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The Searchers: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles,
Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Henry Brandon

Written by Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan LeMay

Directed by John Ford

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

I: Biography of a Masterpiece

You don't have to look far for evidence that The Searchers (1956) is considered one of the greatest films ever made, indeed a near perfect masterpiece. It's been popping up on the Sight and Sound 10-best films list since 1972. Increasing numbers of essays and books about it have appeared since the '70s, starting with Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington's essay in Sight and Sound in the autumn of 1971, and culminating in at least five biographies of director John Ford since the late 1970s. Godard referenced it in Weekend and Buddy Holly wrote a song about the film's catch phrase ("That'll Be the Day").

Furthermore, in a 1979 New York magazine article entitled "The Searchers: Cult Movie of the New Hollywood," the late Stuart Byron pointed out how Ford's film influenced movie brats such as Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, John Milius in The Wind and the Lion and Big Wednesday, and George Lucas in Star Wars. These boy-man film-nerds-turned-filmmakers were so obsessive about the film, they had seen it so often (Spielberg told Byron that he had seen the film many times, including twice while on location for Close Encounters), they knew it front to back so well that they could fret about what they thought might be serious flaws in the otherwise perfect film, one example of which is what Scorsese and Paul Schrader called "The Scar Scene" — but more about that in a minute.

And the film even works its magic back onto those who love it. Arguably one of the most famous things that Andrew Sarris ever wrote is his three-sentence encomium of The Searchers's moral restraint in the John Ford listing in his groundbreaking ranking of filmmakers, American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929 - 1968. Noting how the Ward Bond character has quickly sized up what's really going on between Ethan Edwards and his sister-in-law, Sarris adds, "Nothing on earth would ever force this man to reveal what he had seen," capturing the essence of the codes and secret knowledge that permeate Ford's world. Thus with a few keystrokes critic met film and each made the other famous.

So now from Warner Home Video comes a lavish two-disc set of The Searchers, officially a part of the John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection that also includes Stagecoach, Fort Apache, The Long Voyage Home, The Wings of Eagles, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and They Were Expendable, but which is also available on its own. And now the critic, after several tear-inducing private screenings of the film, and a full consumption of the supplements, confronts the matter of why The Searchers is such a great film when the rest of John Ford's output is often so lacking.

Now, don't get me wrong. Ford clearly belongs in the Pantheon. His films are of a piece: they have a visual consistency no matter the subject or who shot it, a narrative consistency regardless of the writers, and his films have thematic and moral consistency. Having worked on films since nearly the birth of cinema, Ford was so versed in the medium that he could do anything with it, bend it to his personal preoccupations while still maintaining vestiges of superficial commercialism to please his studio masters.

But surveying Ford's filmography, one instantly notes that there is an awful lot of it, and much of it is pretty damned bad. Start with J. A. Place's The Non-Western Films of John Ford for a catalog of what the book's author obviously doesn't intend to come across as blarney, sentimentality, jingoism, militarism, and sexless romance. And much of Ford's later films are visually impoverished and incoherent as Ford wrestles with himself over his ideals of duty versus family. Auteurism tempts you to take a director whole. But how many Ford fanatics really want to re-see, say The Informer or The Hurricane or Tobacco Road, or most of the saccharine, wry Irish films, or the whimsical Americana films (the Judge Priest series, et cetera)? From this perspective, The Searchers is for some of Ford's critics an anomaly, rather than a signpost.

*          *          *

The Searchers came at an interesting time in Ford's life. He was getting older (in his very early 60s when shooting began), and was no longer associated with Fox where he has spent the bulk of his career. He recently formed a company with both the intrepid Merian C. Cooper (King Kong) along with a member of the Whitney-Vanderbilt clan (Ford would eventually have a falling out with Cooper — and almost Wayne as well — over this partnership). But most important Ford was coming off of Mister Roberts where he had fought with the star, Henry Fonda, battled with those who knew the original stage production well, and ended up fleeing from his production problems in alcohol. His behavior on the set was the talk of the town, and Ford, in his mind anyway, badly needed to prove that he was still in command of his skills. To do so, Ford returned to the western, his first work in the genre in several years. Into this situation came Cooper, with the rights to a novel, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post as "The Avenging Texans." Shooting began in June of 1955, and lasted 49 days, coming in three days ahead of schedule. The film opened on May 26, 1956, and made over $4 million dollars despite some bad reviews, such as from the New Yorker, which was predictable, but also from, surprisingly, Cahiers du Cinema and in England, from Ford's then strongest supporter, future director Lindsay Anderson. It's easy to take these surprising assessments as evidence of how much The Searchers diverged from the well-known Ford.

