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THE SEARCHERS

USA, 1956 (MIFF 1994, Retrospectives)

Director: John Ford

John Ford's timeless saga of revenge with John Wayne, Vera Miles and Natalie Wood, is unquestionably one of the greatest of all Westerns, and Ethan Edwards is arguably the performance of John Wayne's life. The Searchers completely transforms the notion of the 'revisionist' Western, for what exactly could Unforgiven, for example, be said to revise, when nearly forty years earlier you have in this masterful collaboration between Ford and Wayne, one of the harshest indictments of the Western hero imaginable. The film received a mixed reception upon its 1956 release - possibly a consequence of its challenge to the accepted idea of the 'hero' and its unflinching depiction of vengeful violence - but is now universally considered to be "a perennial American tragedy".

If you have never experienced The Searchers in the cinema, you have to see this magnificently restored Technicolor and VistaVision print. Up on the big screen, Ford's unfaltering sense of space mocks the 'white man's' ambition to carve out his place amongst the vast desolation. Distance makes strangers of relatives, a letter may take a year to arrive - this is a land where a man can get lost, and Ethan is a man who has lost more than his sense of belonging. For him the promise of the West has turned to bitterness and mania. The Civil War is over, but as we discover during his relentless five-year hunt for a young girl who has been abducted after a murderous Comanche raid, Ethan is a man who "don't believe in surrenders".

Shot in Ford's mythic Monument Valley, (a wilderness that threatens to swallow the characters whole) The Searchers is his most emotionally complex work, an exploration of the American values at the heart of the Western genre which can still make your blood run cold.

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BECKY SHARP

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