My 100 favourite films. Entry #14: The Searchers.

The Searchers (1956)
directed by John Ford
starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles and Natalie Wood
country: USA
genre: Western

Visuals: 8
Writing: 8
Everyday watchability: 6
Number of times somebody says Comanch': a lot

I guess it's about time I talk about a Western. The Western isn't one of my favourite film genres. It generally espouses viewpoints that I just find hard to stomach. However, it is a very important genre in American film. Many classic Western directors influenced the next generation of filmmakers. Akira Kurosawa was a huge fan of American Westerns, particularly the work of John Ford. Kurosawa in turn influenced a number of directors throughout the 1970s, such as Spielberg, Coppola and especially Lucas. Techniques used in Star Wars (such as the wipe cut) were taken from Kurosawa films which were themselves taken from John Ford films.

That said, in any genre, The Searchers is just a great film. Ford was known for his love of Utah's Monument Valley and that love is surely displayed on screen. The American West doesn't simply feel dusty and dangerous, it looks beautiful and beckoning. One can see why people would trek thousands of miles not only for prosperity, but to bask in the awesomeness of an unknown America.

John Wayne's performance is spot on. I'm not a John Wayne fan; he often felt like a caricature of himself. Here Wayne feels totally at home as an arrogant, racist Confederate officer. His comfort in the role leads to the discomfort of watching the film. Which is perfect. The viewer is supposed to feel that unease. The Searchers came at a time when blatant prejudice was on the wain and the Western genre was reinventing itself almost as a morality play, or even an anti-Western. It's viewable in films like Shane (1953), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and High Noon (1952) (see revisionist western).

One of the film's aspects which is often mentioned is the ending (spoiler alert, I guess). At the end, after Wayne has found the girl he's been searching for living with the Comanch', he returns her home to her parents. He stands in the doorway to the house looking inside for a moment, then turns and leaves, a man without a purpose and with too much hatred in his veins to ever really be happy. The viewer knows he'll never return here again, and it's a bittersweet departure, but truly his only choice. It's the kind of ending that almost overpowers the film with its perfection, an ending that sums up the whole movie better than any piece of dialog could.


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