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Year: 1956
Studio: Warner Brothers
Running time: 119 minutes
Process: VistaVision / Technicolor / mono
Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards
Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley
Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgenson
Ward Bond as Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton
Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards

For our very first entry, I have chosen a movie that most film scholars would consider to be John Ford’s greatest achievement. The Searchers was filmed in Ford’s favorite location, Monument Valley, and was lushly photographed in Technicolor and VistaVision. Every shot was crafted under Ford’s impeccable eye for detail.

The story centers around Ethan Edwards (in one of John Wayne’s best performances) who sets out on a five-year trek to track down the Comanches that kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood) after killing her parents. He is joined by the girl’s adopted brother (Jeffrey Hunter) who is himself one-eighth Comanche. Ethan boils with hatred for all Native Americans. Roger Ebert writes: “Ethan Edwards, fierce, alone, a defeated soldier with no role in peacetime, is one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created (they worked together on 14 films). Did they know how vile Ethan’s attitudes were? I would argue that they did, because Wayne was in his personal life notably free of racial prejudice, and because Ford made films with more sympathetic views of Indians.”

The dark malevolence of the film is balanced with lighter comic relief mostly involving Jeffrey Hunter and his romantic pursuits. The journey is arduous and the viewer really doesn’t know what to expect at the end. When they finally find the girl, will Ethan carry out what his racism and hatred have driven him to do?

It was only in retrospect that The Searchers came to be regarded as the classic it is. It has influenced many filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, and Steven Speilberg. AFI lists it as #1 on its Top 10 Westerns and #12 on its 100 Years…100 Movies list.

Our next post will be Winchester ’73.