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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Drama > Noir > Large Frame Format > The Searchers (1956/HD-DVD)

The Searchers (1956/HD-DVD)


Picture: B+     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: B+



There is a great story about John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) involving no less than Martin Scorsese.  As the story goes when the great director was a school teacher for a while in the later 1960s, he told everyone he had secured a print of a Hitchcock classic that was out of circulation and he would screen it at the school’s auditorium.  The place filled out quickly and everyone was excited.  Scorsese locked all the doors to make sure no one could get out and showed The Searchers instead.  He figured with Vietnam and the counterculture on the upswing, getting anyone to watch Wayne (seen as proto-fascist in the least and old and out of date as well), it would be impossible to get anyone of that age group to even give the film a chance.


Wayne made so many films, but why did Scorsese single out The Searchers?  Because it may be the best film either of them made, the peak of the men who with their 1939 classic Stagecoach made The Western a full-fledged movie genre.  At this point, the genre was in transition with films like Broken Arrow (that finally acknowledged Native Americans were victims), High Noon (about the existential truth behind the Classical Western) and Johnny Guitar (about the darker side of power in The United States and it connection to the Hollywood Communist witchhunts in the time the film came out) in a way that allowed it to get away from Ford and Wayne.


Based on Alan De May’s novel as scripted/adapted by Frank N. Nugent, Ford had worked with Wayne on 11 previous films and still had new things to say.  So did Wayne.  This time, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man obsessed with finding his niece (Natalie Wood) who has been abducted by “Indians” and is going to either get her back in her original version or kill her and any “Indians” that get in his way.  When he goes out on his search, only to find himself, he tells his companion he has two bullets to do them both in instead of being abducted and converted into one of “them” as if they were a disease.  Better recent film fans will recognize the line referenced brilliantly in James Cameron’s Aliens.


He goes around saying “that’ll be the day” anytime anyone challenges him or tells him that there is the possibility his future will not be in his control or out of his hands.  The line became the basis for the great Buddy Holly hit of the same name.  Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Pippa Scott, Patrick Wayne and Lana Wood (Natalie’s sister) are among the more familiar names and faces in the great cast.  This film proves Wayne could act and was more than just a shtick performer.  His Edwards comes from outside of civilization, goes into action like so many other Western heroes connected to nature, then leaves civilization behind.  However, it is with the darkest or irony this time and has echoed in hundreds of films since, all the way to the recent Brokeback Mountain.


This new restoration on its 50th anniversary can only continue the fascination with the film, bringing it back to most of its big screen glory, though HD is far from a 70mm or VistaVision print, but the HD-DVD cover art cleverly boasts VistaVision and Technicolor.  The disc delivers.  As for the film, it is still edgy in showing one of the first full-fledged psychotic characters ever in cinema history, not coincidentally at the end of the Film Noir era.  Noir informs some of this film thematically and visually, despite being out in the middle of the bright desert.  Lush color and shooting not withstanding, I once informed an expert on the film and genre (to the shock of everyone in the room) that it was essentially an art film cleverly disguised as a B-Movie Western.


I stick by that over 15 years later and its continued influence proves all fans right.  Even if you are not a fan of Westerns, The Searchers exceeds genre and is one of the Great American Films.  A true movie classic!


Then 1.78 X 1 1080p digital High Definition image is from an extensive restoration of the original film elements by Warner Bros. that is still a work in progress.  The film is among a great series of film shot in the large frame format known as VistaVision, or 35mm shot horizontally, the format was revived for visual effects in 1976 by George Lucas and John Dykstra for model work on Star Wars.  Originally, entire feature films were shot in the format on giant iron butterfly cameras primarily by Paramount Pictures.  They used it as their answer to licensing CinemaScope from Fox and besides saving money, rarely let the format be used outside of studio projects.  Unlike the fixed scope frame (2.55, then 2.35 X 1) VistaVision offered various aspect ratios and the ratio here is within the range (like British 1.75 X 1) that Ford and Hoch knew they were framing for.


John Ford had a very strong relationship with the studio and for The Searchers; they made one of their rare exceptions and allowed him to shot the film this way. Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, the color-smart cinematographer behind the 1940 Sci-Fi classic Dr. Cyclops and fan favorite Robinson Crusoe On Mars had shot several of the previous Wayne/Ford productions.  Though Wayne would appear in Panavision and 65mm productions like The Alamo, this is his most influential film among many and it began with shooting the film on early single-strip EastmanColor stocks.  These would then be broken down into three-strips to create dye-transfer Technicolor prints in 35mm that really offered incredibly stunning color.  Any large-frame format print has color above any regular 35mm prints and are a whole new ballgame.


The EastmanColor VistaVision negative has faded away and this reconstruction comes from the black & white separates (or seps) and other great print material that has survived in the vaults to come up with this amazing transfer.  There are some flaws here and there and some work that needs to be done in spots, but the depth, solid look of the film, exceptional color and complex use of light add up to one of the best films on either HD format to date.  Warner will likely issue a Blu-ray version, which will make for quite a comparison.  This is the first film in a large frame format (anything above regular 35mm) to make it to an HD format and as expected, it blows away most of the productions in the format visually form the last five to ten years.  We expect the same when Warner get to issuing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (both in 65mm, with Prix reviewed elsewhere on this site), Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (VistaVision at MGM) and Universal with their HD-DVD-only release of Kubrick’s Spartacus (a Technirama film that had 70mm release) arrive soon.


The sound is also a first for either HD format, Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 Mono.  That is not exactly what I wanted to be celebrating and sadly, Max Steiner’s score was not a stereophonic recording, or this could have been mixed in anything from 2.0 Stereo to a 5.1 mix.  Though it is richer, clearer and thicker than just about any regular Dolby 1.0 on any standard DVD from Warner, Image or Criterion, it still is not as good as 2.0 Mono and that is contrary to “audio experts” who expect some kind of pseudo-stereo when that happens, not understanding the Dolby codec.  With that said, the film sounds OK and Steiner’s score is one of his best, while dialogue is not bad for its age and the mix is good enough.  Home theater fans know you can turn that 1.0 to 2.0, but 2.0 would be richer using more kilobits-per-second.


Extras are many, including the great director/film scholar Peter Bogdanovich (a big Ford fan and Ford scholar) doing his first non-Bogdanovich film commentary since Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.  You also get a new The Searchers: An Appreciation featurette, the original theatrical trailer, Patrick Wayne introduction, clips n the film from the TV show Warner Bros. Presents and a 1998 documentary A Turning Of The Earth, John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers by John Milius, the writer/director behind hits like Conan – The Barbarian and Francis Coppola’s screenplay for Apocalypse Now.  That is a strong set of extras worthy of such a classic.  Now, with such a great HD-DVD, people will be locking themselves in rooms to see what a great film it is.  The Searchers is a classic and an HD demo impossible to turn away from.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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