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The Searchers (1956)

Warner Bros.

Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, Ward Bond.

Rating: NR

Run time: 119 mins.

Genre: Western

Verdict: Brilliant (see rating system)

Even with the added attention given John Wayne's films in this, the 100th anniversary of his birth, The Searchers took an astonishing leap from 96 to 12 on the American Film Institute's top 100 best American films.

Fans of "The Duke" have long argued over whether The Searchers or Red River (1948) is his best western. And how about the excellent calvalry triology - Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande?

Tough choices indeed, but I think The Searchers just about shades it, given a hard-as-nails performance from Wayne, great direction from the legendary John Ford, non-stop action and stunning location shots. Let's not forget Max Steiner's thrilling score, either. Little wonder this is a favourite of contemporary directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

The beginning and ending are unforgettable, yet simple: a door opens and then it closes. Between times there's joy, tragedy and adventure.

Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran returning home years after the conflict ended to the Texas ranch he shares with his brother (Walter Coy) and family.

Ethan agrees next day to join a band of Texas Rangers led by the Rev Sam Clayton (Ward Bond in a great, cantankerous turn) to pursue cattle rustlers in the area. Ethan tells his brother to stay home to protect the ranch because he believes Indians are responsible. Ethan is proved right: the cattle rustling is a decoy to lure the Rangers away so the remote ranch can be attacked. Ethan returns home to find them all massacred - apart from the youngest Debbie (Natalie Wood) and the teenaged Lucy (Pippa Scott), who have been taken by Chief Scar.

Jeffrey Hunter gives fine support as Martin Pawley, the part-cherokee boy raised by Ethan's brother who strikes up a difficult relationship with Ethan, who initially dislikes him.

Years of pursuit follow as Ethan and Martin search for his nieces through desert heat and mountain snow. Danger lurks everywhere, from robbers to attacks by Indians. All the time, Ethan guards the inner secret that motivates his search.

It has to be said that Indians come off very poorly in this movie, portrayed as stereotypical savages common for westerns of this era. It likely wouldn't get made like this today. And there's some of Ford's trademark sentimentality that grates, particularly the romance between Martin and Laurie (Vera Miles) a rancher's daughter. Those reservations aside, this is thrilling and absorbing ride.

There are several editions of this fine flick, best of all being a two-disc set loaded with extra features including location features and other documentaries, reproductions of 1956 publicity material, memos and correspondence, postcards and an introduction from Wayne's son Patrick, who also appeared in the movie.

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