'The Searchers': THR's 1956 Review

John Wayne in 1956's 'The Searchers'
Undoubtedly one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

On March 13, 1956, reviews for director John Ford's 110-minute Western epic, The Searchers, began arriving from industry press. The Hollywood Reporter's original take on Warner Bros.' John Wayne starrer, headlined "Searchers Great Picture," is below.

This C.V. Whitney production is undoubtedly one of the greatest Westerns ever made. For sheer scope, guts and beauty I can think of no picture of the Indian Wars of the Southwest to compare with it. In it John Wayne delivers a performance that tops his great performance in The High and the Mighty. Even in this age when beautiful photography has become commonplace, Winton Hoch’s Technicolor and VistaVision record of locations in Monument Valley, the New Mexican desert and the deep snows of Canadian buffalo country simply knock your eye out. The whole film looks as though it had sprung for the dramatic brush of Frederic Remington. It seems bound to be one of the top money-makers of the year.

The story tells of how two men, a hard bitten Confederate veteran (Wayne) and a semi-civilized half-breed (Jeffrey Hunter) engage in a five-year search that ranges all over the West for a girl who has been carried off by the Comanches. When I read Alan LeMay’s original novel, I was overwhelmed by its power and accuracy, but I did not think it would make a good movie, since I did not see how woman interest could be kept alive in it and I feared that a tale devoted to such dogged hardship and heroism would become monotonous. However the genius of John Ford’s direction coupled with an extremely able script by Frank Nugent have reroutined the original material so that these dangers are entirely overcome. The script is super realistic in that death never loses its horror and the Comanches are savages to chill the blood. Ford has retained every subject in the original work, but he has expanded every comic possibility into sequences that are hilariously funny and Nugent has found ways of routining the plot so that the romantic element is always present. As a result The Searchers not only is great drama but great entertainment.

Fine Story Technique

The screenplay wastes little time in exposition. When tough and taciturn Wayne comes riding home to Texas in a Confederate coat and Yankee breeches, with a Maximilian medal and a fortune in gold double eagles in his saddle bags, three years after Lee’s surrender, he tells his folks and the audience nothing. His attitude shows, though he never puts it in words, that he is carrying a torch for his sister-in-law (Dorothy Jordan) and that he has little use for a half-breed Cherokee (Hunter) who has been adopted by the family.

A captain of Rangers who is also a preacher (Ward Bond, giving the finest performance of his career) raises a posse to go after the rustlers. Wayne insists that his brother (Walter Coy) stay home to guard his family. Time proves that the posse isn’t trailing rustlers, but Comanches who have decoyed the men away for the purpose of wiping out the settlement.

The script now cuts back to a beautifully underplayed scene where Coy, Miss Jordan, and their two daughters (Lana Wood and Pippa Scott) try to go on as if nothing had happened as a horrible fate closes in on them. The script, with fine economy and good taste, spares the audience the butchery of the raid. Mother and father are killed, but the two daughters are taken prisoner. Hunter, in his grief, reverts almost to pure Indian, which makes Wayne hate him the more. Indian wise and relentless, Wayne has by now become a vengeance seeking machine. With them goes Harry Carey Jr., who gives a fine performance as the son of a Swedish farmer. He is in love with Pippa and throws his life away when he learns the Indians have murdered her.

Vera Miles Excellent

John Qualen as the “squarehead” Swedish farmer who (even though he can’t read) puts his spectacles on whenever a letter arrives and Olive Carey, as the former school teacher who is his wife, both do fine work. In telling a story that ranges all over the West, Ford and Nugent show fine dramatic craftsmanship in using their ranch as a base of operations that keeps the audience expertly oriented to a story that wanders all over the plains. Here the searchers return after Wayne, with humorous callousness, has used Hunter to bait an ambush for a murderous trader and after seeing the demented condition of white women rescued from savages, he has wantonly slaughtered buffalo in order to starve Indians. Vera Miles, as the daughter of the Swedish couple, is delightful in an offbeat characterization. Impatient at his embarrassment, she proposes to the half-breed while he is taking a bath. And she is so furious when he insists on going on with the search instead of marrying her that she lends an ear to the wooing of Ken Curtis, one of the funniest, drawling, ballad singing Texans ever put on screen.

Ford shows a keen awareness of audience preferences as well as Western realism. While his men often look quite literally lousy, his women, in a wide concession to the box office, appear in fresh aprons and crisp clean petticoats. To keep feminine interest alive, he tells some of the adventures in flash backs as Vera reads a letter from Hunter describing, with rich frontier humor, how he unwittingly married a fat squaw and how Wayne wanted to kill the girl they were searching for (now played with moving pathos by Natalie Wood) because he thought any white woman who had grown up in a Comanche’s tepee was better off dead. By cutting back to Miss Miles during the relation of these episodes, Ford greatly increases both the humor and the horror of these situations by playing them off the reactions of civilized observer.

A Message Without Propaganda

The wanderers eventually come home on the night Vera is to be married to Curtis and there is a hilarious fight (filled with wonderful Jack Ford sight gags) between the bridegroom and Hunter. Then a wonderful wet-smack Army shave-tail (played with perfect deadpan comedy by Wayne’s son, Pat) arrives with the news that the Comanches are again in the neighborhood and everybody piles out to fight them.

The preachments that make so many Westerns sound phony are totally absent from this one. Yet, by letting events speak for themselves, it manages to be both accurate and fair. The sight of the Indians trying to save their children from the avenging white men tugs at the heart. And we learn that the Chief (handsomely played by Henry Brandon) has lost two sons in the wars with the palefaces who have taken their hunting grounds. Wayne’s determined efforts to murder the white girl he set out to save and Hunter’s determination to prevent this bring the picture to a rousing climax.

In the supporting cast, Antonio Moreno does good work as the proprietor of a cantina and Hank Worden stands out as a half-wit scout who is sane enough when it comes to Indian fighting. Wayne and Hunter both are great at preserving the quarrelsome affection of tough men forced to spend too much time in each other’s company. Jack Murray’s editing is something special as is the art direction of Frank Hotaling and James Basevi. Max Steiner’s score, utilizing such folk themes as “Gary Owen,” has both the intimacy and magnitude demanded by the production. The whole effort is one of the major achievements in the career of Merian C. Cooper. — Jack Moffitt, originally published on March 13, 1956

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