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Searchers, The Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Image Released in 1956, shot in Technicolor with legendary director John Ford at the helm and starring box-office draws John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter, “The Searchers” is a great sprawling epic of the old West and the hard men who lived there. Filmed in Monument Valley and the surrounding red-rock area, the scenery is striking and severe, providing lots of rocky desert landscape to challenge the characters and the film crew. Ford also shot parts of the film during the winter, showing the hardships Ethan and Martin had to face while trying to track down little Debbie Edwards.

HD DVD Video Presentation: I’d had no idea how good the transfer process was going to be on this film until I put the disc into the machine and sat back to watch the movie. From the opening shots to establish the land and the lone rider approaching the low-slung adobe house, I was totally engrossed in the quality achieved. The color is absolutely gorgeous, vibrant and alive, and looks as though you’re watching through a window of your home and seeing everything take place in your back yard—if your backyard overlooked Monument Valley, of course. It was far richer and fuller than I expected. I’ve seen “restored” movies before, touch-up jobs that left so much to be desired, but “The Searchers” looks like it was shot today, but without the close-ups and action sequences today’s movies are noted for. It’s going to be really interesting to see other HD DVDs come out where old movies are given this treatment

HD DVD Audio Presentation: The sound is clear and distinct and runs through the surround sound system well, but the fact remains that the audio equipment fifty years ago just didn’t pick up everything that today’s gear makes possible. The effort is there, but there just simply wasn’t enough material to work with to make the film’s audio equal to what sound engineers are able to do in studios now. “The Searchers” was the twelfth film John Ford and John Wayne worked on together. It was also one of their most ambitious projects. By this time, both men were respected powerhouses in their fields. John Ford had the look and feel for the movies he wanted to direct down pat, and Wayne had perfected that ice-cold stare and the swagger, though not overdone as in some of the later movies. They were both at the top of their game for “The Searchers”.

John Ford had come from a line of movies based on Broadway musicals, comedies, and a big game hunter epic (“Mogambo” with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner). He hadn’t worked with John Wayne since “The Quiet Man”, and hadn’t done a Western since “Rio Grande”, the third movie in his cavalry trilogy that included “Fort Apache” and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”.

John Wayne had just come from “The Conqueror”, where he’d played Temujin, later called Genghis Khan. “The Conqueror” is one of the worst Wayne films ever made, so he was definitely looking for a hit again. He hadn’t made a Western since “Hondo”, a movie based on a Louis L’Amour novel. The movie had come out three years before “The Searchers”. In this film he plays Ethan Edwards, a hostile hardcase who does things his way.

Still a budding star waiting to truly step into his own, Jeffrey Hunter was a relatively fresh face on the movie scene. He’d just completed work on “Seven Cities of Gold” and “Seven Angry Men”. He’d done Westerns before and looks natural enough in the role, but more people are going to remember him as Captain Christopher Pike of “Star Trek The Original Series” in the episodes, “The Cage.” Starring as Martin Pawley and paired with Wayne, who made laconic his own until Clint Eastwood came along in the Man With No Name Westerns, Hunter gets too easily volatile in the scenes, and even his body language is too much.

Still new to movies, Vera Miles delivers a solid, but somewhat over-the-top performance as Laurie Jorgensen, who’s always loved Martin. She went on to have a long and successful career in television as a guest star, but never quite arrived at the predicted stardom.

An old movie hand, Ward Bond was known for playing larger-than-life characters. He left behind a huge body of word spread across the entire canvas that was early Hollywood and emerging television. He plays Texas Ranger Samuel Johnson Clayton.

Natalie Wood, only eighteen but playing fourteen-year-old Debbie Edwards, comes across as a real ingénue in the film and in the “Warner Bros. Presents” segment. She’s earnest and breathy, and you can just see the glimmering of the strong actress she’s going to be in “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”. She’d already gotten an Academy Award nomination for “Rebel Without A Cause”.

The film opens with a panoramic sweep that shows the red rock country of the Wouthwest and the lone rider approaching the low-slung adobe brick home seemingly set out in the middle of nowhere. The family inside quickly starts to react to the potential threat the rider represents. But when he’s close enough, everyone recognizes Ethan Edwards, brother and uncle who rode off to fight in the Civil War. For the last three years, Ethan had been wandering, though it’s never revealed where, and just hadn’t returned home.

Ford delivers a sure-handed picture of the frontier family, letting us get to know them just long enough to start caring before he yanks the action forward. Texas Ranger captain and reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton (Bond) arrives early the next morning recruiting men to go out looking for an Indian raiding party. Ethan and Martin saddle up and go, leaving the rest of the family behind.

Forty miles from the house, the Texas Rangers group finds all the cattle dead, dropped in their tracks. Ethan tells them they’ve been led on a wild goose chase and that the real target was the homes. Everyone starts riding back except Ethan. He says that the horses have been rode hard and need to rest. Martin goes on anyway, setting up the recurring battles that take place during the early part of the film.

Back at the house, Ford closes in for the kill, showing how defenseless the family is. Debbie, the youngest girl (here Lana Wood, Natalie’s sister), is sent outside the house to a hiding spot, carrying her doll. In no time at all, a sinister shadow falls over Debbie and her grandmother’s gravestone.

Cutting back to Ethan, we see him ride past Martin, who has obviously ridden his horse to death. Somehow, though, Martin arrives back at the farm at the same time as Ethan. They quickly discover the family has been murdered and the two girls are taken.

The movie quickly segues into the chase sequences that take place over five years and involve several life-threatening situations straight out of the Old West. Along the way, Ethan Edwards becomes colder and more driven, and Martin ages and becomes more of a man.

There are two very memorable sequences where John Wayne comes across with quiet intensity and authority. When Ethan goes off with Martin and Brad Jorgensen after everyone else turns back when the Indians come at them and almost kill them, the trail splits. Ethan follows the trail and comes back visibly shaken and upset. Gradually the truth emerges before another showdown. Ford wisely leaves a scene off-screen where an Indian brave is dancing around in Lucy Edwards’ dress. At that point Ethan tells Martin and Brad he found Lucy savaged and murdered, and that neither of them is supposed to ask him what he saw there.

Later, while tracking down white captives at an army fort, Ethan watches two white women who were brought up as Indians. He says there’s nothing left of the people they used to be, and the viewer gets the definite impression that he’d kill both women if the choice was left up to him. That perfectly foreshadows what he knows he’s going to have to do to Debbie when he finds her.

“The Searchers”, while an excellent film, sometimes changes voice. At once somber and intense, the film also slips into the comedic and slapstick from time to time. The timing of those sequences can be somewhat raw and don’t work well together. But that may come from a viewpoint that’s fifty years younger than the film. The movie still tells a magnificent story of betray, loss, hope, and the indefatigable human spirit.

The special features included on the disc are all offered in homage to the film, the director, and the actors/actresses. Patrick Wayne gives a tribute to his father. Peter Bogdanovich does the same for Ford. Some of the most interesting pieces are the “Warner Bros. Presents” segments. They’re so staged and, somewhat, politically incorrect that they’re funny. But they help set the viewer’s mind back into the time period that gave birth to the film.

“The Searchers” is a definite buy for the John Ford, John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Western buff. If the disc is already in the home library, the HD DVD version of it might well be enough to get you to spring for a new HD DVD home entertainment system. The video is absolutely amazing.

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