Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Searchers (1956)

By Eric Jessen 10/28/09

Somewhere in John Wayne's awkward delivery, in Scar's splotchy makeup, in the tumbleweed of Monument Valley, The Searchers gets its enigmatic quality. It's sustained through every fizzle and every crescendo. Each scene is cluttered with failed attempts at humor, the most tiresome being when Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) fights for Laurie (Vera Miles) on her wedding night -- actually just about every scene with Laurie is clutter, and dare I say I found Mose (Hank Warden) and his rocking chair annoying. And how absurd is Natalie Wood's Debbie looking more prim than ever as a scalp scraping Comanche? Really, much of The Searchers is not even all that enjoyable. Yet, when John Wayne as Ethan Edwards is framed in the doorway at the end, leaning to the side like a cowboy cardboard cutout, and then stumbling down the porch steps in front of the ever-expansive valley, The Searchers was destined for legendary status. In that final scene, we wonder what Ethan will possibly do with himself now that he's finished searching for Debbie. We wonder where he will wander to next. Then the door blows shut, and we know we'll never find out. The Searchers had captured the mystery, the wonder possible in movies.
Although The Searchers wasn't nominated for any Academy awards when it was released, by the 1970's it was already a favorite among young directors. By 2007, it was voted the 12th greatest American movie by AFI. Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone and others fell in love with The Searchers and particularly Ethan: the obsessive, erratic journeyman and the combustible racist. They loved the ambiguity of Ethan. What made him hate Comanches? And how does he know so much about them? Why doesn't he kill Debbie like he said he would?

(See "The Defiant Ones" review for more on "The Searchers")

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