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Warner Home Video presents
The Searchers HD-DVD (1956)

Rev. Capt. Sam Clayton: When did you get back? I ain't seen you since the surrender. Come to think of it, I didn't see you at the surrender.
Ethan Edwards: Don't believe in surrenders.

- Ward Bond, John Wayne

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: August 24, 2006

Stars: John Wayne
Other Stars: Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood
Director: John Ford

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, thematic content)
Run Time: 01h:59m:03s
Release Date: August 22, 2006
UPC: 012569809420
Genre: western

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+A-B B+

DVD Review

The DVD Review and the Extras Review are by Nate Meyers.

John Wayne and John Ford may very well stand as the best actor/director pairing in cinematic history. Their collaborations grasped the American psyche with uncanny skill, making astute observations under the guise of an evening's entertainment. Over a period of roughly 30 years, each man benefited from the other's genius. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Searchers, which is not only their best work (together or otherwise), but to my thinking stands as one of the greatest pieces of 20th-century filmmaking.

Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas in 1868 as a grizzled loner. His solitary figure emerges on the horizon that not even a child could confuse for Texas, but Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch aren't concerned with such trivialities. Setting the story within the breathtaking vistas of Monument Valley, Ford uses the weathered terrain brilliantly as a visual note to the character of Ethan. The Duke's domineering, powerful physique brings a quiet intensity to the role. Arriving at his brother Aaron's (Walter Coy) ranch, Ethan is granted a hero's welcome by sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and the couple's three children. There's no doubt in the mind of the audience that Ethan is our hero. He exhibits all the trademarks of the strong, silent type of man. But he wears a black hat. Normally reserved for the western's villains, Ford places it atop Ethan's head to accentuate the character's detestable nature.

It is astonishing how quickly Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, adapting from Alan Le May's novel, cement Ethan's persona. With quiet glances at Martha, we see his tender love for her and, based on her handling of his gear, we know the feeling is mutual. Moments like these are the strength of The Searchers, and how it develops a rich, complex character study out of a rather simple, paint-by-numbers plot. When the Rev. Capt. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) arrives at the Edwards' ranch, there's an undeniable premonition that things are about to be destroyed. Ethan senses this and quickly agrees to join Clayton's Rangers, despite his undying loyalty to the Confederacy, as their posse searches for missing cattle along with the Edwards' adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Miles away from numerous vulnerable ranches, each man knows that the Comanche are planning an attack.

Returning home, Ethan and Martin find the ranch destroyed. Martha, Aaron, and their son have all been murdered and their home burnt to the ground. Worse yet, their daughters, Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood), have been kidnapped. Thus begins a five year search that goes deep into the dark heart of Ethan and bears witness to Martin's transition from boy to man. The two not only battle the elements and engage in fights with Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), but also rival one another. Ethan, although our hero, is far from a perfect man. Racist to the bone, he shows a callous disregard for our nation's indigenous people. Needlessly killing buffalo only to starve the Comanche and shooting out a dead warrior's eyes to spit on their religious beliefs, Ethan's hatred only grows.

Despite such foreboding subject matter, Ford never ceases to make the film undeniably entertaining. Set to the strings of Max Steiner's score, the action sequences make for enthralling cinema. Shot in VistaVision, there's a powerful depth to every shot that brings every detail to life. Watching Ethan and Martin duel with Scar's tribe is thoroughly riveting. Ford puts all of his years of experience to good use, shooting each scene with a minimum of coverage and only showing the audience what it needs to know. Take, for instance, the Edwards' ranch as the Comanche approach. As the family realizes their fate, Ford daringly lets us become trapped in the house with them. He doesn't need to show us the violence, because his direction captures something far greater—the mindset of those who are about to die.

With unparalleled skill, Ford also weaves comedy into the film. A subplot concerning the Jorgensen family, whose daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) provides Martin's love interest, makes for the most hilarious wedding scene I've ever seen. Additionally, Ward Bond's performance as Clayton is a memorable bit of relief, as is a delicious bit part by the Duke's son Patrick prior to the climax. However, the overall power of the film trumps all these well-earned laughs. As Ethan Edwards, Wayne turns in his most daring and complex performance. Unafraid to tarnish his good guy image, he brings genuine malevolence to the part. More than in any other role, Wayne's talent is on display here. If anybody denies him that he is great actor, one need only refer to the scene in which he tells his posse about Lucy. Yet, I find his softer moments to be more affecting.

