The gorgeous vistas and wide-open spaces of Monument Valley have never stood in greater contrast to John Ford’s dark story of a Confederate veteran (John Wayne) on a quest to find his niece, kidnapped by Comanches, in this restored version of “The Searchers,” part of a box set devoted to the frequent collaborators. Warner has again given one of its classics the Cadillac treatment, returning the film to its Vista Vision wonder and fully deconstructing it. Without cliche or pretension, a parade of filmmakers make the case why this Western in particular has reached such exalted status.
When it opened in the aftermath of the McCarthy era in 1956, some critics missed the point. Variety gave it a lackluster review, and the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote about the pic as if he had just watched a hoedown. In the generations to come, Wayne’s mythic status often obscured what is one of his most complex roles, that of Ethan Edwards, a man who is at once heroic, ruthless and racist in his obsessive search for niece Debbie.
“He is not a villain, but at times he is despicable,” Martin Scorsese says in one of the new docs. “And yet you love him when he says, ‘Let’s go home Debbie.’ What is that all about?”
But as unconventional as Ford was for the time, this was not a revisionist saga. The Comanches are just as brutal as the white men. As Peter Bogdanovich points out in his commentary, Scar, the leader of the warring Comanches, was played by a white actor. “It was just the way it was done in that period.” He further explains how the story benefited from Ford’s judicious use of closeups, an “economical” style lost on many helmers today. Ford even looked back at the pic and was self critical for using a soundtrack in some parts. “I mean, you got a guy alone in the desert and the Denver Philharmonic is playing,” he once told Bogdanovich.
While some comments on other docs amount to platitudes (“John Ford was a piece of the West”), it’s more than balanced by vintage making-of docs from the 1950s Warner Bros. series “Behind the Cameras,” as well as reproductions of publicity materials and even a comicbook. Even the studio wasn’t sure how different “The Searchers” was. It is sentimental and unapologetic, nuanced enough to withstand the great changes in the genre that would come.
Also in the $79.92 “John-Wayne-John Ford Collection”: A remastered collector’s edition of “Stagecoach,” DVD bows of “Fort Apache,” “The Long Voyage Home” and “Wings of Eagles,” plus “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “They Were Expendable” and “3 Godfathers.”