Over the weekend I watched John Ford's 1956 Western masterpiece The Searchers. And in calling it a “masterpiece,” in the first sentence, I'm already recommending it. Its great. Watch it.
Its about a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to his brother's farm in Texas to settle down after some probably violent and illegal adventuring after the war. He's a proud man, but damaged, and wants to settle down with his loving kin. Except his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, who would play Captain Pike for the pilot episode of Star Trek before his untimely death in 1969 at the age of 42), who's part-Indian and well-meaning, but kind of a hot-blooded idiot.
The two ride out with a posse of Rangers investigating missing cattle, find signs of the Comanche, and then the Edwards family back home is slaughtered in a raid. Except for the little girl, Debbie, who's taken by the raiders.
This sends Ethan and Martin on a desperate, five-year search for the girl that also turns into a meditation on the nature of vengeance and the toll it takes, both on those that seek it, and the people surrounding them.
Its gritty without being graphic, and doesn't shy away from some pretty harsh themes. The Comanche under a chief named Scar are brutal raiders, but Scar has his own motivation that makes sense without making him too sympathetic. He's also obsessed with blind vengeance. For their part, Ethan and Martin do some pretty rotten stuff too when faced with some tough decisions, and people end up dying because of it.
But what really hammered home the genius of Ford as a director, is the raid on the Edwards homestead. The movie spends the first fifteen minutes or so establishing Ethan's family and hometown as a nice place filled with good and occasionally quirky people. The character actors play their parts well and while they're painted with broad strokes, they're likable. Which is important, because around the 20 minute mark, it all goes down.
The posse establishes that the Comanche are on a murder raid, looking to kill some settlers. Two farms are singled out as possible targets, and the party rides to the closest one first.
It ends up being the wrong one.
What follows is one of the most effective horror scenes I've ever seen in a movie. Its not a spoiler because its the instigating event of the entire movie.
Its evening at the Edwards farm. The sunset casts a reddish glow and one by one the family starts to realize that all is not well. Each time that realization spreads, the tension ratchets up, first with the parents trying to keep calm and lay low, then accelerating when the older daughter, Lucy, realizes what's going on and screams, prompting her mother to slap her to shut her up.
They know what's coming.
So in their last minutes, they send their youngest daughter, Debbie (played by the Wood sisters, Lana as the younger version, Natalie as a 15 year old) to a hiding place away from the house. Only its not a great hiding place, and we get our first glimpse of Scar as he walks up to her, looks down, and blows the signal.
Fade to black.
The scene tells you everything you need to know about what's going to happen. Their reactions, their resignation, their despair. You don't need to see it on screen because the violence of the moment is in your mind, and I can guarantee that its going to be bloodier than anything the Hays Production Code would've allowed.
I'm not going to bother finding the clip and linking it, because you need that first twenty minutes of setup to provide context. Its probably not my favorite John Ford/John Wayne film (which is maybe Stagecoach, but I need to see more).
Highest recommendation. Watch this movie.