Friday, 25 December 2015

I've Just Seen: The Searchers (1956)

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.


  1. John Ford made a lot of great movies. My favorite Shirley Temple movie - Wee Willie Winkie - was directed by Ford.
    For a lot of people, The Searchers is the best Western of all time. For me, it's The Wild Bunch.
    For many, The Searchers is John Wayne's best movie. I'd go with Stagecoach.
    I like The Searchers well enough. I just don't like it as well as a lot of other Western fans. I'd much rather watch Fort Apache or The Gunfighter or Unforgiven or The Far Country or The Naked Spur or High Noon or Hang 'Em High or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
    Or even No Man's Law, a silent Western in which one of the bad guys is Oliver Hardy. That's a great movie!

    1. My knowledge of Westerns is very small, but I have heard of most of the ones you mentioned. I am sure I shall see them at some point.

      What really appealed to me in The Searchers was the way the images, story and characters all interacted with one another; there was an ambiguity to it that allowed the audience to decide things for themselves.

  2. Agree with you on all accounts here. The Searchers is a stellar movie for those very reasons. I literally dropped my jaw at the opening scenes, the cinematography is so spectacular.
    I implied violence is pretty awful and difficult to take though.

    1. Implied violence is a very powerful storytelling tool: the audience fills in the blanks, and often frighten ourselves at what they imagine.

      I'd love to see this on a big screen, being overwhelmed by those images. Magical!