Being a product of the 70s, I was never exposed to western films. I had never seen one but there was no doubt in my mind that I hated them! After all, old men and unmarried uncles watch westerns. Girls do not. The Searchers has changed all that. I feel like I have tapped into something so special, something no one else knows about. Westerns can be wonderful and I would have never known it had I not seen this film. It has changed my whole perspective of quality films. A film does not have to have computer graphics or automatic weapons to be thrilling. It simply has to touch us in the right spot.
The western genre has a few basic components that each film conventionally adheres to. The typical setting is the unsettled, untamed west. Often the theme is law and order verses the wily outlaw (who could be from Native Americans to a black hatted bad guy.) The female roles are predominately conform to the roles of the 1800s woman: sympathetic, nurturing, and darn good at mending clothes. The Searchers is no exception to these conventions. Filmed on location in Monument Valley, the setting is captivating. Each outdoor shot is director John Ford's artistic canvas, beautifully orchestrated, a masterpiece of visual storytelling.
The film begins with Ethan Edwards (portrayed by John Wayne) riding through the vast Texas desert towards the camera. The camera is seemingly safe inside the front door of Ethan's brother's house, Aaron (Walter Coy), but the composition of this entire sequence is a clever suggestion of what is to come. With the camera inside the house, it appears to be very dark inside while being bright and wild outside. The interior area in the cabin represents civilized values and the settled family. The bright, glaring, sunny outdoor area represents the savage and threatening land of the frontier loner. The silhouette of Aunt Martha (Dorothy Jordan) in the doorway is comforting but still foreshadows the next day. We sense something is going to go wrong soon. The film captures us from the first minute.
During breakfast the next morning, the neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) and Captain / Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), a preacher and Texas Ranger, arrive with a posse of Texas Rangers. Indians have stolen some cattle from the Jorgensen ranch nearby. Marty, a 1/8 Native American orphan and his step-father, Aaron, are deputized to help the Captain and the Texas Rangers find the cattle thieves. Once the posse is far into the desert, they realize that the cattle were stolen to lure the men away from their now virtually defenseless homes. Ethan knows it is too late.
The plot of the rest of the film is based on the ramifications of the posse leaving their families behind. Ethan's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew are murdered and his two nieces are abducted by Comanchee Indians. Immediately after the funeral, Ethan, along with the rest of the posse, set out to avenge the murders and locate the missing girls. Years go by and the posse dwindles down to Ethan and Marty only. Once the oldest of the missing sisters is discovered murdered, it is clear that the two men will never give up until they locate little Debbie (Natalie Wood).
John Ford quite cleverly uses a combination of saturated and desaturated colors in The Searchers. The desert is dusty, dry, its tones brown, orange, and yellow. The clothing the whites wear is dull and muted. These desaturated colors symbolize loss of life and enable us to focus our attention on the characters themselves. The Comanchee Indians are always shown wearing very vivid paint, feathers, and clothing. They are intense and dangerous just as the saturated color implies. Between the bright colors and drum beating, every time a Comanchee Indian is shown, there is an incredible suspense.
The lighting in most of the film is soft light since almost the entire film was shot outdoors. The women never look tired or wrinkled. In fact, they actually appear regal. Interestingly though, the men never look soft or even very attractive as the assumed soft lighting effect. It appears that artificial, hard lighting may have been used during close up shots of male characters (though there are only a few of the Duke himself). Since several scenes take place at night, a shaded filter was placed behind the camera lens to create the illusion of nighttime.
Though this film has only a very few comedic moments, it does have one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen on film. While on the quest, Ethan and Marty have been double- crossed by a greedy merchant, who is now following the searchers in order to kill them. It is night in the desert, and Marty's good sense tells him something is wrong. He tries to persuade Ethan that they are being followed but Ethan will have no part in considering his opinion. Ethan has proven himself to be very hard, racist, and has no sentiment for Marty at all (since Marty is part Native American). Marty concedes and lies down for bed next to the fire. Ethan walks over to Marty, bends down, adjusts his blanket in a "tucking in" fashion and asks, "Comfortable?" It is so unexpected and seemingly impossible that Ethan would be so sensitive. This is by far my favorite scene in the whole film. It provides the comic relief needed in the building tension and sets the stage for what is ahead.
In The Searchers, cinematography, lighting, color, script, and even a brief homage to Harry Cary all contribute to the film's mise en scene. The film is a success because all of these components are present consistently throughout the two and a half-hour running time. In Ethan's own words, "as sure as the turning of the earth," I like westerns.
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