The Searchers (1956) Review

The Searchers (1956) Director: John Ford

“We’ll find ’em, just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth”


John Ford’s magnum opus offers an expansive Technicolor/Vista Vision Western epic, coupled with a deeply complex character study which examines the nature of prejudice, resentment, racism, and heroism. Across dusty Texas and Arizona landscapes, including the majestic Monument Valley (John Ford’s favorite shooting location), we experience different seasons of life in the old west –dehydrated desert summers as well as wintry snow falling on buffalo herds in the high desert. In this case, the film’s topography matches the film’s themes –both challenging and harsh. The Searchers is not a bloody and gritty Western like a Sergio Leone film. It presents a mix of both comedy and tragedy. Consider the light-hearted scenes on the homestead which are contrasted with grueling savagery on the frontier. Meanwhile, out on the frontier, the duality between Ethan and Martin plays a kind of Don Quixote-Sancho Panza dynamic –one is committed to a bloodthirsty massacre, while the other simply wants to rescue his sister.

The plot for The Searchers is based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Alan Le May, which in turn, was loosely based on the true story of a woman named Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl who was kidnapped at age 10 in 1830s by Comanche Indians. She was taken prisoner and married to a Comanche husband for 24 years before she was eventually recaptured by her “Uncle James” but she was then unwillingly returned to her family. She died in obscurity after being a minor American celebrity in the 1870s. Of course, the “captivity narrative” was a popular theme in early American literature, such as in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. The idea of innocent women and children being hauled off into the great unknown by savages titilated the minds of Europeans and Americans alike. Of course, the captivity narrative hearkens back to the earliest human literature, such as in Homer’s Iliad. In some ways, The Searchers demonstrates how the fear of captivity and the desire for rescue can become a justification for imperial war designs, or worse, for genocide, i.e. Texans versus the Comanches. In reality, the Comanches had a very low birth rate and so they kidnapped many Mexicans and Texans.

The Searchers takes place across the span of several years during the 40 year Texas-Indian Wars in 1868, around the time when Texas officially joined the Union. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate Civil War veteran who also fought in the Mexican Revolutionary War. We get the impression that he other had many other elusive and criminal misadventures. He returns home to his family on the West Texas frontier, and he carries with him a huge pile of gold coins as well as a medallion he presumably won during his time in Mexico –he gives the latter to his niece, Debbie. His past is something of a mystery, though we are led to believe it was not pretty. In a series of quick looks and glances Ethan demonstrates he is in love with his brother’s wife and that she loves him in return (some critics have speculated about whether or not his niece Debbie is, in fact, Ethan’s love child). At any rate, shortly after Ethan’s arrival, cattle are stolen from a neighboring homestead and Ethan soon realizes that the theft was a mere ploy by the Comanche Indians to draw the men away from the house. When they return, the family home is in flames, and the daughters, Debbie and her older sister Lucy, have been captured by Comanche warriors (the scene of the burning home is later mirrored in Star Wars). Thus the plot is set: the remainder of the movie follows Ethan and Martin as they hunt down this thieving pack of Comanche warriors which has wronged their family. Martin is the brother of Lucy and Debbie played by Jeffrey Hunter –also known for his appearance in the pilot episode of Star Trek.

Initially, a group sets out to track down the kidnapped the girls. Reverend Clayton a.k.a. “Captain” Clayton (played by Ward Bond) commands the search group and they covertly approach the Comanche band despite Ethan’s protests (Ethan loudly instructs them to directly approach the Comanches but others warn they will kill Debbie as soon as trouble is near, either way Ethan does not seem to mind). The men unknowingly walk into a trap until they are suddenly surrounded. Several men die as they cross a river and the group is forced to turn back to the home of their old neighbors, the Jorgensens. The Jorgensen daughter, Laurie is in love with Martin (Laurie is played by Vera Miles -of Psycho and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance fame). Only Ethan and Martin continue onward with the search for Debbie. Ethan, a virulent racist, wonders aloud if Martin is a “half-breed” but Martin is unsure, perhaps he is one-eighth Indian. Even one drop of Indian blood is disgusting to Ethan, he cannot stand anything affiliated with Indians. While tracking the Comanches, deep in a canyon Ethan finds Lucy dead and presumably raped (we learn of this only through Ethan’s subtle subtext). Ethan buries her. As time passes, Ethan and Martin trail the Comanche band and its warlord leader named “Scar” and they learn about the trail from other Indians (Martin accidentally buys a “squaw” wife in an amusing scene).

