The Searchers (1956)
Director: John Ford
Westerns are not a genre I gravitate towards, and I must confess, this is only my second Ford film (The Grapes of Wrath is the other). His films are clearly not all held in such high esteem as The Searchers, but on the evidence of this one, I shall have to rectify my ignorance very quickly. The Searchers' standing as one of the greatest films of all time is well deserved. There are so many elements that make this wonderful, and they have been raved about by better critics and writers than me, that it is hard to write about the film at all.
Cinematography often gets mentioned as a side element to a film, with story and acting getting the main pludits (or bashing). Here, the cinematography grabbed me from the opening shot, one of the most famous in film history; the black screen that is suddenly split by the light emanating from an open door that leads onto the harshly beautiful Monument Valley. The camera tracks behind the silhouette of a woman who watches the approach of a man on horseback. In the first shot, Ford introduces the centrality of women to this Western film, arguably the most masculine of all the genres.
The purity of cinema continues with the suggestion of affection between Wayne's Ethan and his sister-in-law Martha. Their exchanges are filled with restrained longing on his side, and wistful love on hers. Ethan's feelings help fuel his pursuit of his lost niece, who Ethan treats as his favourite.
I was surprsied by the number of suggestions of sexual violence in the film; we never see anything, but as is often the case, this makes it even more shocking. The audience is left to imagine the horror Ethan sees inside the chicken coop and the desert valley, or what Debbie has experienced as a captive.
Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a difficult character to like, but that is part of the genius of the film. We understand his anguish at what has happened to his family, but also find his violent, racist attitude hard to accept. The revelation of his true motives in his pursuit of Debbie is shocking.
A wonderful film that has one of the best bookending shots in cinema. Definitely one to watch again, and learn from Ford about how to capture light, colour and unspeakable feelings on camera.