John Ford is never trying to be discreet with The Searchers, he’s just not willing to talk down to the audience. In the first ten minutes of the film, he and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent quickly establish John Wayne’s character and his relationship with his family. Ford, Nugent, Wayne and the rest of the cast make it clear–one has to wonder what kind of direction Ford gave the actors (Ward Bond in particular)–but there’s no such thing as expository dialogue in The Searchers.
There are a handful of moments where Wayne is talking to someone and he eschews the idea of going into exposition. The one time he does it–right at the end–is with co-star Jeffrey Hunter, whose character has needed some expository explanation the whole time. More than anything else, the film hinges on their relationship. The film positions Hunter and Wayne against one another while they search together for the same thing–kidnapped Natalie Wood. Their differing reasons, never fully explained, and how they collide with each other throughout the search drive the film.
Almost every relationship in the film is complex–Ford gets magnificent performances out of the cast–just because Wayne’s character is so intentionally out of place amongst the settlers. Meanwhile, Hunter goes through a big, quiet character arc. He has some great courtship scenes with Vera Miles, who’s sort of the unspoken third lead.
Beautiful direction, photography from Winton C. Hoch, editing from Jack Murray.
The Searchers is remarkable.