The story concludes with one of the most striking shots in cinema. The character of Ethan Edwards stands as the embodiment of America: stubborn, courageous, flawed, and heroic. Forget about its artistic brilliance and excellent acting. For that reason alone it deserves to be called a masterpiece.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Searchers is by far the oldest film yet issued on HD-DVD, but it looks quite good on the whole. Despite a certain softness that might disappoint viewers, there's still plenty of detail. Finely patterned clothing is a big improvement over the standard version, most notably in the rickrack now plainly visible on Martha's apron. Blacks are far crisper, and shadow detail is much better clarified. Doing an A/B comparison to the 2006 standard DVD, this is the winner by a substantial margin. The standard version is quite murky in comparison, with a far less broad range of colors. Grain is much better rendered here, with none of the sparkly quality visible on the SD DVD. A handful of rear projection shots look rather dismal in comparison to the clarity of the rest of the film.

The area that I was most looking forward to, an HD rendition of Ford's beloved Monument Valley, does not disappoint. The texture of the rock and the sand of the Valley come across in fine manner. The scenery looks quite beautiful indeed. Shots of the cavalry riding through the snow are stunning. Skin tones do appear a shade jaundiced, however. The subject of the color timing on these discs has been a point of controversy on the internet, and further pointed discussion of the matter with a Warner executive can be found here for those interested in the gory details. A bit of compression ringing can be seen on the frequent silhouettes, but it's not too distracting overall.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Dolby Digital+ versions of the 1.0 mono track are included in English and French, with an added Spanish track as well. There are spots of mild noise in places, but the overall impression is fairly clean. Max Steiner's score is lacking in deep bass impact, as one would expect for a fifty-year-old picture. Dialogue is quite clear and crisp.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 44 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Bogdanovich
Packaging: Elite
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Introduction by Patrick Wayne
Extras Review: Warner released The Searchers in two different standard DVD packages. The HD-DVD picks up the extras from the two-disc special edition, rather than the full-bore "Ultimate Collector's Edition."

On Disc 1, an Introduction by Patrick Wayne (01m:52s) starts things off. The Duke's son speaks from the cave featured in the film and, despite the cheesy posturing, candidly expresses his pride for the work and gives a nice introduction to the movie. Things continue along with a feature-length commentary by Peter Bogdanovich. His relaxed tone creates an enjoyable ambience as he analyzes Ford's shooting style, Wayne's line readings, and the movie's themes. It isn't quite as informative as I'd have hoped, but this is still a fine commentary. The movie's original theatrical trailer is also shown in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Stereo.

On to Disc 2, The Searchers: An Appreciation (30m:59s) contains interviews with filmmakers Curtis Hanson, Martin Scorsese, and John Milius. The three men recall seeing it back in 1956 and its effect on them at that time, as well as over the years. Each man brings a unique voice to the documentary and helps shine light on the movie's many layers—from its aesthetic to its religiosity to its portrait of America. This is an excellent look at the film, but even better is A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne, and The Searchers (33m:08s). Made by Nick Redman, who also made the excellent documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage. He employs the same stylistic design here as in that earlier work, using surviving cast members and John Milius to provide voiceover about the shooting of the production. Their readings give a great sense of the film's production, as does the incorporation of behind-the-scenes footage.

Also provided here are four Behind the Cameras featurettes hosted by Gig Young for TV. As part of the film's publicity campaign, the material here is fairly superfluous. The four featurettes—Meet Jeffrey Hunter, Monument Valley, Meet Natalie Wood, and Setting Up Production—can be played together (21m:48s). The various knickknacks and printed materials that were in the Ultimate Edition are not included here, so one really needs both that set and this HD-DVD to have a truly Ultimate Edition of this classic.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Warner Home Video continues to exist in a realm by itself with The Searchers Featuring a gorgeous restoration and substantial supplemental material, this set gives the film proper respect in time for its 50th anniversary. Neither John Ford nor John Wayne could have hoped for better treatment of their classic.


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