Look at how different The Searchers is from so many other previous Ford films. There are the obvious differences, such as that Wayne is a darker, creepier figure. But also Laurie (Vera Miles) is exposed as a racist, something an earlier Ford would never have done to one of his beloved female characters. Ford also has Ethan Edwards interrupt the burial of his sister-in-law and secret love. This speaks volumes about Ford's view of Edwards. The cavalry is explicitly criticized for killing Indians arbitrarily.

One way to understand The Searchers in the larger context of Ford's films is to view it really as a Howard Hawks film. As in a Hawks film, the team keeps returning to the same locale (here the Jorgensen range), the humor and action is very much like a Hawks film, particularly The Big Sky, from which The Searchers, borrows a similar Indian raid (Ford admitted this in interviews late in his life). Unlike Hawks, whose manly Hemingwayesque ethos remained immutable until the end of his career, Ford had become a divided man, a self-doubter, a man disillusioned by what had become of his code but still unwilling to relinquish it. This makes the films in which he does wrestle with his code — The Wings of Eagles, The Long Gray Line — among his most interesting, because they deviate from the way the code is honored in his general films. Another such film is The Searchers, but created at a much higher pitch of attention, earnestness, and competence than the others. By following the strong spine of a Hawksian type story perhaps Ford was better able to explore his first tentative doubts about his code, placed in the margins, so to speak, of the film.

One key area in which the film diverges from typical Ford is in its frank treatment of racism, as Joseph McBride, in his magisterial bio of the director, points out. Two real cases inspired the novel on which the movie is based. In 1836, a nine-year-old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped by Comanche. In 1860, when she was in her 30s, she was recaptured and forcibly held by the cavalry, whereupon she starved herself to death. Her son, Quanah Parker, became chief of the Comanche, surrendering to the whites finally in 1875. A later, different event also set in Texas equally informed LeMay's book. (LeMay, by the way, was not a stranger to cinema. He directed a feature film, High Lonesome, for Eagle-Lion in 1950, and his later book, Unforgiven, was adapted by Huston.)

Few people who love The Searchers have bothered to read the book, which reveals the tumultuous and dark racialist themes that seemed to attract Ford. One fan who has compared them is William Darby in his book, John Ford's Westerns: A Thematic Analysis with a Filmography.

It's clear from a reading of LeMay's novel and Darby's analysis that Martin Pauley (Jeffrey Hunter) is the real hero of the film, as he is in the book. He is a double of Ethan: he kisses Martha (Dorothy Jordan) on the forehead just like Ethan, and sits on the front porch steps isolated from the family, just like Ethan (are they father and son? That is an intriguing possibility). The force and power of Wayne's performance, and his charisma as an actor, tilt the viewer into thinking that Edwards is the hero. Instead, he is its tragic center.

Both book and film are about the five-plus year long search by Edwards for the remnants of his family, killed in an Indian attack led by renegade Indian Scar (Henry Brandon), with Martin Pauley along to stop Ethan from killing young Debbie (Natalie Wood), his remaining relative, now tainted by her absorption into the tribe. From among various character changes between the book and movie, Mose Harper (Hank Worden) was originally just another rancher, harsh with his son. The new Mose is given the duties of a dropped character, the rebellious Lije Powers, who comes to Edwards with a crucial Debbie sighting. The book's Newby (Nesby in the film) commits suicide after being wounded. The book's Ethan Edwards, named Amos Edwards, never deviates from his quest to avenge Martha and kill Debbie. He dies while scrounging for Indian scalps during the final battle in Scar's camp. In the film, Edwards is a harsh mentor to Martin, who in the book is an equal to the tough old trail-hound Edwards, and in a grim scene Amos and Martin visit the site of his parents' demise (in the film Martin only sees a scalp). Most crucially, the much more vociferous and wedding-eager Laurie ends up with Charlie McCorry and Martin is last seen with Debbie, huddling with her under a buffalo blanket in a snow covered prairie, incest in the air.

