A man (John Wayne) helps his brother’s family find his niece after she is captured by Indians. The search lasts a number of years.
From the opening shot Ford shows that he’s pulling out all the stops to make this film look the part. He manages to capture a sense of endlessness and wonder in his panoramas. It’s not all for show either, the cinematography really makes us feel the enormity of our protagonist’s task.
However, what really makes this stand the test of time is John Wayne’s lead. It’s a fascinating character - a civil war veteran come home, bitter and vengeful. His motives for saving his niece (Natalie Wood) are far from heroic - it quickly becomes clear that he wants a shot at more Indians, wherever he can get it. Any good he does is a sideshow.
No efforts are made to glorify his actions, he’s a racist who’d rather kill his own niece that see her raised by Indians. The Searchers deftly exposes the Hollywood lie that is the Western hero. John Wayne’s character is more violent and ruthless than any Native American in the film, and it’s a slap in the face to a genre that so frequently shows white superiority.
Some have complained that this is a dull or even a racist film but I disagree. For me, The Searchers’ failings are more superficial; the odd love-story subplot and the awkward jokes are surplus to requirements.
This was always a big one on the list of films people keep telling me are essential viewing. In this case I’m glad I took their advice.