Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Searchers (1956)

That’ll be the day.

Comanche Indians attack Aaron Edwards’ homestead, killing the whole family, except young Debbie, who they kidnap. Aaron’s brother Ethan (John Wayne) and Aaron’s adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) set out to find her on what turns out to be a rather epic journey. Often referred to as John Ford’s finest and most emotionally complex film (so I’ve read), there is no doubting its scope, or John Wayne’s performance, but I felt a little underwhelmed by it all.

Filimed in Monument Valley (John Ford’s favourite shooting ground), the film is stunning to behold, and beautifully composed. However, by limiting the shoot to pretty much one location (the occasional snowy scene was filmed in Colorado), the film felt a little claustrophobic to me, rather than the expansive epic it purports to be. As a slight aside, the film is meant to be set in Texas - despite even the trailer announcing that it was filmed in Arizona! Now I’ll accept that for various reasons some movies need to be shot in locations vastly distant to the intended setting; but when your scenery is as iconic as Monument Valley you can’t pretend it’s anywhere but Arizona. Of course, my claustrophobia here could be solely due to the fact that I have driven around Monument Valley in a couple of hours, and spent the film spotting familiar rock formations.

Of course this “cramped” location means that the editing has to be done well, which it is, and the photography is top notch; there are lots of nice shots of John Wayne posing in front of buttes and mesas. John Wayne is easily the best part of the story; his Ethan Edwards is cranky, bloody-minded, prejudiced, yet 100% committed to the cause; and Wayne mostly manages to bring all these traits together successfully. Unfortunately I feel that this focus on Ethan’s character means that all of the others were forgotten about. Jeffrey Hunter is mostly alright as Ethan’s primary companion, but he is given to the occasional drama-queen moment; as can be said for most of the female cast.

An enjoyable western, but I feel perhaps that it hasn’t aged well; a lot of the acting is wooden and shouty, and features an atrocious Irish (I think) accent. Also, the passage of time was not slickly illustrated - it did not ring true that they spent five years looking for Debbie (judging by the scenery they had been going in circles for most of that time). The searchers also seemed to have very short memories; being chased by Comanche one scene, and then not knowing where to find them the next. John Ford’s direction for the most part is great, but it felt a little sloppy in places. I’ve obviously been spoiled with more modern westerns; but there was very little plausible emotion beyond Wayne. I realise that this is supposed to be one of the finest westerns made, and I still want to see more Wayne/Ford collaborations, but The Searchers was not as fantastic as I expected.