They meet a Mexican man who leads them through the New Mexico territory to the Comanche. Ethan and Martin attempt to rescue Debbie who has been taken as a wife of Scar (she was taken at age 9 and is now around the age of 16) but their rescue attempt is prevented in a shootout. Ethan tries to kill Debbie because “living with a Comanche ain’t living,” but he is prevented by Martin. However, Debbie is reluctant to leave. Ethan’s arm is injured by an arrow in the chaos but he recovers. Ethan and Martin return once more empty-handed to the Jorgensen home just as Laurie, having heard very little from Martin, is on the eve of her wedding to another man. Martin interrupts the wedding and a fight ensues until a “yankee” soldier arrives suddenly with news that Scar has been located by a half-crazed friend of Ethan. Captain Clayton leads a troupe out to the Comanche locale. Martin sneaks ahead and rescues Debbie –this time she is willing to leave. Martin kills scar and Ethan scalps him. At the end of this brilliantly shot battle sequence Ethan scoops Debbie up onto his saddle and at the last moment, rather than kill her, he decides to take her home. The film ends with the same brilliant framing technique employed at the beginning. The opening of the film features a door opening to the vast western landscape as Ethan enters the frame, and the ending of the movie shows the family reunited while the door shuts as Ethan turns his back and departs from the house (perhaps a nod to the earlier brilliant technicolor epic The Wizard of Oz with its iconic and illuminating ‘door opening’ scene to the land of Oz).

Taken in a certain light, The Searchers contains a dual-plot: one of an amusing, safe, humorous domestic life while civilization expands westward onto the prairie, yet another of a deeply unsettling, enigmatic, and morally ambiguous narrative in the wilderness that poses many more questions than it resolves.

“No, a human rides a horse until it dies, then he goes on afoot. A Comanche comes along, gets that horse up, rides him 20 more miles… and then he eats him.”

In the Western genre, it is sometimes difficult to showcase an anti-hero. Western audiences tend to be driven away by moral ambiguity and complexity. However, in The Searchers the viciousness of the Comanche tribe is contrasted, or perhaps compared, with the ruthlessness of our protagonist: John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards. He is the epitome of a morally conflicted hero. Equally brutal savage, he is a laconic lone gunman, but hardly a celebrated hero. In fact, he is an outlaw, a robber, a murderer, and deeply prejudiced. He represents some of the worst parts of the American psyche –he is a rebel, a Confederate, and explicitly racist toward Indians, wanting them to suffer even in death while caring little for his own kin who have been affected by the Indians. Everyone is either good or evil according to Ethan, and in order to fight evil, Ethan must himself become evil. Ethan is a purist, and like Melville’s Captain Ahab, he demands purity from the world. Everything has its place, and to him, the Indians might as well be a sub-human species. If his family has been tainted by sexual exposure to the Comanches then they are better off dead than alive. Yet he is still the central protagonist -is it possible for Ethan to be a noble rescuing/hero or merely a vindictive psychopath? His dialogue would seem to indicate the latter, especially when he attempts to shoot Debbie in order to free her of her Comanche impurity. In contrast, Martin exists as the traditional cowboy hero -a man on a noble quest to rescue his sister and return home to his beau-in-waiting. However, the film is not called “the rescuers,” rather it is about “searchers.” Both Ethan and Martin are searchers on a different path, seeking different things. Ethan’s path is considerably more confusing than Martin’s. Ethan mutilates dead Comanche Indians, he shoots their eyes out even in death, damning them to eternally wander according to Comanche mythology. Ethan also remorselessly scalps them. He is calloused, arrogant (in fact proud of his own arrogance) and yet he is also the necessary vagabond to lead the expedition out beyond the bounds of good and evil (i.e. beyond civilization), and despite his injuries, Ethan cannot die. He remains a part of us –he is a unique image of American restlessness. As a Confederate, he has lost the dream of a nation he once fought for, and as the representative of a vanished way of life, he is doomed to wander the lawless frontier. Civilization requires impurity, hence why Debbie must be reunited with her family despite being defiled by the Comanches. But there is no real change in Ethan –he has long ago lost his idealism, and now he is battle-hardened, disillusioned, living like a bounty hunter. In a word, Ethan is a world-wearied existential realist traveling through a land of moral ambiguity. Of course, in some ways, Ethan is the mirror of director John Ford, an alcoholic and an occasionally abusive person who demanded perfection. In a rare but terse interview with John Ford conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford called The Searchers a “psychological” film. Incidentally, John Wayne thought Ethan was his greatest role, he later named one of his sons “Ethan” after the character.

In many ways, The Searchers undermines Western tropes: the hero is both ignoble and violent, not unlike his enemies, meanwhile the ‘damsel in distress’ does not wish to be rescued, and we are also offered a brief glimpse into the classic ‘singing cowboy’ trope but this is merely a silly or buffoonish character rather than an honest love interest. The tropes are explored, examined and turned on their heads. The effect is to challenge audience’s expectations for a Western, particularly at the close of the film. Who is the real hero? What has been accomplished? Have the “searchers” actually found anything? Is John Ford defending the encroachment of civilization upon the untamed west? Or is he critiquing society’s genocidal instincts? The questions remain unanswered and perhaps that is why The Searchers is an enigmatic film and also one of the greatest of all time.

“That’ll be the day” –Ethan’s iconic and oft-repeated line

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