Sunday, March 22, 2009

THE SEARCHERS - Blu-Ray (WB 1956) Warner Home Video

John Ford, the purveyor of so many classic images of the old west, undertook a revision of its heroism in The Searchers (1956); a dark and brooding saga into one man’s soulless driving 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 mythology of the old west: an arid, starkly surreal backdrop populated by honourable men, desperadoes, saloon whores wearing their hearts of gold on their sleeves, and, blood thristy 'red skins' looking to exact their pound of flesh from the human scalps of innocent settlers guiding their wagon trains way out west.

Such was Hollywood's concept of 'how the west was won'. And so it has largely remained on the screen for generations since Ford's time, the legend and legacy of Ford's west eclipsing the more frank and harsh historical record.

The Searchers stars Ford favorite, John Wayne as loner Ethan Edward. Ethan is 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). Their reunion is short lived.

When Ethan is called to investigate the assault of Comanche Indians on a nearby cattle ranch, he returns to Aaron's farm a few hours later to discover that the homestead has been burnt to the ground and his entire kin massacred. The pain of this loss turns rancid when 'half breed' Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who was taken in by the family and reared as one of their own, decides to accompany Ethan on his quest for revenge. Ethan is a racist who, even on a good day, barely tolerated 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 amongst the carnage on the ranch is Debbie, and Ethan suspects the Comanche have carried her off to their camp.
The rest of the film 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 frustration that is itself out for the satisfaction that only a complete slaughter of the Indian tribe responsible will provide.

For years Martin and Ethan travel the lonely trails, visiting trading outposts in search of Debbie but to no avail. Increasingly, Martin's girl, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) grows weary that Ethan's search will turn Martin into the 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 a man consumed by hate, incapable of maintaining a relationship with anyone for very long. Ethan belongs to the vast openess of the west. It is there where he thrives. But Martin is not meant for that life.

Eventually, Ethan and Martin have a meeting with Scar (Henry Brandon) the chief of the tribe who killed Aaron and his family. And although the years have transformed Debbie into a young woman, both Ethan and Martin clearly recognize her working amongst the other Indian women. She has been reared as one of their own.

Ethan believes Debbie has been brainwashed into forgetting her family. His quest is now to destroy, rather than rescue her. But 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 her that he has come to take her home.

John Wayne was perhaps the ideal choice to re-envision the Hollywood western hero. After all, he had created the archetype along side John Ford, had built upon it in countless movies, each time ever so slightly tweaking his performance in a slew of highly successful movies throughout the 1940s. But in The Searchers Wayne becomes the antithesis of his own legacy. He inverts our expectations of what a western hero is with this truly haunting, often unlikeable and fairly unglamorous portrait.

Winton C. Hoch's cinematography, in VistaVision, is sumptuous. It may sound strange to refer to it as lush, given the stark arid landscapes that populate the story, but Hoch's camera lens evokes a moody, yet elegant isolation that is both enveloping and inviting. Max Steiner gives us another monumental score. He is the dean of American film underscoring. In the final analysis, The Searchers remains one of John Ford’s most prolific and engaging westerns. It is not to be missed.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray gives us yet another visual interpretation of what the original VistaVision image might have looked like. The original DVD release from 1997 was a mess of age related artifacts and faded colors that in no way lived up to VistaVision’s claim of ‘motion picture high fidelity’. Then, in 2002 Warner’s restoration experts revisited this title with a beautiful print master.

Now we get a Blu-Ray whose colour balancing is dramatically different to the DVD. Which more accurately represents the film as it appeared 'on film'? That's anybody's guess. The Blu-ray favours a more yellow palette. Earth tones that were ruddy orange and brown on the DVD have been transformed to a more sepia toned atmosphere. Curiously, blues, reds and flesh tones seem more natural on the Blu-ray. The higher bit rate on the Blu-ray has yielded a truly remarkable amount of background information with a natural reproduction of film grain. Contrast is darker than before, as it should be. This is motion picture high fidelity as arguably not even VistaVision could deliver. But is this really how the film looked to theater audiences over 60 years ago?

The audio has been remixed to PCM Dolby Digital. Max Steiner's score is the real benefactor here. Dialogue is still very frontal sounding. Remember that VistaVision - for all its advancements in how movies looked, was still a format that favoured mono sound. Warner has done an outstanding job of repurposing the track for a stereo presentation, albeit one with continued limitations in audio fidelity.

Extras on the Blu-Ray are all direct imports from Warner’s lavish box set and include ‘an appreciation’ featurette, the 1990 documentary about Wayne and Ford’s collaborative efforts and personal relationship, a commentary track from Peter Bogdanovich and vintage ‘behind the scenes’ segments from Warner Bros. Presents television show. Highly recommended! What we lose in the trade up from DVD to Blu-ray is Warner's rather lavish packaging, reproductions of lobby cards and poster art, and a comic book of The Searchers made available to the public at the same time as the film's original general release. Oh well, I suppose we can't have everything!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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