I’ve reviewed over 80 films for this blog. I mean that’s a ridiculously small percentage of the several thousand films that compromise the master list for this blog, but you’d think that at some point during these 80 films, I would have reviewed a movie that had John Wayne in it. He’s one of the biggest movie stars of all time, and you’d think he’d have popped up by now. Well, he hadn’t, until today that is. I just re-watched what is probably his best movie, John Ford’s all-time classic, 1956’s The Searchers. I kind of think John Wayne films are a wee bit on the over-rated side, but this is one of the best Westerns ever made. Even if you aren’t a fan of Westerns, this is a must see classic.
Taking place in the years immediately after the end of the Civil War, The Searchers is about Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a veteran of the Civil War who has returned home to his family in Texas. Almost immediately upon his return, Ethan’s family is viciously murdered by a group of marauding Comanches. The whole family is murdered except for the youngest daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who is kidnapped by the tribe. Ethan spends the next five years of his life, along with the only other man willing to help him out, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), trying to find Debbie and battling the wilderness and Comanche in his quest to get his niece back.
I don’t think that John Wayne is a particularly talented actor. The fact that he won an Oscar for True Grit is just dumb beyond belief. I know he’s one of cinema’s most beloved leading men but his movies just don’t really do it for me. He’s great in this movie. He’s absolutely spectacular. Ethan Edwards is a complex and downright unlikeable guy. He’s racist as hell and treats everybody around him poorly. John Wayne always plays the “white hat” in Westerns, but he makes a stunning anti-hero in this picture. You really believe that he might shoot his niece for becoming one of the tribe. If John Wayne was ever going to win an Oscar, it should have been for this movie, not the caricature of himself that was True Grit. John Ford knows how to get the most out of The Duke.
This is often cited as one of the most influential films of all time, and it’s easy to see why. As a technical accomplishment, it’s inspiring. The cinematography in the film is breath-taking and there are so many wide vista shots that you can easily just soak in the beauty of the film. This is a Western epic, and the various shots and techniques used to make the film would influence the genre for the next 50 years. John Ford was probably the best man to ever make Westerns and this is his magnum opus. It may have dragged at times and the script could have used some editing, but from a direction stand point, it’s just phenomenal.
If you’re a fan of Westerns, I’m guessing that you’ve probably already seen this film. It’s often cited as being one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and while I can name a handful of Westerns that I think are better, it definitely deserves that reputation. Even if you think Westerns are trite, cliché, and overly romantic affairs, this is a fairly dark and (at the time) controversial Western picture. This is easily the best movie that John Wayne ever made (the only other one that I put near its league is The Cowboys), so if you consider yourself a real movie fan, you need to check this one out.
Final Score: A