Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Searchers

Spielberg once said that before he begins to direct a film he watches four movies: Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Searchers. Since Spielberg is one of my idols, and it’s only four films, I figured I should see the ones that I’ve never seen. Even thought, The Searchers was referenced many times in film school, I’ve never seen the full film, so it had to be netflixed.

If anyone ever doubts that an epic film can be a character piece, I would tell them to watch The Searchers. While at just about two hours, the film does not have an epic length it has all the epic trappings – it’s a period piece with high drama, a central actor that’s bigger than life, a visual scope that’s unparalleled and a director that was in his day, one of the best of the business. While The Searchers may concentrate on the arduous, extended search for a young girl who was kidnapped by the Comanche’s, but the real tale is about Ethan Edwards, played by the formidable John Wayne in one of his best performances.

Ethan Edwards is a character that’s been hardened by life; he’s just returned to his family in the west, a decorated veteran of the Civil War, but he’s bitter about the war as he was a soldier for the confederacy. Edwards doesn’t like the armed forces, the north, or the Indians and makes no bones about it. The only thing that Edwards seems to like at all is his brother and his family so when the family is killed by the Comanche’s and Debbi is kidnapped something in Ethan breaks and a relentless hunt for her begins with pits and falls as the years stretch by and Ethan realizes if Debbi has survived at all, to him she will now be more Comanche than blood family.

The last shot of the film with Ethan Edwards framed in the dark doorway, looking into the house of his family, before slowly turning around and walking away is one of the most iconic shots in cinematic history and the perfect end note for the character of Ethan Edwards. Edwards has spent the better part of a decade tracking down his niece, after being first broken by the Civil War; even though Ethan is now victorious, his dedication to hunting down Debbi and making the world pay for the loss of his family has stripped the last vestiges of humanity away from Edwards, the last bits that would let him remain a part of society and his community. Edwards knows the darkness in him exists and he has no part in returning to a life he long ago left.

I can see why Spielberg would watch this movie for inspiration. The Searchers is a masterpiece of directing. John Ford knows that the power of this movie is not in the star power of Wayne, but the performance and delivers. Not only is this film visually stunning, but compelling on a story and character level in a way modern epics are still trying to emulate.

Director: John Ford
Writer: Frank S. Nugent
Ethan Edwards: John Wayne
Martin Pawley: Jeffrey Hunter
Laurie Jorgensen: Vera Miles
Rev. Capt. Clayton: Ward Bond
Debbie Edwards: Natalie Wood

Ethan: Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth.

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