Archive for February 16th, 2011

The image of horseback riders stirring up clouds of dust in the foreground of giant ochre megaliths that mark their presence in a vast expanse of red desert are seldom seen or even imagined in this day and age of high speed car chases and sophisticated nuclear thingamajigs. But watching John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers, brings back to light a time where the unconquered American frontier gave the seeker the magnificent beauty of the unforgiving desert, and brought with it adventure, thrill, and peril.

Although the characters in the movie are unquestionably the fabrications of a man who understood the appeal of the American filmgoer of the 50’s, the story brings a tale of human conflict and struggle for survival into the forefront. Starring the legendary John Wayne (who I saw for the first time in this movie) as the maverick hero Ethan Edwards, and Jeffery Hunter as his stubborn sidekick Marty Pawley, the movie tells the story of the two frontier men who travel the vast expanse of the desert in search of Ethan Edward’s kidnapped niece, who also happens to be Pawley’s kid sister. The movie combined action, suspense, drama, comedy, and a dose of racial prejudice to have made it a big hit among theatergoers of the 50’s. For a person like me, the movie, 55 years into its conception, was a relatively slow paced, yet interesting glimpse into a not so distant past.

The story revolves around a linear narrative that show John Wayne’s character, along with his sidekick, seeking out the trail of a tribe of Comanche Indians who kidnapped Debbie, his niece. Unfolding over a time of around 8 to 10 years, the movie shows the two men attempt to uncover the whereabouts of the Indian tribe led by the fierce chief, Scar. The movie showcases a menagerie of interesting characters that range from the intimidating stature of Scar to the obnoxious, rocking chair obsessed dolt of a man, Mose Harper. Each character brings in a unique element to the story, making it adventurous, thrilling, and funny, sometimes all at the same time. In the end, the hero prevails, bringing his abducted niece to her parents and concluding the story with Wayne’s legendary bravado.

The Western genre is inextricably tied to the environment in which its story unfolds. Unlike the many cityscapes and enclosed environments we see in many of today’s movies, the Western is sustained by the vibrant energy of nature. Variety Magazine’s Ron Holloway undoubtedly has a keen eye for observing the role of the big red desert in movie, and its presence which makes the movie what it is. The Searchers, like many Westerns, takes place in the arid and dusty deserts of the American West, and a significant portion of the story portrays the immense expanse of that imposing landscape. The long shot is used extensively throughout the movie, and is complemented with the tracking shot, which makes it possible for the filmmaker to capture the vastness of the arid desert while bringing the viewer closer to the arduous journey of the central characters. The flashback technique is used to explain a portion of the adventure as the story continues to unfold as a letter is read. It is also an interesting tool which the director uses to connect the supporting actors and thereby creating the subplot that leads to the comical wedding night punch up between Marty and his lover’s new suitor, Charlie. The score of the movie plays a very important role in creating the ambience and mood of the scenes, especially in the long segments where the characters trek through the desert. I thought it was interesting to observe how much different the movie would have been if not for the soundtrack. Personally, I don’t think I would have the tolerance to bear watching a group of middle aged men plod through an endless desert for what seems like eons, if not for a musical score that played in the background that established an emotional connection with the viewer and the characters of the movie.

Ethan and Marty trudging on.

The movie is an interesting throwback to the past. Not only does it bring back to light the customs of antiquity such as female subservience and good old racial discrimination, it also shows a time where men and women conducted themselves with a formality that many people in today’s world would find ridiculous. The movie also gives an insight into the level of literacy of these swashbuckling, trigger happy, horse riding, champions of the silver screen and shows that education was interchangeable with pistols and bullets, making the viewer appreciate the relatively nonviolent standards of our age. What I thought was more interesting though, was how the niece, Debbie, seemed to personify the conflict between the Indians and the Whites. While she, at the time of her escape, had embraced the Indian lifestyle, she was nevertheless taken back by Wayne and his jolly men, evoking the sense of a primal struggle for survival and adaptation.

Overall, I wasn’t very impressed by the movie. I maintain my view, as I have in my previous reviews, that the movie would have been a very appealing and exciting feature for moviegoers of the 50’s. But, John Ford, I’m sorry to say that although countless many people, presumably pretty old in age, would cheer your name like that of Jesus Christ in a church in rural Kansas, but I can only give you credit on the basis that you’re considered by the hotshots in the film industry to be a pretty big deal in cinema. Either way, I’m glad that I watched this movie because any experience; good, bad, mediocre, all have a lesson in them to learn from, and I feel that The Searchers was no exception to that golden rule.


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