The Searchers (1956)

7 Oct

This one scene encapsulates the entire movie in such a bold way that it's breathtaking.

How often does the final scene in a movie really have impact anymore? Sure you’ll get some powerful endings from time to time, but more often than not modern films feel like they settle for winding down rather than going for it and making a true statement with an iconic, meaningful image. “The Searchers” goes for broke in its final scene and succeeds so well it’s breathtaking.

Just to get this out of the way, obviously this is a film from another era. As such, it hasn’t aged perfectly; it’s perhaps a bit too slow and repetitive for a modern audience and a good deal of the acting is of the melodramatic persuasion. The score also detracts from the overall enjoyment of the film as it tends to be jarringly jaunty or plaintive and overly prominent on the soundtrack. And with these two sentences, my criticism of this film comes to a close.

For John Ford’s classic is grand in both scale and scope, telling a story that spans five years and traverses hundreds of miles of bleak, hard country. Ford’s masterful composition and ability to tell his story not only through the script but through the composition, the scale and the cinematography is all the more awesome for how subtle it is.

The film opens with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards riding up to his brother’s homestead. He’s been gone many years; it is implied Ethan left to fight in the Civil War, but it is acknowledged the Civil War has also now been over for three years. His brother’s family clusters in the safety of their porch and watches Ethan approach, a lone figure framed by an open door, his family outside with him yet cunningly separated from him. It is a subtle way of showing us there’s a gulf there beyond mere time away. Proximity provides more hints later on, as brother Aaron’s wife lingers a little too long and a little to close to Ethan; Aaron keeps his distance.

Throughout the initial decoy ride of Edwards and a small band of local Rangers, shots are composed tightly. The camera centers on the men more often than not, and only begins to pull away when the riders suspect they’ve been duped. Ethan and family ward Martin Pawley (Hunter) return to the homestead and find three dead bodies. They vow to never stop looking for the missing Lucy and Debbie until they’re found. Initially they’re joined in the quest by some fellow rangers and Lucy’s beau, Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey, Jr.). The camera work remains fairly intimate, but is already betraying a few signs of the expansiveness which will come. The notable action sequences in this early portion of the film are well choreographed and quite thrilling, even from a modern perspective.

The band of searchers starts to break down; it’s reduced to three members after injuries are suffered in a battle with Comanches. Perhaps the first dramatic shift in composition comes during the sequence just after Ethan explores a small canyon on his own. He comes out and is clearly distraught, but the camera never moves closer to him. Always the deceptively delicate-looking canyon is visible in the background, a marked contrast to the sight of the powerful man struggling to restrain his emotions in the foreground.

There is more to John Wayne than all those goofy impersonations would have you believe.

Soon after, the third member of the party is lost, and only Ethan and Martin remain. Ford often shrinks his two principal actors to mere specks in a corner of the screen and fills the rest with expansive compositions of the unforgiving terrain — deserts, rock formations and steep gorge walls. The cinematography serves to constantly remind us of the enormity and, ultimately, futility of the men’s task. Ethan and Martin try not once, but twice to return to their home, and each time they are called away again. Martin’s tie to the original area is Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles), a girl he has been courting “since we were three,” according to Laurie. The few short sequences at the Jorgenson farm and the idea of a life there only serves to provide harsh contrast once our searchers are back out on the trail. The intimate framing of the sequences between Martin and Laurie disappear entirely when the scenes are between Ethan and Martin. Though the initial rift between the two men heals a bit, we don’t need the bit of dialogue where Martin refuses to hear Ethan’s will to let us know that those hurts will never completely heal.

And it is the masterful final shot that ties all this action together. Though “The Searchers” concerns itself with the hunt for a niece abducted by a tribe of Comanches on the surface, it is truly the story of Ethan’s search for redemption. Despite all Ford has shown us, all those oppressing shots of Ethan dwarfed by the unforgiving young country, all those scenes where he is as far away from his only companion as he can be and still be on screen — despite all that, when Ethan climbs off his horse for the last time and is framed by the Jorgenson’s door, our hearts soar.

The Jorgensons, the retrieved Debbie, the soon-to-be-wed Laurie and Martin, they all file in, smiling, past the camera and into the welcoming interior dusk. And there’s Ethan, still alone, on the outside in the harsh light, in silhouette, already a shadow, forgotten. And he turns away, and our hearts break. Four stars out of four.

The Searchers“: Unrated (common sense rating: OK for 10 and up). Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno and Hank Warden. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent from the novel by Alan Le May. Cinematography by Winton C. Hoch. Original music by Max Steiner.

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