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USA 1956
Directed by
John Ford
119 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1.5 stars

The Searchers

John Ford returns to Monument Valley, site of his classic Westerns, Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946) and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) for this story of a man (John Wayne) and his search for his niece (Natalie Wood) whose family have been massacred by Indians. Some hail it as a masterpiece but there are others, myself included, who count it as an indifferent pastiche of the genre conventions which Ford was himself fundamental in establishing. Yes, there are the famous opening and closing shots and much that is impressive pictorially but dramatically the film feels cobbled together..

For a start the lengthy time frame is poorly handled invariably by dialogue stating the passage of years, and in the latter stage, Wayne acquiring grey hair. The performances are patchy with Wayne oscillating unpredictably and unconvincingly between his familiar gruff-but-honest-he-man persona and embittered, racist sociopath and Ford's company of character actors including Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr and Hank Worden roll out the stereotypes without nuance.

Then there's Frank S. Nugent's script from the novel by Alan LeMay. One can detect that there is a powerful and probably all-too-real story of the clash of cultures and one man's anger here but Ford lets it sink beneath crowd-pleasing but trivializing slapstick and an ideological bias that even for its time was retrograde and is today offensive (the only two Indians with identities are variously nicknamed Scar and Look, the latter, in what is supposed to be a comic turn, being viciously kicked in the back by Jeffrey Hunter) not to mention the sentimental paternalism and religious piety that are presented as social norms. And as for the casting of a perfectly made-up Natalie Wood as the grown-up niece, that's just the cherry on this over-decorated cake.




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