to coincide with the movie’s theatrical release. Oh well, I suppose we can't have everything! Bottom line: The Searchers is a seminal western – and not just from Ford and Wayne. This is truly, one for the ages, looking years younger in hi-def and sure to please.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)