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A Film Diary

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Watched: 25 September

I last watched John Ford’s best-known western just over 20 years ago, when I was still at university, and had forgotten much about it except for the basic premise: Civil War veteran John Wayne swaggers back to his family after a stint in Mexico before Comanche warriors kill his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, and abduct his two nieces, leading him into a long pursuit through Texas and New Mexico. It’s a grand, sweeping Technicolor epic that tries hard to explore the attitudes of white settlors in the west towards Native Americans, and the way he depicts the brutalities carried out by both sides is a surprise now, so one can only imagine what audiences in the 1950s – generally unused to seeing such things on screen, especially when carried out by a white protagonist – will have made of it all. Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a complicated figure; ostensibly the macho hero of the piece, but also an unlikeable man who is really out for revenge, and who probably cares less about the rescue mission at hand, as we see in his general ambivalence during the later scenes. (Indeed it’s a shame that Scar, the Native American protagonist played by German-American Henry Brandon, is not given anywhere near the same balance of light and shade as a character.)

I’ve not seen enough of Wayne’s performances to say for sure whether this is his best work, but it must surely be in the reckoning. However the heart of the film comes from Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley, Ethan’s adopted nephew and a man who serves as the bridge between the white settlors in the area and the Comanche; Hunter is excellent throughout, though while The Searchers contains standout performances by these two actors, I’m less sure about Natalie Wood’s turn as the older abductee Debbie Edwards. It’s a gripping western that was shot superbly by Ford regular Winton C. Hoch (honestly, there are so many incredible shots I just don’t know where to begin), and its influence both visually and in terms of specific scenes over some of the greatest directors to have plied their trade during the past 60 years or so is clear enough, if you’re bothered about such things. As a western that asks questions of its characters while withholding easy answers, it’s second to none. (*****)

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