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John Ford
John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon
Writing Credits:
Alan Le May (novel), Frank S. Nugent

The story that sweeps from the great Southwest to the Canadian border in VistaVision!

An embittered frontiersman engages in an extensive and obsessive search for his niece, abducted years ago by Indians who killed her family in retaliation for a massacre in their village.

Box Office:
$3.750 million.

Rated NR

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural
Spanish Monaural
French Monaural

Runtime: 119 min.
Price: $24.98
Release Date: 10/30/1997

• Production Notes
• Theatrical Trailers
• Documentary Shorts


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Searchers (1956)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 14, 2006)

Through my experiences as a DVD reviewer, I've taken in more Westerns over the last six years or so than I did during the prior 32 years of my life. I never cared for the genre, but these screenings have broadened my horizons to recognize some of its strengths. I've seen a couple of great movies (Stagecoach), some pretty good ones (Silverado), a smattering of fairly ordinary flicks (The Man From Laramie), and a few clunkers (True Grit). Although these viewings haven't made me a fan of the form, I've at least developed a minor appreciation for them.

As such, I thought I should take in one of the more highly-regarded entries in the genre, 1956's The Searchers. I'd heard quite a few positive comments about the movie, and since it reunited John Wayne and director John Ford - who worked so wonderfully together in Stagecoach - I figured it had a lot of potential.

Now that I've seen the film, I honestly don't understand the fuss. While the movie seemed mildly entertaining, I couldn't find anything to make it stand out from any of a number of other Westerns in the same era. The film appeared fairly predictable and mediocre for the most part.

The Searchers tells the tale of an Indian-hating Civil War veteran named Ethan (John Wayne) who returns to his extended family after the end of the conflict. Soon after his arrival, Comanches lure away the menfolk and attack the farm; they kill some of the inhabitants and kidnap others, which prompts Ethan and some of the rest to pursue them.

This becomes a virtual crusade for Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an adopted nephew who Ethan disavows because he has some Indian blood. The tale follows the two of them as they stalk the vicious Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon) who apparently maintains possession of the girls.

Such a tale of obsession and revenge should have been powerful stuff, but it feels vaguely bland and unsatisfying here. Much of that results from a genuinely poor performance from Hunter. Wayne was never any great acting talent, but he at least provides a strong presence and can hold his own within the limits of his abilities. Hunter, however, creates a wholly unsatisfying presence and he seems far too broad and emotive for the most part. He really hams it up throughout the story and makes any sense of tension or drama dissipate quickly. Hunter needs to be a more emotional and human contrast to the almost Terminator-esque presence of Ethan, but his bug-eyed over-delivery makes him seem unbelievable and weak.

Would The Searchers have functioned radically better with a better actor as Martin? Almost certainly, but I still don't know if I'd understand the appeal. More poor casting affects other roles, such as with Scar. The presence of a made-up white man with blue eyes does not add to the realism in the movie. I've heard comments that blue-eyed Indians existed, and I don't doubt that, but I don't think any of them looked quite so Caucasian. Although Brandon's acting doesn't hurt the film - he has little to do other than glower - the silliness of his appearance detracts from the story.

Ford makes the movie look pretty as we pass through some lovely vistas, but I felt little sense of urgency or desperation. The protagonists just seem to stumble along from year to year in their unwavering search for the girls, and not much of interest occurs. Although we do get some taste of the lives they've left behind to pursue their mission, these parts generally are played for laughs and didn't resonate with me.

I won't call The Searchers a bad movie, because it's not. However, I did think it was quite mediocre and it seemed disappointing considering the virtually unanimous raves the film receives. From what I saw, it came across as nothing more than just another decent Western.

The DVD Grades: Picture C-/ Audio C-/ Bonus D

The Searchers appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen side was rated for this review. The movie showed its age with this lackluster transfer.

Sharpness seemed inconsistent. On more than a few occasions, images looked oddly fuzzy and soft. These didn't dominate the proceedings, as the movie was mostly adequately defined, but it became ill-defined too much of the time. Though no jagged edges popped up, moiré effects were an occasional concern - mostly from some of the checked shirts we saw – and I noticed moderate edge enhancement.

As for print flaws, I saw black grit, white speckles, nicks, streaks and general debris. A fair amount of grain was also apparent. The transfer wasn’t tremendously dirty, but it suffered from more than a few distractions.

Colors occasionally looked somewhat pale and faded, but for the most part they were adequately accurate and well-saturated. The hues never seemed very bright or bold, but they presented the information in a fairly clear manner. Black levels appeared decently dark and deep, and shadow detail usually was appropriately heavy, but at times it could look overly thick. Most of those occasions occurred due to "day for night" photography, however, which often causes scenes to appear excessively dark. Ultimately, the picture of The Searchers offered an erratic experience.

The film's monaural soundtrack seemed sporadically problematic, though usually acceptable for its age. Dialogue appeared thin and a bit tinny but was intelligible and fairly clear, with only a few signs of edginess. Effects were similarly reedy but mostly accurate. Some distortion popped up at times, though, and the track occasionally became a bit rough. Music sounded somewhat bland but relatively smooth and listenable. The score also suffered from a few bouts of shrillness. Some background noise could be heard during the film but not to a terrible degree. Overall, the sound seemed fairly average for a movie of this vintage.

This DVD includes a few supplements but nothing special. The Cast and Crew Biographies present listings for five actors and four members of the production team. These vary in quality from pretty decent (Wayne) to very sketchy (screenwriter Frank S. Nugent). Two additional text sections show up as well. There's Location, which includes some details about Monument Valley, and All In the Family, a one-screen mention of some movie nepotism.

A couple of brief featurettes appear. These are called Behind the Cameras and ran during a mid-Fifties television show called Warner Brothers Presents. Each lasts about five and a half minutes and presents some details from the set of The Searchers. Neither of them are terribly fascinating, but they provide a fun look at TV promotional materials of the time.

Finally, the DVD includes the film's original theatrical trailer. Some people think that only modern ads give away too much of the story. Those folks need to see this promo, which reveals far more information than it should.

My opinion may fall in the minority, but I just wasn't impressed with The Searchers. I expect I'll get nasty e-mails since the film seems to maintain such a strong following but I have to go with what I felt, and I simply found nothing of any great interest or depth in this film. I didn't see any way that it differed from all of the ordinary Westerns of the same era. The DVD offers problematic picture and sound with little in the way of extras. Because of its reputation, I'd recommend The Searchers as a rental, but my own feelings about it and this DVD are far too lackluster to advise more than that.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5384 Stars Number of Votes: 39
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