The Searchers is marvelously cohesive, even while being mysterious. This is one Ford film where the viewer isn't irritated by the director's philosophy favoring unstated feelings. Edwards is an intriguing question mark, a possible deserter (for political reasons), bank robber, and murderer, whose life on the run has made him the mirror image of the Indians he hates yet understands with a preternatural affinity. Nugent's script is cunningly and richly constructed. The viewer forgets a war medal Ethan gives to Debbie in the first few minutes until it makes a startling reappearance 70 minutes later. Martin has an amusing and consistent habit of periodically getting wrapped up in a blanket (and Ethan even calls him "Blankethead"). Debbie, meanwhile, is always "rising," standing on her chair, or appearing over a ridge, high above the rest of the human beings (and Bond's Captain, the Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton is consistently hapless: his gun misfires, he falls off his horse, and finally is stung in the seat of his pants by a sword blade). And visually Ford famously rhymes certain images to chart the conscience of Ethan. Ford understands Edwards, but he realizes that the hopes of the country rest with the young, with Martin and his broader perspective. With such a perfect package, the viewer shares Scorsese and Schrader's curiosity about the lack of a "Scar scene," that is, a moment between Debbie and Scar that makes explicit why she has stayed with Scar, never tried to escape. Ford and Nugent's silence on this matter may be in deference to the Production Code, or there may have still been enough Edwards remaining in Ford to cause him to shrink in horror from such meditations.

Despite softening changes, it's clear that Ford wanted to make something tougher and darker than he had ever made before. All commentators agree that as he aged, Ford began to question and doubt his earlier belief system and became increasingly focused on issues of race. It's possible that if Ford had lived for an additional 50 years, his thematic concerns might have boomeranged back to the anodyne Americana of his earlier films, but be that as it might, we are grateful to have this masterpiece, brilliantly written by Frank Nugent, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly acted by the full range of Ford's stock company, from Wayne to Hunter.


With its gorgeous transfer and mostly helpful and valedictory supplements, Warner Home Video has done a superb job with its two-disc "50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition" release of The Searchers. This release supersedes a prior Searchers DVD that arrived in October 1997.

Disc One

Disc One offers the movie, an audio commentary track, an intro to the film, and the trailer.

Disc Two

The second disc contains about 90 minutes worth of material, some of it new to disc.

Physical Supplements

  • Dell's Searchers comic book adaptation: This 36-page digest sized reproduction (on slick paper) of the one-off comic will please many comic book fans of a certain age who remember the Dell comics from their youth, which specialized in licensed recreations of MGM, Warner, and Disney characters. The firm also did its share of movie tie-ins, of which this comic is one of many. The artist is unknown to this writer, but it could easily have been any member of Dell's stable of artists, including western specialist Dan Spiegle, Jesse Marsh, or Russ Manning. [One item that the Warner package might ideally have included is the 58-page European fumetti version of the movie, La prisonniere du desert, published as the February 1962 issue of Cine Star Aventures!, a copy of which this author happens to be a proud owner.]

  • Exhibitor's publicity kit: A novelty item, this 36-page digest-sized reproduction of an exhibitor's publicity kit for the film (on slick paper) offers a packet of prefabricated newspaper stories and ad slicks that are of modest interest.

  • Ten location stills: What's interesting about this set of black-and-white images, reproduced at half size, is that none are portraits, they are all from the set, showing the actors in casual, candid moments.

  • Reproduction of letter from producer C. V. Whitney to Jack Warner concerning the film's production and distribution: The essence of the letter is that Whitney is so enthusiastic about the film that he is advancing the release date.

  • Reproduction of two-page letter from Walter MacEwen to Jack Warner assessing the film after a preview on December 3rd, 1955 in San Francisco: This item is notable for the reported enthusiasm of the audience as well as the delineation of moments that might be viewed as too strong.

  • Coupon for "free" Searchers poster: If you keep your receipts and follow the elaborate instructions, you can get mailed to yourself the film's poster.

    The Searchers is a five-star film, and Warner Home Video's two-disc edition of it, thanks to its superb transfer and tasteful supplements, instantly enters the Editor's Top 25 list.

    — D.K. Holm

    Disc One

    Disc Two

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