Ranking: #26/111

Director: John Ford (USA)

Genre: Western

The Searchers, beautifully filmed in VistaVision and Technicolor, is my choice for the greatest Western movie of all. It was a unique time in cinema history, when John Ford was still at the peak of his artistic powers and Westerns, too, were at their peak as a genre. The Oxford History of World Cinema has stated that: “The 1950s was the Western’s greatest decade” (Nowell-Smith, G (ed), 1997. The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 291). At this time, however, Hollywood was competing fiercely with television as a new mass medium, and was investing heavily in new technologies like colour and widescreen ratios. A lot was riding on the success of The Searchers. For example, in film history, it’s been argued that the Western was a critical element in America’s rise to global domination in the movie industry. How could a Western on the Big Screen continue to compete with a Western television series or with other offerings on the small screen people could sit and watch in the comfort of their own homes?

In The Searchers, John Ford and John Wayne didn’t let Hollywood or cinema itself down. Instead, they created a gripping masterpiece of American culture. But the result was not a stereotypical Western, for the movie is both searing and soul-searching. In the quest to make a stirring work of art, Ford went to the core of the genre, re-examining it in a bold revisionist work. The Oxford History of World Cinema stated that the milestone movie offered, “a profound and troubling examination of the psychopathology of the ‘Indian fighter’, a pivotal figure in the myth of the West whose origins go back to the beginnings of Western narrative in the eighteenth century.” (Nowell-Smith, G (ed), 1997. The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 291) John Wayne, seeming to carry the weight of this challenging time for cinema on his big shoulders, turned in an immense, extraordinary performance as Ethan Edwards.

The time is 1868, and the place is West Texas. Ford’s epic Western takes place during the Texas-Native American wars. Ethan is an ex-Confederate soldier who seems to embody the spirit of the rugged American frontier. In the opening sequence, the front door of a homestead opens out to the vast landscape from whence Ethan emerges. He is brother to the owner of the home, Aaron, and is returning home after an eight-year absence during which he was fighting in these wars. He possesses a bunch of gold coins and a medal from a campaign. He gives the latter to his eight-year-old niece, Debbie.

But this is no peace to which he has returned. Shortly afterwards, his neighbour, Lars Jorgensen, loses cattle in a raid. Rev. Captain Samuel Clayton leads some Texas Rangers and Ethan on an expedition to recover the stolen cattle. What they don’t realise is that the raid was a ploy by the Comanches to draw the men away so that they could attack the Edwards’ homestead. The blood-red sky seems to glow with foreboding before the Indian forces attack. By the time the men get back, the home is already burning to the ground. Aaron, as well as his wife and son, have been killed, while Debbie and her older sister Lucy have been abducted.

A funeral is held after which the search begins. It becomes a five-year odyssey through a primordial, prehistoric-looking landscape. Eventually, it is only Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin, a “half-breed”, left in the pursuit. Through the austere land they journey, month after month, season after season, year after year, blizzard after blizzard, drought after drought.

When Lucy is found dead in a canyon, she’s wrapped up in a coat and buried. But the two men must continue their search to find Debbie. They are the Searchers with a capital “S”.

After the gruelling search, I found Ethan’s final words, when his abducted niece is finally found, very moving: “Let’s go home, Debbie”. That says it all, doesn’t it?

French film critic, André Bazin, writing in the 1950s, believed that cinema, in order to compete with television and its live broadcasts, had to expand its screen size with CinemaScope and had to “deliver spectacle” (Bazin, A, 2014. Andre Bazin’s New Media. Oakland: University of California Press, p.271). He’d also pointed out that cinema was a concrete art, compared to more abstract arts, like music and literature. John Ford in The Searchers delivered a definitive statement about the nature not just of Westerns but of cinema itself. He delivered something spectacular and deeply special, thus cementing his place in film history.

In 1989, The Searchers was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.