Directed by John Ford
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989
I first watched it in March 2016
What It’s About:
After his brother’s family is murdered by a group of Comanche raiders, Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne), spends several years trying to find his niece, who was abducted by the raiders.
My experience with the film:
As I briefly mentioned in my Deer Hunter entry, I only took one formal film class in college. I took it during my final semester as a senior, partially because I needed an extra class to be enrolled full-time that semester, but mostly because I loved movies, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t take at least one film class before my undergrad career was over. Each week in that class, we were required to watch a different film and to write a brief analysis of a specific aspect of it (e.g., writing, acting, directing, production design, etc.) For the week that we were assigned The Searchers, we were also supposed to analyze its cinematography. For anyone who might be exceptionally interested, you can find a copy of the analysis paper that I wrote here, but I should confess that it was mostly B.S. analysis on my part, that I wrote mostly just to get the grade. (I ended up getting a B+ in the class, though I’ll admit that since it was my final semester, and even though I enjoyed the class, I didn’t exactly consider the assignments to be my highest priority.)
While we’re on the topic of confessionals, I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that for that class, we were technically supposed to watch each film on campus, during one of the scheduled public showings of the film. However, I only made it a few weeks into the semester before I decided to rebel and watch the films at home (using my trusty DVD Netflix subscription). This wasn’t so much an act of defiance as it was a choice made for practical reasons. The public showings took place in large lecture halls with mediocre sound systems, which often made it hard for me to hear and understand portions of the film. It was also hard to take notes in the darkened environment (since I couldn’t really see my pen/paper, and since electronic note taking was forbidden.) Being able to watch the films at home, with subtitles (which I use on almost every film), and the ability to pause/rewind if necessary was worth the occasional pang of guilt I felt for not watching the movies that way I was “supposed” to.
Strangely, I think my overall feelings about each of the films that I watched in that class ranged from “it was all right” to “I didn’t like it” (with the exception of “The General”, which I thoroughly enjoyed). But despite my less-than-enthusiastic feelings about the films and the assignments, I actually loved attending and learning the material in the class. I already had a love of movies (hence why I took the class, as I mentioned), but I feel that the class helped to strongly cultivate that love. I came out of that class with a desire to branch out and start exposing myself to films that I wouldn’t normally watch. Again, as mentioned in the Deer Hunter entry, it inspired me to make a goal to watch all of the Best Picture winning films, a goal that would also later inspire me to start this current massive project of watching all of the NFR films. I honestly don’t think that I would be the film lover that I am today had I not taken that class.
I suppose I should briefly get around to mentioning my thoughts on The Searchers. I didn’t record my specific thoughts about the film after my initial viewing, but I seem to remember that my feelings for it were along the lines of “it was all right, I guess” (and maybe even skewing slightly negative.) With that in mind, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about revisiting it in order to write this entry. Surprisingly, I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit with this viewing. Ironically enough, despite my B.S. attempt at analyzing the cinematography five years ago, I was actually quite impressed with the cinematography this time around. The scenery/location shots are absolutely gorgeous, and they quickly reminded me of films like Lawrence of Arabia (I was pleased with myself for making that connection when I learned during my background research that The Searchers was indeed a large influence on that film.) Another influence that I (correctly) picked up on was the parallel between the scene when Ethan finds his brother’s home on fire and his family dead, and the scene in the original Star Wars film when Luke Skywalker finds his home on fire and his aunt and uncle dead. Beyond the technical filmmaking aspects though, I also quite enjoyed the playful relationship between Marty and Laurie, and the humor that it brought to the film (especially during the wedding fight scene that helped to calm things down before the climax of the film).
Of course, as with most movies that are above a certain age, there are some aspects that don’t sit well with a modern audience. Much has been said about the racist overtones at the heart of the film. However, many have also defended the film saying that much of that material wasn’t meant to condone racist ideologies, rather to display them, and indicate that those feelings were common at the time that this film took place. Some argue that this interpretation is supported by the way that Ethan’s racism is portrayed in the film: the idea that he (and even other protagonists like Laurie) believe that it would be better to kill Debbie than to rescue her is not meant to be sympathized with, and is rather shown to be horrific in the eyes of Marty, who some could argue is the true protagonist of the film. (For more on this discussion, see the several resources that I’ve linked below.)
Regardless, despite its flaws, The Searchers is still considered to be one of the most influential Westerns, and one of the most influential films of all time, with several popular modern filmmakers listing it as one of their favorite films. I’m not sure why I was really down on it during my first viewing five years ago, but this time around, I can definitely say that I saw what all the hype was about.
The Searchers (1956) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/the-searchers
To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:
- The Blu-ray that I received from DVD Netflix included several behind-the-scenes features, including some vintage TV-program excerpts aired prior to the release of the film, and an audio commentary. (It appears to be this edition of the Blu-ray.) These features, aside from the commentary, are also available on Movies Anywhere.
- The official NFR essay about the film: https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-film-preservation-board/documents/The-Searchers.pdf
- The original 1956 review from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1956/05/31/archives/screen-the-searchers-find-action-entertaining-western-opens-at.html
- The original 1956 review from The Hollywood Reporter: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/searchers-review-1956-movie-1092848
- A nuanced 2001 review from Roger Ebert, that discusses aspects such as The Searchers’ influence on future films, as well as its racist elements: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-searchers-1956
- A podcast that takes a deep dive on The Searchers, and includes an interview with a Native American film professor: https://www.earwolf.com/episode/the-searchers/
- The Wikipedia page for The Searchers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Searchers
For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory.