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Blu-ray Reviews: The Searchers

Originally published in Sound and Image, Sept/Oct 2007, v.21#1
Last updated 4 July 2009

The Searchers cover The Searchers
1956 - Warner Bros Entertainment Australia Pty Ltd
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood and Henry Brandon

Movie: 3.5 Picture: 5 Sound: 2 Extras: 4.5

I don't know how many times I've seen DVD reviews of old movies in which a statement such as the following has been deployed: 'The picture quality stood up well, despite the age of the movie'. In fact, several movies from the 1950s actually have better picture quality than most modern ones. Take The Searchers, for example.

As the movie opens, we are in a dark room in which a door in the centre of the screen is swung open. Silhouetted against the brightness that enters is a woman wearing 1868 pioneer garb. Beyond her is a place to tie up horses upon the yellow sand, which is dotted with struggling desert plants, and far in the distance is a row of mesas, rising sharply out of the desert floor.

As I sat there, still a little irritated by the crunchy, bandwidth-limited opening song, I was stunned.

The camera moves forward through the door and reveals a glorious expanse of such scenery, right across the full 1.85:1 width of the screen. Yellows, and browns and dirty greens in the bottom half of the picture, topped by a wide sky of gorgeously graduated blue joining the ground in a haze of even more distance mesas.

Flawless in framing, flawless in vision, and flawless in video quality.

This movie may have been filmed over fifty years ago, but it stacks up with the best of the best filmed in just the last few years.

All thanks to VistaVision.

This was one of the systems for making widescreen movies developed in the early 1950s. Most early widescreen movies used anamorphic techniques to squeeze a wide picture into a standard 35mm film frame. Some used wider film (65mm commonly). VistaVision used standard 35mm film, but run through the camera sideways so that larger frames were available for capturing the image. In fact, some 2.34 times the area of regular 35mm frames.

The detail at every point of this movie is incredible. The transfer to Blu-ray allows you to see it as you would never otherwise get to see it, because almost all theatrical showings were after transfer to regular 35mm film.

The film was shot in Monument Valley, the bright natural light of which allowed almost unlimited depth of field. So in the outdoor shots you can have a close silhouette of a woman in the foreground, and sharp focus that yields all the detail, all the way into the distance. Just amazing.

The movie may also be to your taste (it is certainly highly regarded by many), and when the music is not playing, the mono sound is adequately clear. But who cares. Just put it up on your high definition projector as dramatic, moving wall paper. It's that good.

Running time: 119 minutes
Picture: 2.35:1, 1080p24, VC1 @ 23.25Mbps
Sound: English: English, French, Spanish, Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich: Dolby Digital 1/0.0 @ 192kbps
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Extras: Introduction by Patrick Wayne (4:3, 480i60, DPL2.0 @ 192kbps - 2 mins); Featurette: 'The Searchers: An Appreciation' (480i60, DPL2.0 @ 192kbps - 31 mins); Featurette: 'A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and the Searchers' (4:3, 480i60, DPL2.0 @ 192kbps - 22 mins); Four segments of 'Behind the Cameras' TV show (4:3, 480i60, DPL2.0 @ 192kbps - 22 mins); Trailer (480i60, DPL2.0 @ 192kbps - 3 mins); Trailer for 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' (4:3, 480i60, DPL2.0 @ 192kbps - 1 min)
Restrictions: Rated G (Australian rating); Region Free

The following video bitrate graph was generated by BDInfo 0.5.2:

The Searchers video bitrate graph

Comparison: Blu-ray vs PAL DVD

Here are some comparisons between the PAL DVD and the Blu-ray version of this movie. At the top of each is the full frame (suitably shrunk down) used in the comparison, with a 250 pixel wide detail from the frame underneath. The left side is from the PAL DVD. The image was captured digitally from the disc, scaled up from its native 720 by 576 resolution to 1,024 by 576 (to present in the correct aspect ratio), and then to an even larger size in order to be comparable to the Blu-ray version.

Normally I scale to 1,920 by 1,080, which is an increase of 87.5%. But it soon became apparent that the Australian PAL DVD version had been cropped significantly. This isn't altogether surprising, since the DVD would have been taken from some print film whereas the Blu-ray is taken from a major restoration of the print, freshly scanned. The amount of cropping was sufficient to make large differences to the contents of the comparison boxes, so for this comparison I scaled the DVD by 61.5% to yield the same final size.

The following illustrates the amount of cropping on the DVD, where the Blu-ray is at the top and the DVD is at the bottom. Even though both were resized from their original resolutions down to just 500 pixels in width, the Blu-ray remains obviously sharper and more detailed, so it seems clear that the restored print used for the Blu-ray version of this movie made much of the difference in the comparison shots below. Incidentally, the black bars on the DVD version (wider on the left, narrow on the right) were in the screen grab. Now that I stop to think about it, I don't think I have yet seen black bars to the left or right on a Blu-ray.

Crop comparisons for The Searchers

This isn't entirely fair to Blu-ray because, like it or not, if you watched the DVD on the same screen as a Blu-ray, it really would be scaled up by 87.5%.

Out of interest, the average video bitrate of the DVD is a mere 3.37Mbps, whereas I estimate that for the Blu-ray to be in excess of 20Mbps.

Anyway, the left hand detail is from that last scaled version, and has not been rescaled again. The right side is from the Australian Blu-ray. This has not been scaled at all. Different applications were used to capture the two frames, so I am not comfortable comparing the colour between the two, merely the detail and sharpness. For those visitors from NTSC lands, generally the PAL DVD is just a touch sharper than the NTSC DVD.

Here's one frame from the opening scene I described above. Yes, I was impressed with the detail.

Comparison 1

John Wayne has stubble, which you wouldn't notice from the DVD:

Comparison 2

Looking in the background can reveal huge differences in detail:

Comparison 3

On the DVD, that cow just this side of the two riders is apparently missing its head:

Comparison 4

© 2002-2009, Stephen Dawson