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A view from the Blu (-ray) on DVDBeaver by Leonard Norwitz

The Searchers BRD

(John Ford - 1956)

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio: Warner Bros. (USA)

 

Video:

Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Feature film: 1080p / VC-1

119 minutes

Supplements: 480i or 480p

1 disc: BD-50 dual-layer

 

Audio:

English DD 1.0

French 1.0

Spanish 1.0

 

Subtitles:

English, French, Spanish

 

Extras

• Commentary by John Ford biographer, Peter Bogdanovich

• Introduction by Patrick Wayne

• Documentary: A Turning Point of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne & The Searchers

• Featurette: The Searchers: An Appreciation

• Vintage Segments from the Warner Bros. Presents TV Series

• Theatrical Trailer

 

44 chapters

Standard Blu-ray case.

Release Date: October 31, 2006

 

The Searchers

I confess that I have never been one of the many who place The Searchers at or very near the top of the list of greatest westerns.  John Ford's gorgeously photographed classic certainly has great locations, in color no less, going for it.  And it has perhaps the grimmest performance ever by John Wayne.  His Ethan Edwards is certainly a man difficult to like, though we can only sit in awe at his determination.  Issues of the white man's rape of the red man aside, we can sympathize with Ethan's blatant racism that motivates his hatred of the Comanches who killed his family and kidnapped his nieces. 

 

The difficulty for me is that he goes one step further – a step that must have made audiences squirm nervously fifty years ago – it is Ethan's obsession to kill the girl who he believes must have become "soiled" by intimate association with her captors.  His intention is dramatized by the many confrontations he has with his companion on his five year search, Martin Pawley (played with a young man's na´ve passion by Jeffrey Hunter.)  Martin feels that Debbie is innocent, regardless of her contact with the Indian.  But Ethan has to obliterate her, not least, in part, because of his own guilt for the deaths of her parents and her own capture.

 

Even after he recognizes Debbie in Scar's tent, Ethan's resolve does not waver; nor later in the knock-down, drag-out fight he has with Martin.  And then, the moment of truth comes.  Ethan sweeps Debbie into his arms and says, "Let's go home, Debbie."  I'm going to go way out on a limb here to suggest that many of us may be misinterpreting our reaction to this scene. We choke back a sigh of relief.  We are grateful that Frank Nugent (the screenwriter) and Ford do not permit Ethan to kill Debbie - or Martin, for that matter.  And, perhaps, we never believed that Ethan would go through with his vow.  But this was and is wishful thinking.  Ethan never once wavered.  He wasn't trying to fool us, or himself.  At the decisive moment, he simply couldn't go through with it.  Not a single trace of second thought until he sweeps her up.  The shot of Ethan and Debbie at that moment is from Ethan's back, which has always bothered me, as if Ford couldn't find a way to show us how Ethan changes, only that he does.  Ethan does call her name as he's chasing her down, without the meanness he has showed up to then, but it's buried in the music soundtrack. Taken by itself, it is a stirring moment, but for me it does not follow from that which comes before, nor does it redeem the hateful racism and desire to take it out on Debbie.

 

The entire romance, or lack of it, between Martin and Laurie follows on this relentless pursuit with equal concern, or the lack of it, for narrative integrity.  I'm all for comic relief, but it shouldn't compete with the main story, especially one as powerful as this one.  Delete everything that has to do with the interloper, Charlie McCorry, and his pursuit of Laurie, and the movie becomes that much more compelling.

 

My criticisms notwithstanding, The Searchers is still one powerful movie.  Part of its power comes from its subtlety, like the way Ethan looks after his sister-in-law when she leaves the room – we can tell he was once in love with her.  Wayne is awesome – even frightening at times.  Hunter has his hands full keeping up with him, but that is what gives the story its energy and where most of its true pathos lies.  The supporting players (Ward Bond, Vera Miles, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Carey, Jr – her son, by the way - and Henry Brandon as Scar) do just that, and do it well (Ken Curtis as Charlie excepted, through no fault of the actor.)  Eighteen year old Natalie Wood, as the older Debbie, is so breathtaking it's hard to be critical of her iconic performance – I'm not sure if that says more about me, Ford or Natalie – but there it is.

