Screenplay : Frank S. Nugent (based on the novel by Alan LeMay)
MPAA Rating : Not Rated
Year of Release : 1956
Stars : John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Capt. Rev. Samuel Clayton), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen), Olive Carey (Mrs. Jorgensen), Henry Brandon (Chief Scar), Ken Curtis (Charlie McCorry)
John Ford's "The Searchers" begins with a door opening, and ends with that same door closing, but in both scenes, John Wayne stands alone. When the film begins, Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, a lonely, complex, and embittered man, first appears on horseback as a small figure, and steadily grows larger as he approaches. At the end of the film, he stands alone, framed by the same doorway, and then slowly walks away, once again becoming the small, distant figure we first saw.
Ethan was Wayne's first anti-heroic role, and his performance is certainly one of the best of his career. "The Searchers" is a landmark Western that is at once a great, rousing adventure story, a fable about the nature of quest and fulfillment, and an exploration of the vicious racism that created such intense violence between Native Americans and encroaching white settlers. Now considered one the greatest Westerns of all time (if not the greatest) and renowned as a strong influence on directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, "The Searchers" was completely under-appreciated when first released, failing to get a single Oscar nomination.
When we first see Ethan, he is still wearing a faded Confederate jacket. After three years of drifting (and possible criminal activity) following the Confederate Army's defeat at the end the Civil War (Ethan is still fiercely loyal to the South), he has come back to his family who has no idea where he's been. The year is 1886, and Ethan's brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), his wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their three children have established a frontier home in the vast Texas wilderness (the film was actually shot entirely in the reddish deserts of Utah). There is always constant danger in the new American frontier -- both from nature and from various groups of Indians.
During Ethan's stay with the family, a group of Comanches attacks the frontier home, killing everyone except Aaron's two daughters who are kidnapped: a teenager named Lucy (Pippa Scott) and a ten-year-old named Debbie (Lana Wood, later played as a teenager by Natalie Wood). Ethan survives because, along with Aaron's adopted part-Cherokee son, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), and several men from a neighboring farm, he was chasing down a herd of cattle the Indians purposely stole to divert the men away from protecting the homesteads. When Ethan and Martin come back, Aaron's home is burned to the ground.
From this point, the film follows Ethan, Martin, and several other men, including Lucy's boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.), the Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), and a group of Texas Rangers, as they set out to find the kidnapped girls. As the quest stretches from weeks to months to years, most of the men abandon the cause -- except for Ethan and Martin.
Early on, we learn that Lucy has been killed by the Comanches, but there is evidence that Debbie is still in the hands of the vicious Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who is the ultimate example of the early Western depictions of the blood-thirsty Indian savage. Although hardly a politically-correct or even historically-correct depiction of a Native American Indian (the actor who plays Scar is obviously Caucasian), he makes a good villain and an interesting comparison to Ethan. Although the movie caricatures Indians in general, there is an underlying subtext about the vicious nature of racism on both sides of the coin that cannot be ignored. While the Indians are certainly depicted as "the bad guys," the white settlers, especially Ethan, are hardly perfect.
Although we don't know much about Ethan's background, we do know that he is vigilantly racist against Indians -- his hatred for them is so intense that when he finds a dead Comanche warrior, he shoots out the corpse's eyes because Indians believe they must have their vision in the spirit world, otherwise they wander eternally. During a shoot-out between Indians and Texas Rangers , Ethan continues firing into the Comanches' backs as they retreat, despite protests from the other men fighting by his side. And, although he hates them, Ethan is not above adopting brutal Indian techniques like scalping -- his lust for vengeance knows no bounds.
The motives behind Ethan's drive to find Debbie are deep, complex, and not always genuine. Although at first "The Searchers" seems like a typical "white man rescuing his women from the Indians" story, it is much more than that. The entire search and its justification is completely turned upside down when we discover that Ethan doesn't want to save Debbie, but rather he wants to kill her because she has been peacefully living with the Indians as a sqaw, so he no longer considers her "white." Despite Ethan's protests that he wants to continue the search alone, Martin tags along with him for years, because Martin knows that he will have to protect Debbie from Ethan if she is ever found. Therefore, although partners in the search, Ethan and Martin are destined to become enemies once the search is fulfilled.
"The Searchers" was based on a novel by Alan LeMay, and the screenplay was written by Frank S. Nugent, John Ford's son-in-law. Nugent and Ford worked extremely well together -- they collaborated on 11 films in 15 years, including such classics as "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" (1949) and "The Quiet Man" (1952). In "The Searchers," they managed to create an indelible story populated with difficult characters. Although some of the film's humor comes off as a bit goofy and misplaced, the majority of Nugent's script is focused and taut if a bit melodramatic, right down to the final scene.
Ford was already a legendary director by the time he made this film (he had already won all four of his Best Director Oscars), and "The Searchers" shows him in his finest form. One of the interesting things to note is how skillfully Ford and Nugent handle the film's violent subject matter without showing violence on-screen.
For instance, when Ethan discovers Lucy's desecrated body, we never see the corpse. In fact, we don't even see him discovering the corpse. Instead, Ford gives us two scenes: first, Ethan returns from exploring, thoroughly distraught and horrified. Martin and Brad try to get him to explain what happened, but Ethan refuses, only saying, "I'll never go back there again." At this point, neither the audience nor Ethan's comrades have any idea what he saw.
Later in the film, Brad thinks he's found Lucy, but it turns out to be an Indian wearing her dress. At this point, Ethan is forced to admit he found Lucy's body, and when Brad tries to get him to elaborate, he barks, "What do want me to do? Draw you a picture? As long as you live, don't ever ask me to tell you about what they did to her!" The fact that Ethan -- a hardened man who fought in both the Civil War and numerous Indian battles and doesn't think twice about shooting the eyes out of a corpse -- would be this disturbed by the state of Lucy's body when he found her, creates an indelible and horrific impression in the viewer's mind that could never be justified with visuals, no matter how graphic.
Ford also does a masterful job of filming the Indian attack on the Edwards' home without ever showing the attack itself. Instead, he uses the build-up of suspense preceding the attack -- a group of birds becoming spooked and flying away, small noises around the house, strange shadows, all of which is bathed in the harsh, blood-red glow of the setting sun -- to create a palpable sense of violence in the air. When Ethan and Martin arrive to find the house in flames, it isn't hard to imagine how vicious the battle was.
"The Searchers" is a perfect example of genre filmmaking taken to new levels -- it was one of the first Westerns to explore complex moral issues and myths concerning the frontier, and it paved the way for such later masterpieces as Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1992). Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch captures the vast, sprawling desert wilderness in grand Technicolor fashion -- this is a movie that was meant to be seen on the big screen. Its visuals work perfectly in tandem with the grand, operatic story, creating a complicated, emotionally-driven film that has and will continue to endure as one of the great American cinematic experiences.
©1998 James Kendrick