I do not care for many westerns. I should get that right out ahead of time; there are a few exceptions, but I would not expect The Searchers to join their ranks. The Searchers is an incredibly racist film. It does not try to hide or subvert this truth, and it is important to understand that this was all on purpose. John Ford wanted to move away from the glossy westerns that told stories of the heroes of the wild west and represent how people really lived in the old west.
Gone were the campfire sing-a-longs, replaced with the brutal rape of white Americans invading the land of Comanches. We meet John Wayne, a Civil War veteran, returning to visit family; there is an attack on the family ranch that leave several dead and a few in captivity. The Searchers is about the quest of Uncle Ethan (Wayne) travelling around the western territories searching for those held captive.
Putting aside for a moment the issues that I have with this film, I want to consider the cinematography. John Ford, with photographer Winton C. Hoch, captures the pure beauty of the western United States and it seems that much of the film comprises very long shots to really capture, in VistaVision and Technicolor, vast landscapes that are something to behold. These shots make it worth viewing the film, even if you have to do so on mute.
I was not there, in the post-Civil War west, so I cannot speak from experience to the culture of the times, but considering the trajectory of American history I have no doubt that Ford sought to capture the west as it would have been. Something that I have had to retrain myself to do is think subjectively about these films that I have been watching. I cannot watch these films as if they were recently produced; they must be considered for both when they were produced and the tolerance levels of their times. This is not to say that modern cinema has managed to forgo hints of, or blatant, racism, but times have changed and I struggle with the idea of a film like The Searchers being made, or at least distributed, today.
With history being the judge of John Ford’s vision, The Searchers was widely accepted and considered to be one of the finest motion pictures ever produced. The critics that formulated this list considered it to be the seventh greatest movie of all time on their last poll, and it was in their top 10 in both ’92 and ’82, so I cannot really take a stand that it might not deserve its regard. I can say, however, that it is not really my cup of tea, with the cinematography being its only saving grace for me to consider watching it again.