 

 

The Movie : 9

Ethan Edwards is a man with a questionable past - as Ward Bond's character (Reverend Clayton, the leader of the posse) says to him, "Ain't seen you since the [Confederate] surrender.  Come to think of it, I didn't see you at the surrender." And later, "You answer a lot of descriptions." Ethan has returned after some years to visit what remains of his family: his brother & wife and their three children.  News of a possible Indian raid reaches him there and Ethan joins a small posse of ranchers to reconnoiter.  When signs that their own ranches are in peril, the group separates to rush to protect their homes.  Ethan finds his family dead except for young Debbie (played by Natalie's 10 year old sister, Lana) and her older sister, Lucy, who appear to have been kidnapped, presumably to be raised as members of the tribe or to be disposed of when they have outlived their usefulness.  Ethan and Martin, who sees the Edwards as his adoptive parents and family, pursue, only to find Lucy in a heart-rending scene - terrifying as much for what isn't revealed, as what is.

 

Image : 9  NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.

Taken from the same high definition source that was used in Warner's excellent 2006 "Ultimate Collection" this Blu-ray has all that transfer's virtues as well as its limitations.  In some scenes, the contrast suffers as the color is washed out, as in many of the outdoor scenes under the Monument Valley sun.  In others, contrast comes close to being unnaturally high, as when the family first sees Ethan approaching from desert from their porch, and again in some of the interior shots.  I am often struck by how surprised observers and critics are that a movie this old could look so good.  For movies made after 1937 (with another bump after 1954) - after which improvements in film stock for both color and black & white turned a sharp corner - it's not age, but the vagaries of storage that is most telling.  You can find an informative discussion of the history of color film for the cinema HERE:   So, whether by luck or restoration, the image for this Blu-ray edition of The Searchers is, for the great majority of its 119 minutes, credits included, sharp, properly registered, with contrast, color saturation and golden hue appropriate to the scene and the apparent intent of the director and photographer.  We can rest assured that this is likely to be the closest to the original we shall see for a long time to come.

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music : 7/9

An interesting difference from the "Ultimate Collector's Edition" is that the audio track on the BD is the original mono, not the enhanced 2.0 stereo, and all the better for it, not just for the purist angle, but for the extra clarity that an simulated audio track often presents.

Empathy : 9

A gorgeous print, for the most part, and a clear soundtrack, appropriately mono, a suspenseful story with a smart script that doesn't hesitate to place both the main protagonists in a questionable light keeps us involved to the last page.

 

Operations : 7

Loading and menu functions are straightforward and uninteresting; the chapters are indicated by large, non-expanding, untitled thumbnails.

Extras : 9

This Blu-ray edition of The Searchers contains all but one of the Special Features included in the "Ultimate Collector's Edition" DVD (Behind the Cameras: Meet Jeffrey Hunter, Monument Valley, Meet Natalie Wood, Setting Up Production).  Nor does it contain any of the cool reproductions of the 1956 Dell comic book, the 1956 Warner Bros. Press book, or filmmaker memos & correspondence, nor the 10 postcards with behind-the-scenes photos.

 

 

Recommendation : 9

Keep your Ultimate Collector's Edition if you have one, and buy the Blu-ray in addition.  Highly recommended for all the reasons above – and one more: As of this writing, now over a year since the introduction of Blu-ray, this remains the only classic movie offered by any studio, a fact which borders on irresponsible.  I cannot fathom the political intrigues that must account for why Warner, who support both BD and HD, have chosen to produce Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood in HD only, as well as The Searchers (in both formats).

Leonard Norwitz
LensViews
July 20th, 2007

 

 

 

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About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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