The back of the blu-ray is right when it says The Searchers is “memorably acted”; memorable, horrible acting by the whole cast. Especially lazy and inexcusable considering the level of performances that had come before it (compare John Wayne and company to Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night from 22 years previous, to Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve from 6 years previous, to Jane Wyman in All that Heaven Allows a year previous; The Searchers is filled with caricatures). I was often left confused by an actor’s expression—like Laurie’s strange and awkward pseudo-distressed expression when Martin leaves to go after Ethan—or laughing at a loud declaration of a character’s superficial emotional state.
Never mind the “racist” or “not racist” discussion (I would probably argue the former, but if I did end up deciding The Searchers is in the right and Ethan is a conflicted anti-hero, then Wayne’s portrayal is pretty useless at this point since Schrader has written similar characters since then with much, much more nuance). Never mind that; what’s with all the acclaim for the cinematography? I admit, the first and final shots are quite nice, and there are a few instances of smart blocking like during the funeral, but most of The Searchers is pretty unspectacular. The day-for-night sequences are unappealing and not remotely convincing (even when taking the era of its production into account). I’m going to steal from my Solo review and say this film is very brown. Brown rocks, brown dirt, brown ugly skin tones. There is the occasional splash of blue and red, the scenes with snow are welcome, and obviously the sky’s blue is a relief, but otherwise, the color palette is oppressive. Often times, the characters blend in with the dirt and rocks, appropriate since the ensemble is as interesting as the empty Texas landscape. The indoor scenes incorporate a yellow-tinted light that the rest of the film does not, making those moments a little more engaging, but it comes at the cost of causing the artificiality and cleanliness of the set design to stand out. I acknowledge the creative camera movement in the few shots that everyone likes to praise, but what purpose does it all serve (I feel about this how I felt after watching Ordet, but don’t worry, I like Ordet a lot more)? The Cranes are Flying, from one year after The Searchers, makes you forget about anything Ford brought to the table in this.
Note 1: Hopefully this isn’t actually the greatest Western. I’ll try Stagecoach and The Wild Bunch; if they don’t sit well with me, then I’ll wait a couple years before trying out another Western.
Note 2: The heavy makeup on the supposedly “frontier” women is very distracting.