The Searchers (1956/HD-DVD)
B+ Sound: B- Extras: B Film: B+
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(seen as proto-fascist in the least and old and out of date as well), it would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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Searchers is a classic and an HD demo impossible to turn away from.
- Nicholas Sheffo