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The Searchers (1956)

by on 2011/06/20

“Right now we’re too many and not enough.”

* * *

Allow me to do what The Searchers does not: get right down to the brass tacks. I didn’t particularly enjoy this movie. I found it to be little more than an empty vehicle built on director John Ford’s visual craft.

In 1868 Texas, retired soldier Ethan Edwards (They Were Expendable’s John Wayne) arrives at his family’s home. Shortly after, he fails to protect them from a sudden Comanche attack. All are killed except two young girls. With the help of part-Cherokee orphan Martin Pawley (Star Trek’s pre-Shatner captain, Jeffrey Hunter), Edwards hunts them down. The quest takes five years — and it feels nearly as long — over varied terrain, far and wide.

The tale seems less to race through time than play a game of hopscotch with it. The action is decent, if barely enough, but the dialogue . . . wow, does it sting. Decorated with lingo, slang, speechifying, and an ever-misfiring humour, the script came across as less about a process of “searching” than “competitive showboating trials”.

The original posse of seven men is packed with a cast of over-actors. I wondered what kind of emotional disorders the actors were suffering. Screaming obvious plot points back and forth at each other, the players get caught in either of two modes: read-aloud robotic and/or trying-too-hard shrill.

On top of their delivery, the characters themselves are cursed with odd eccentricities. The general sense of faux heartiness unravels itself in an instant. Idiot savant Mose Harper (Hank Worden) is possessed of a lunatic passive aggression. Daughter Lucy (Pippa Scott) shrieks at the thought of a raid. At least ‘til her mother Martha (Dorothy Jordan) strikes her into submission. And Ethan strikes his adopted nephew as well, perhaps to fit in, or for luck.

Or perhaps he’s simply a violent prick. Wayne’s lead character is too unpleasant and corrupt to be a hero, too tragically uncool to be an anti-hero, and too reactive to be a protagonist. What is he then? He’s the Duke, the same we’ve seen in so many other roles, here the very worst version of that persona. Gone is the refreshing talent of Stagecoach, replaced with someone pathetic, a braying, selfish, and cruel has-been bully. The extent of his nuance is largely confined to the way he says “That’ll be the day” . . . over and over and over again.

By halfway through I was already “done”. I didn’t care about the characters, their relationships, or who the daughters’ fathers were. I wasn’t interested in whether the rescue attempt succeeded or not anymore.

Nonetheless, The Searchers is considered by many to be among the greatest of films, not just westerns. This viewing was — if memory serves — my fourth, and the least pleasant yet. What am I missing? The story, pacing, script, and acting nearly obliterated all hope. The editing and music didn’t impress. Certainly, it looks very good but, I’m sorry, its looks aren’t enough on their own.

* * *

Rated G

119 minutes

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