"The thing has to do with the search for a couple of maidens some nasty Comanches have abducted shortly after the Civil War, and it certainly contains plenty of action." So ran The New Yorker's review of The Searchers in 1956, proving callowness, cynicism and snobbery aren't purely the preserve of modern film critics. As a plot snapshot, though, it works, with John Wayne's Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards obsessively hunting for the nieces half-inched by Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon, a German who was known as "the Kraut Comanche" by the Navajo extras on location). Oscar ignored John Ford's 115th picture, too. The Academy favoured his socially conscious work (The Informer, The Grapes Of Wrath) and the man who identified himself as a "director of Westerns" never saw an oater of his honoured. "Time is the best critic," remarks Peter Bogdanovich on his astute commentary. His devotion, along with that of Scorsese and Spielberg, helped ensure The Searchers is now recognised as a masterpiece.
Except that word implies a certain lifelessness or a sense of its own importance, while Ford's picture is relentlessly unpretentious; tackling Big Themes without neon-slicking them or telling us what to think. Yes, it deals with race, hate, infidelity, genocide and - now, this will sound pretentious - the restlessness in man's soul. But it's created by a bloke who once told an interviewer, "You say someone's called me the greatest poet of the Western saga. I am not a poet and I don't know what a Western saga is. I would say that is horseshit." Bogdanovich quotes Orson Welles as referring to Ford as a poet, but also a comedian, and while this apparent tension has seen him criticised, the supposedly light-hearted family scenes in The Searchers all serve the story, highlighting the community Ethan will forever be isolated from, as well as hinting at the hypocrisy and hatred simmering within so-called civilisation (witness the shocking racism of Vera Miles' young Laurie).
Before shooting, Ford said he wanted to make a "psychological epic" and the ambition is fully realised, with a continent-spanning search that never really leaves the confines of Ethan's troubled mind. It is Wayne's greatest performance, perhaps because it was close to how the contradictory, surprisingly insecure star felt about himself. In the superb biography Searching For John Ford, Joseph McBride recounts Wayne's reaction to being praised on playing such a villain: "He was no villain. He was a man living in his times. The Indians fucked his wife. What would you have done?" It shows the deep ambiguity at the heart of the film; the struggle inside Ethan. (The "wife" in question is actually his sister-in-law, highlighting another of the character's taboo desires.)
It's a pity McBride has no input on this Anniversary Edition, but quaint period featurettes are complemented by two excellent retrospective documentaries. A Turning Of The Earth is particularly notable for home cinema footage of the director and star having a beer; an artist and an icon, whatever they might think.