The Searchers (John Ford, 1956, USA)

The Searchers is one of the defining American westerns, one of the defining John Ford films, and one of the defining films of New Hollywood. One can trace its influence on everything from Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader have cited the film's plot as a direct influence) to Star Wars (the epic vistas of Monument Valley bear a strong resemblance to the desert planet of Tatooine). The film's original impact was minimal, and it was not even acknowledged at the Academy Awards. Since then, the film's reputation has increased tremendously, and it now generally ranks on most lists of the best films of all time.

On its surface, the plot is relatively simple. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate soldier who returns home from the war. Soon after he returns home, his brother's family is massacred by a Comanche tribe led by Scar (Henry Brandon). Ethan sets out in search of his niece Debbie Edwards (played by both Lana and Natalie Wood). Along the way, he is accompanied by Debbie's adopted brother Martin Powley, who is one-eighth Cherokee (Jeffrey Hunter). The two-hour film is mainly centered on Ethan and Martin searching for Debbie.

The Searchers, like High Noon before it, was one of the first "modern" westerns, subverting certain genre conventions. Wayne's Ethan Edwards is not the good guy, and Scar is not the bad guy. This ambiguity toward Ethan forms the main hinge of the film. He is clearly in many ways a despicable character. While the film hits some false notes with comic relief and does feel a bit overstretched at 2 hours, it is nevertheless deserving of much of the praise it has received. The visuals alone - a mystic vision of the American West in Arizona's Monument Valley - are truly spectacular.



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