The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers is a film that needed to figure out what type of tone it wanted to strive for and then do that. Instead, it bounces back and forth between being a serious drama and a comedy far too frequently, meaning it’s often hard to tell what reaction you’re supposed to have to a scene. The overacting didn’t help either, often making some of these more serious scenes comedic. The result isn’t a bad film, but an inconsistent one.

We open with war veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) coming home to the house of his brother (Walter Coy). Their relationship is rocky, although Ethan decides to pay rent, help out around the house, and does a good job of not being a burden. He even goes out hunting for some Native Americans who possibly slaughtered a heard of cattle from a neighbor. Unfortunately, this proves to be a poor decision, as he returns home to find his family all either killed or captured. His nieces, Debbie (Lana Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott) have been taken prisoner, while everyone else is dead. Oh, and the house is burned down too, just in case you didn’t know that the Natives mean business.

It takes a long time to get to this part, though, and I was actually kind of bored during the scenes before the main plot kicks off. I knew nothing about the story going in, but when all we’re doing is sitting around, watching a family eating dinner, and there’s absolutely nothing of importance happening, something has gone wrong. Granted, once the plot kicks off, it’s pretty good, but it just takes a long time to get to that point.

You figure this is going to be a somber film. After all, we just had the slaughter of a half-dozen people. For most of the film, we spend time with Ethan and his adoptive nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), in their search for the two girls. We end up spending several years with them, often times with winter coming in one scene and disappearing in the next. I believe they said five years pass from the beginning to end, although it could have been much longer, because there’s nothing really holding anyone to that time frame.

Eventually, they get a lead. A Native named Scar (Henry Brandon) was reportedly seen with a white girl held captive. However, because we have no genuine sense of time, we’re unsure of how long ago this could have been. The two men spend a long time seeking out this Scar fellow, and I would have sworn several years pass between learning of him and actually finding him. It seemed to me like it would be impossible to use a tip that was several years old, but I guess if you can get a slight update, you’ll be fine doing so.

I mentioned earlier that the tone of the film is inconsistent. That’s putting it lightly, especially as the film progresses. Near the end, when things are looking especially dark, there are at least three scenes which seem especially contradictory to the tone of the film up to that point. It’s not like they’re all in sequence either; The Searchers goes back and forth between being a serious affair and a joke at this point.

I was unsure of what director John Ford wanted me to think. Was I supposed to be laughing at the story of a couple of dudes trying to find the last remaining member of their family? If not, The Searchers has an odd way of telling me that. And if I was, then why is the rest of the film not at all comedic, save for the far too exaggerated performances by some of the supporting cast. Even John Wayne gets in on the ham acting at one point, although that’s just for that one scene. After that, he returns to being Mr. Serious Man.

Now, humor doesn’t necessarily take away from a grave film. There are plenty of both serious and humorous films out there, but they generally don’t play to their comedic side. What I mean is that the film will have humor, but it won’t focus on that element for any specific scene. It’s an addition to the main attraction, not the focus. The Searchers doesn’t play that way. It has scenes specifically dedicated to making you laugh, while having others (the majority of the film) where there isn’t a smile to be had.

Like I said in the opening, this doesn’t make the film bad. I still had a good time while watching it, and most of the individual elements work, even if they’re trodden upon by its inconsistent tone. The story, once it gets going, is captivating. I liked watching the determination, even if the way they went about their search didn’t always make much sense. But, then again, this is set in the 1800’s, so who am I to say what makes sense?

There are a couple of shootouts (this is a Western, after all), and they function well enough, although they’re nothing special. They mostly just feature Native Americans shooting against cowboys. Fans of Westerns will not be surprised, shocked or probably even entertained by anything that happens during these scenes. I’m not even a big fan, and I wasn’t all that thrilled. But they work and involve some death and stuff, and that’s always fun, right?

I enjoyed The Searchers, but for something that has been named on several “Best of All Time” lists, I was disappointed. No, my expectations were not exceedingly high or anything like that. I just felt like the acting and inconsistency in the tone of the film kept it from being great. Nothing special is here, even if it’s a well-made film that’s also quite entertaining — once the story kicks off, anyway. Fans of Westerns won’t be disappointed by the film as a whole, and, like I said, I had fun with The Searchers.

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