Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers

Note: This is #33 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, hello John Wayne. Nice to see you here in your cowboy hat. I’ve heard a lot about you. Care to swagger around and punch somebody out after delivering some pithy one-liner?

No? Well, in fact The Searchers is a lot more serious and epic for a western than I might have expected. It tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a retired Civil War soldier who moves in with his brother and his family. When a raid by Comanche warriors leaves most of that family dead and two of Ethan’s nieces abducted, he joins a search party along with his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and a posse of local law enforcement types. Thus begins an epic story that spans the years-long search for one surviving niece, Debbie.

What I liked about The Searchers was how it dealt with many mature themes inhabiting many shades of gray. Ethan Edwards is not a typical white hat hero like in Shane. Indeed, right from the offset you get the impression that he’s not particularly intent on retrieving his abducted niece alive, and would be fine with her being killed as long as it meant an end to her captivity by the Comanches. This forms the central source of dramatic tension between Ethan and Debbie’s brother, Martin, and it culminates in a genuinely tense scene at the end of the movie.

The movie also deals directly and honestly with the issue of racism between the white settlers and the Comanches, but what’s doubly interesting is that it looks at the issue from the side of the Native American characters as well. They’re clearly villainous (what with all the murder, rape, and kidnapping), but it’s also made clear that they have compelling reasons for hating their White enemies. It’s also somewhat startling here in 2009 to see the movie’s supposed hero be so overtly racist against the Comanches –almost as startling as it was to be confronted with the root causes of that hatred.

So, the whole movie is thoughtfully done and presents you with several interesting moral quandaries, and it doesn’t hurt that at one level it’s also an exciting adventure story full of action and drama.

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