If "classic Western" sounds dull, prepare to have your mind changed by the special features on this "two-disc Special Edition" of director John Ford's 1956 masterpiece about a quest for a kidnapped girl. But even if it was groundbreaking 50 years ago and much imitated ever since, is The Searchers still worth watching? Well, directors still aren't matching Ford's innovations -- the flawed hero, for example. (And you know your hero's morally conflicted when he's a racist ex-Confederate who mutilates corpses -- twice.) Making the audience a collaborator by showing, not the violence itself, but the effects of that violence. Luxuriating in the backdrop of Monument Valley. No rehearsals; few takes; editing "in the camera." Relieving tension with comedy -- so that you can fill moments of relaxation with yet more suspense.
One featurette points out the film's ambivalence about religious faith: Wayne's Ethan Edwards is knowledgeable about Christian and Comanche beliefs but spurns them both, while Ward Bond's man of the cloth is also, as leader of the local Texas Rangers, a man of the rifle. But the commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich (who knew Ford personally) offers the best insights: Having started in silent films, Ford knew how to tell a story visually. (The iconic opening and closing scenes are virtually wordless.) Moving the camera seldom and using close-ups sparingly means that when they do occur, dolly shots and zoom-ins create genuine impact.
The Searchers, itself flawed, contains plenty of '50s cheese: heavily made-up, blue-eyed "Injuns"; fakey screams out of bad horror flicks; phony "Behind the Cameras" infomercials ("and here comes one of the prettiest little Comanches of them all, Miss Natalie Wood"). Sidekick Jeffrey Hunter was apparently cast more for his resemblance to Elvis Presley than for his acting ability.
But repeated viewings will help you get past the mixed reception The Searchers was given on its initial release; studying the special features here is like taking a miniature film studies course.
And if you pay for the "Ultimate Collector's Edition," you even get small-format reproductions of Ford's production notes, the original press kit and the 1956 comic book.