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Ethan returns home after months (or years) on the road. Upon his arrival, he is immediately dragged into a quest for two girls from his family that got kidnapped by a posse of Comanches. It takes him and his fellows years, and what they find is not what they had hoped for.
Often quoted as one of the great Westerns, if not the great movies of all times, the film makes it easy to show why that is. There is very little Western romanticism and heroism. John Wayne’s Ethan is superior in his instincts, experiences and skills, but even he is fallible, a sometimes angry and desperate man who realises that his life’s core may be empty and the quest he is on in vain. Not because he will not find the girls, but because it may not be worth looking for them. He rampages among a herd of buffalo (a scene that may well be the inspiration for Lawrence of Arabia’s “no prisoners!” massacre?), he breaks down and cries upon finding bodies, he turns around only to start again, because that is all he has to do. John Ford dares to be bleak and artistic, he makes huge jumps in narrative time, finds unorthodox images (such as snow-covered desert plains) and apart from the showdown, he moves towards what could easily have been the first neo-Western, pessimistic and devoid of hope. The end looks as if suggested by the studio management, and hence is not quite coherent, but overall this movie leaves an impression of depth and seriousness, making it more akin to what followed from Eastwood than what preceded it. There’s even some humour in-between, especially in the long scene when a letter from the search party is read to those waiting at home, where one of the Searchers narrates his adventures, involving him getting married by accident to a fat squaw. Yet even those moments are but short relief, because the light pleasure of the moment gets turned on its head when moments later he realises that he virtually condemned his wife to death by sending her sway carelessly.

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