Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Movie Review: The Searchers

Westerns have for so long been a film genre to tell simple tales of simple people searching for meaning in the battle of good vs. evil, and has not traditionally been a place to explore complex themes. Because of this long-standing fact, when the timeless John Ford film The Searchers arrived in theaters in 1956, it was viewed as a weak entry into the genre. However, the message of racial tensions and the idea of honor and responsibility have not only earned it acceptance, but have caused it to be hailed as one of the greatest Westerns ever made. While it is not my all-time favorite Western (one of Sergio Leone's many spaghetti westerns likely wields that label), the film is still nothing short of a masterpiece.

The film follows the troubled and difficult path of Ethan Edwards, a Confederate soldier with a blinding hatred of the Comanche Indian tribe who returns to his extended family; when most of his family is murdered by Comanches and his niece Debbie is kidnapped by the tribe, Ethan begins a grueling 5-year journey to find the missing girl that becomes a dark and disturbing obsession. When Ethan discovers that she has been taken in and accepted a place with the tribe, he is compelled to murder her for having associated with the very people he despises. Only in the end does he finally find redemption for himself, but at the cost of the family he loved so dearly.

This film is nothing short of beautiful in its production; the West has never seemed so enticing, and the natural beauty of the land provides a startling juxtaposition to the cruel attitude that Edwards has concerning the world around him. John Ford is held by many acclaimed filmmakers (including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas) as one of the greatest of all time, and he is particularly admired for his mastery of the Western genre. While Ford was respected for his skill at filming in black and white, he proved to all naysayers he was just as talented behind a color lens. He also had a keen sense of symbolic value in film; the concept of doorways and the use to reflect Edwards' journey is astounding. The film opens with Ethan entering into the home of his family, finding peace with the few people he truly cares for; in the final shot, we see the exact opposite, as Ethan is framed walking out the doorway, with it being very apparent he may never return.

The message concerning racial tensions between the American settlers and Native Americans has rarely been as controversial as it was in this film, and it was made even more shocking by allowing American hero John Wayne to play a man that was in many ways despicable. Wayne's hatred of the Comanches from the beginning seems more severe than needed, and when he even goes as far as to consider murdering his own for associating with them, it is apparent that he is a man consumed and blinded by his hatred. This movie was released only a year after the start of the American Civil Rights Movement, and it would not be difficult to see the parallels between Edwards attitude towards the Comanches in the same light as the treatment of Black America during this period. While it is not certain that Ford was expressing his own views on this growing issues through this film, it certainly provided a unique perspective on this issue during a very confusing time in history. The film still holds up today as a fascinating film and should be considered required viewing for film enthusiasts everywhere.

5 out of 5 stars

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