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Wayne, ‘Searchers’ shine in two-disc release

Brian Doxtader | Friday, March 23, 2007

When “The Searchers” was released over 50 years ago, it was seen as just another John Ford western. Starring John Wayne and featuring the Southwest’s iconic Monument Valley, it didn’t seem overly different from other Ford features like “Stagecoach” or “Fort Apache.”

Yet years after its release, “The Searchers” can be regarded as not only Ford’s finest film, but one of the greatest and most influential pictures of all time. Available for years only as a single-disc DVD, it has recently been re-mastered and released by Warner Bros. in a special edition to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut cited “The Searchers” as an example of exemplary American filmmaking, and it remains one of Ford’s most enduring works. It was also a major thematic basis for “Taxi Driver,” and its dark undercurrent and technical mastery won it many supporters in the years after its release.

“The Searchers” is the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Civil War veteran who sets off with his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and a search party to rescue his niece, who was kidnapped by a Native American tribe. The trip takes years, and as it progresses, Martin begins to see the depth of Ethan’s obsession.

Ethan Edwards is perhaps the greatest of all of John Wayne’s roles – an erstwhile war veteran and anti-hero whose vigilante-like obsession drives him to complete his quest, no matter how futile it seems.

He anchors the picture throughout, which is especially evident in the final iconic shot of Wayne in a darkened doorway, overlooking the endless desert. The shot serves to emphasize the differentiation between Edwards and the ordinary folk who populate the rest of the film.

Warner’s special edition of “The Searchers” has been long overdue, though it was released last year specifically to coincide with its 50th anniversary. A major step up from the original single-disc release, the new edition is superior to the old in every way.

Foremost, the picture quality is stunning – Warner has taken major steps to restore the film, and it shows. Ford shot “The Searchers” in “Vistavision” and Technicolor, and the image pops off the screen. This is the best that “The Searchers” has looked since its original release, and it accentuates the film’s cinematography. The sound comes in the original mono, which is a solid track – often these are re-mastered in a digital 5.1 version, but Warner wisely retained the sound as it was first heard.

The extra features include a commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich. Unfortunately, both Ford and Wayne have passed on, but the remaining features showcase both prominently.

There are three documentaries featured: “The Searchers: An Appreciation,” “A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers” and “Behind the Cameras: Meet Jeffrey Hunter, Monument Valley, Meet Natalie Wood, Setting Up Production.” All three are insightful and extensive, with a surprising amount of background detail.

Fifty years after its original release, “The Searchers” has only grown in stature. As an iconic piece of American cinema, and perhaps the greatest western of all time, its reputation will surely continue to grow over the next half century. Warner has finally given the film the release it deserves, which makes it a rich and important addition to any film library.