The Searchers (1956)

I've never considered John Wayne to be a great actor. Then again, I've not really seen him in a lot of movies. Until recently, the true western was a genre that I was completely unfamiliar with. Still, John Wayne isn't a great actor...he can do one thing; but he can do it well.
Yet teaming up with John Ford, the man who turned him into a superstar, Wayne is at his peak (as is Ford) with "The Searchers".
Here again, we are reminded that the western is not as dry as its stereotype. In fact, it's a colorful and dramatic genre that may cross over into grossly sweet and sentimental. With "The Searchers", widely considered to be the best western ever made, we have a insane, high emotion piece that could remain the definitive film of the genre.
At the movie's opening, we have a beautiful shot of the wide plains, the monotony broken by a man riding in on a horse. Ethan Edwards approaches his brother's house after many years.
The children are excited to see him, some of them have only heard stories of the man. Ethan's brother and sister-in-law, Aaron and Martha, more than welcome him into their house and give him a place to stay the night.
The next morning sees the calvary riding in. A group of rangers ride into the house and force Aaron and his adopted son Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) to join in the rangers in order to hunt down the Indians. The  Comanche have stolen the cows from a neighbor's ranch and the small band of rangers intend to deal justice to the savages.
Setting out to reclaim the bovine herd, the group quickly discovers that they may have been duped when they come across the bulls, slaughtered and left carelessly.
The intention becomes clear: the Indians wanted the men away from the houses. Rushing back to aid in their loved one's safety, "The Searchers" establishes Ethan Edwards' authority. In the haste to get back to his family, Marty tries to gallop off, but Ethan warns him against it, telling him that his horse will not be able to take the strain. Later, Ethan—who hates to be referred to as "uncle" or "sir"—spitefully rides past Marty whose horse has died.
When they reach Aaron and Martha's house, they find the place burned to the ground. This is where we notice the mental instability of the movie and its characters. Ethan is filled with a horrid rage at the desecration of his kin. But even more than that, the film implies a bottled up romance that Ethan and Martha had for each other, her death is the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Flying into a controlled madness, Ethan swears a terrible revenge on the Comanche. Marty, in the meantime, discovers that his sisters Debbie and Lucy, have been taken by the tribe. The rangers reassemble and they ride out to take back the girls, an attack that turns out to be more of an odyssey-like quest.
They have to battle the weather, the Indians, hunger, and thirst. Tempers flare in the group as the men fight to determine who will be the leader. Ethan is not happy with some suggestions and when he turns out to be right, he demands that he be left in peace to claim revenge by himself.
John Wayne gives a very startling performance as Edwards. His rage is completely believable, though the film never really glorifies him as a hero.
In many ways, though this may seem like a huge stretch for many, "The Searchers" resembles David Fincher's "Zodiac". They both deal with the idea of justice, and both of their resolutions are not what is expected. In a typical good-vs-bad setting, the bad guy gets his just desserts at the end through a variety of ways...usually death or life in prison.
"Zodiac" brought us a crime film that was about the process of catching the villain. "The Searchers", likewise, is about bringing the Indians to justice. It takes a while for both films to do this and as they do, the directors are asking what revenge is good for.
Commentaries on revenge and the fulfillment of seeing the bad guy hang aside, "The Searchers" is a staggering achievement if only for its visual beauty. The glorious landscape of the west has never looked so attractive.
The madness, the beauty, the love, the slight humor—"The Searchers" is a marvelous film.

Score: ★★★★

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