The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)
Warner Home Video
Cast: John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles
Extras: Introduction, Commentary Track, Retrospective Featurettes, Vintage Segments, Theatrical Trailer

Right now, a good many DVD and home theater enthusiasts are conflicted over jumping to either of the new HD formats. Even if there was unity in the delivery method, many collectors have spent considerable sums to build up entire libraries on DVD, only to be asked "do it again." Well, I'm not here to tell anyone anything of the sort, but for those out there who might question the benefits of upgrading to high definition, Warner Home Video just released the perfect argument, with the HD-DVD release of John Ford's landmark 1956 western "The Searchers."

Starring long-time Ford collaborator John Wayne, "The Searchers" tells the story of Ethan Edwards (Wayne), an embittered Civil War veteran who returns to his brother's farm. Comanche Indians attack and kidnap the family's two young daughters. Ethan spends the next five years, hunting for his lost nieces, an odyssey through the racial intolerance, the environmental harshness and the physical beauty of the old American West.

For current audiences, probably the closest antecedent to the film is Clint Eastwood's 1992 "Unforgiven," charting how a man's soul can be corrupted, even when in service to a good cause. (What's that line about the road to Hell…?) But that simile is a gross oversimplification of what Ford, Wayne, and screenwriter Frank Nugent (adapting Alan LeMay's novel) achieved in this film. Poetic, elegiac and understated, "The Searchers" is as close to Americanized mythology as it gets. No more words about the plot; just watch it.

I wasn't aware that there were some issues with how the film has appeared in previous video and DVD incarnations. ( has a terrific interview about the subject with Warner's Ned Price, conducted by film preservationist Robert Harris). Well, the buck stops at the HD-DVD! In a word, the 1.78:1 HD transfer is gorgeous! During the presentation, I had to periodically remind myself that this film is fifty years old. Boy, where to begin? Colors are not just vibrant; they are overwhelmingly vivid. The VistaVision photography by Winton C. Hoch is perfectly preserved here. To be fair, that widescreen process is very video-friendly, with its deep focus capability and increased negative exposure area. But watching the film in HD is like seeing it projected from a brand new print. Detail delineation is off the frickin' charts here! Monument Valley (substituting for Texas) never looked so compelling and so damned dense! Texture is ever-present in every frame – the rocks, the dust, the weeds just jump off the screen to the point where they are practically supporting characters. (Maybe that was the point). The source print is pristine, supplemented by Warner's "Ultra-Resolution" mastering for a consistently beautiful and blemish-free picture.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital mono. The sound won't tax your home theater system, but the dialogue is clear and intelligible and the sound effects actually have some resonance without sounding overly processed. Crank up the volume, though, as the levels are a little low. French and Spanish mono tracks are included, as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles.

The supplements are direct ports of the extras included on the "Ultimate Collectors" DVD release. As such, all the extras are presented in 480i resolution. The introduction by Patrick Wayne, John Wayne's son (who also has a small part as a cavalryman), sets a nice tone, especially as it was recorded at some of the same locations from the film.

The audio commentary by director/Ford biographer Peter Bogdanovich swings between minute-by-minute scene explication and Ford/Wayne/old Hollywood anecdotes. He still falls every so often into the "Cliffs Notes" mode of explaining the on-screen action, but his deconstruction of "typical" Ford cinematic touches are well worth listening and fascinating.

Another director driven supplement is "The Searchers: An Appreciation," a half-hour featurette with directors Martin Scorsese, John Milius and Curtis Hanson expressing their thoughts on the film, the director/star collaboration, the widescreen vistas and the film's longevity. It's great to have such star power extolling the film's virtues but I do have one criticism here: I would have liked to hear what the directors think about the HD transfer specifically.

"A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers" is a half-hour retrospective documentary composed of home movies, outtakes, location footage and clips. Patrick Wayne narrates, charting the film from its inception (the property was bought by "King Kong" director Merian C. Cooper directly for the purpose of reuniting Ford and Wayne in a Western) to filming and release. Interestingly, for all the claims about how Ford's Westerns demonized the Native American, the documentary explains how he benefited the Navaho Indians and their community during filming.

The excerpts from "Warner Brothers Presents" run about six minutes each and play out like a proto-type EPK. Hosted by Gig Young, four segments run the gamut from interviews with Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood (wearing THICK lipstick while in period costume) on a hokey desert set, to the "hazards" of filming in Monument Valley. Interesting from a time-capsule perspective, but hardly probing. Theatrical trailers for the film and the upcoming Brad Pitt western "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" – both presented in HD – round out the goodies.

Any question about upgrading to HD is purely subjective. But if anyone asks me: "Why should I upgrade?" I'd pop in "The Searchers" HD-DVD and let the transfer do the talking. IT'S THAT GOOD! If you already a HD-DVD player consider this title your first "must-have" of your new collection.