Considered not just one of the greatest Westerns but one of the greatest films of all time, John Ford’s The Searchers is enjoying a 50th-anniversary renaissance through Warner Bros’ release of a two-disc special edition DVD. Premiered at Cannes Film Festival and specially shown at the NFT as part of a recent Westerns season, the newly re-mastered print does amazing justice to Ford’s tale of revenge, racism and the need to belong in the old west.
The bare bones of the story are familiar to any film buff – Ethan Edwards, an ex-soldier with a murky past (John Wayne) spends five years searching for his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) who was kidnapped in the Comanche raid that killed the rest of her family. It’s never clear whether Ethan’s relentless quest is motivated by concern for Debbie or by his virulent racism. His only companion during this time is Debbie’s adopted half-brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who Ethan calls a ‘half-breed’ on their first meeting. But it’s not only Ethan who’s racist – the other Texan settlers share his horror at the thought of Debbie’s fate as a ‘squaw’ to a ‘Comanche buck’. This fear is most strongly voiced by Martin’s sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles) as she tries to keep Martin from the final confrontation: "it’s too late, she’s a woman grown, the leavings of some Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder with savage brats of her own."
This need to control women’s bodies and hatred of miscegenation permeates the film. Only Martin, adopted by Debbie’s family after his family was killed in another Comanche raid, repeatedly stands up to these beliefs. He firmly believes Debbie is better off alive than dead, and accompanies Ethan to ensure that he doesn’t kill her when he finds her. But one of the film’s great strengths is that it makes no attempts to explain Ethan’s behaviour. We don’t know how he got the medal he presents Debbie on his return to his brother’s farm or how much he loved her mother. We don’t know how he learned the Comanche language or why he hates them so much. This means we watch the film all the more intently, looking for clues to his behaviour.
The Searchers rewards this attention by being beautifully shot, with the breathtaking landscape of Monument Valley providing the backdrop for such shots as the one where Ethan’s posse is surrounded by Comanche riders on the ridges above them. The image of someone framed in a doorway, blinded by the light, recurs most famously at the end of the film. But it also features in the dramatic opening shot, where Debbie’s mother steps into the sunlight, squinting at Ethan’s approach. The contrast of the darkened interior with the door opening on the blue sky and hulking red rocks packs the same visual punch as Dorothy’s first steps into the colours of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz.
The new master was created by digitally recompositing the original VistaVision 35/8 separation masters via Warner’s "Ultra-resolution" process. Over nine months, the colour was recombined using three-strip separation masters before digitally washing every frame. The resulting colour contrast and sharp images are clean and clear, and virtually no imperfections remain on the print. It also means the notorious bloopers are easier to spot – such a dead Indian breathing in his grave, or the car behind soldiers fording a snowy river. However the flubs don’t detract in the slightest from the emotional power of the story. And this high-quality reissue means The Searchers will continue to enthral another generation of film viewers.