The Searchers (1956) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

There's no nudity in this 1956 John Ford Western, but it bears some scrutiny from us, since it has now been mastered to DVD in a widescreen edition, with some special features.
Although many people considered John Ford over-the-hill in 1956, and this film was not taken seriously for Oscar consideration, it is now considered a work of lasting genius. IMDb members rate it in the top 150 films ever made, many consider it better than Ford's 1939 "Stagecoach", and no less an authority than Steven Spielberg claims it is the single best movie he has ever seen.

 (Orson Welles also claimed that Ford was the supreme director.) 


The plot: John Wayne leads a party of men who try to recapture The Duke's niece from the Comanches. Jeffrey Hunter plays the girl's stepbrother, and was the film's minimal excuse for a romantic heartthrob.

I don't know if the film is as great as so many people have claimed. 

  • Acting styles were a bit less natural in those days, and you sometimes think they're acting in Oklahoma! instead of a serious movie. Hunter, especially, is not likely to stir any memories of Lord Olivier. 
  • The character's actions don't always seem to make sense. For example: Natalie Wood refused to go with Martin the first time he found her, then went willingly the second time, without hesitation. Furthermore, there was nothing in the development of the story that predicted The Duke would sweep Natalie in his arms rather than shoot her. I guess we can attribute those inconsistencies to growth in the characters, but there's really nothing in the script to explain that, and the actions seem to come out of left field when they happen. 
  • Plus there are some pretty silly areas of historical inaccuracy, like a 48 star flag flying in the 1870's. In the accents, the costumes, the villages and cabins, the film is more interested in its own myth that in what it was really like.
  • Finally, you might be embarrassed by the insensitive portrayal of various ethnics, ranging from Swedes to the actual Comanches. 

So I don't think you'll watch the movie and be totally blown away. But, damn, what visuals! The images will make you forget everything else. If you love cinematography, this is your Western. It is "Lawrence of America". Wayne and Hunter chase those renegade Comanches for five years, through Monument Valley, and through some blizzards in open plains. The shots are spectacular, from the fight scenes, to the buffalo stampede, to the long shots of the valley, to the famous doorway framing shots that begin and end the film.

These pictures (thumbnails leading to somewhat larger captures) demonstrate the beauty of the widescreen version much better than I could.


DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1. Excellent transfer. Also a full screen version.

  • the most memorable features are two six minute featurettes on the making of the film

One of the best stunts ever captured on film? A horse and a man roll down a the dune together. One tiny slip, and the man might have been crushed.

I like the movie, but most people seem to like it more than I do. 

I don't think you can rate this movie with Stagecoach or with Clint Eastwood's two great Westerns (The Outlaw Josie Wales and Unforgiven), but it may have the single most spectacular visuals of any Western, and it has a complex morality that is far more sophisticated than the black-and-white simplicity of most 1950's movies.

The IMDB voters rank the Westerns as follows:

  1. The Good the Bad and the Ugly
  2. Once Upon a Time in the West
  3. Red River
  4. The Ox-Bow Incident
  5. The Searchers
  6. High Noon
  7. The Wild Bunch
  8. Stagecoach 
  9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
  11. Unforgiven

My own top 15 personal list would probably include those if I had seen them all (I can't include Red River, because I don't think I've seen it), plus The Outlaw Josey Wales, Destry Rides Again, Lonely are the Brave, and Blazing Saddles. If I did the list, The Outlaw Josie Wales would be very close to the top, if not at the top.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 8.3, among the top #150 of all time.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B.

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