The Searchers (1956) Director: John Ford
“We’ll find ’em, just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth”
The Searchers has often been called John Ford’s magnum opus and with good reason. It is a beautiful, expansive, and immensely complex story shot in technicolor and Vista Vision. The sweeping views of the film are incredible -the audience is transported across dusty Texas and Arizona landscapes, including the majestic Monument Valley (John Ford’s favorite shooting location), and since the story takes place across a significant timespan, we see dehydrated desert summers, as well as snow falling on buffalo herds in the high desert. In addition to the incredible scenery, the content of the film is remarkably challenging. The Searchers is not a bloody and gritty Western like a Leone film. It contains both heaviness as well as comedy. Consider the scenes on the homestead which are almost silly and light-hearted. Meanwhile, out on the frontier, the duality between the characters of Ethan and Martin plays a kind of Don Quixote-Sancho Panza dynamic as one is committed to a bloodthirsty massacre, while the other merely wants to rescue his sister.
The plot for the film 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 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 during the 40 year Texas-Indian Wars in 1868, around the time when Texas officially joined the union. The story takes place across a span of several years. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate Civil War veteran and a soldier who fought in the Mexican Revolutionary War, among other elusive and likely criminal misadventures. He returns home to his family on the frontierland of West Texas. He carries with him a huge pile of gold coins and 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 the theft was a mere ploy by 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 Trek). Thus the plot is set: the remainder of the movie follows Ethan and Martin as they hunt down the pack of Comanche warriors that 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 wanted them to directly approach the Comanches but others warn they will kill Debbie as soon as trouble is near -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 (played by Vera Miles -of Psycho and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance fame) is in love with Martin. 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 the 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.” 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 the 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 and the door shutting, however Ethan turns his back and departs from the house as the door closes (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 story of an amusing, safe, humorous domestic life while civilization expands onto the western prairie, yet another of a deeply unsettling, enigmatic, and morally ambiguous narrative 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 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 Comanches is contrasted, or perhaps compared, with the ruthlessness of the protagonist: John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards. He is the epitome of a morally challenging hero. Ethan is an equally brutal savage. He is the laconic lone gunman, but he is hardly a celebrated hero in the film. In fact, he is an outlaw, a robber, a murderer, and he is deeply prejudiced. He represents some of the worst parts of the American psyche -he is a rebel, a Confederate, and explicitly racist toward the Indians, wanting them to suffer even in death while caring little for his kin who have been exposed to 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 -he even attempts to shoot Debbie 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 a battle-hardened, disillusioned, bounty hunter; a world-wearied existential realist traveling through a land of moral ambiguity. Of course, in some ways, Ethan is the mirror of the film’s director, John Ford. Ford was an alcoholic and an occasionally abusive director 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 of the classic ‘singing cowboy’ trope but he is a silly buffoonish character rather than an honest love interest. The tropes are explored, examined and turned on their heads. The effect challenges audience’s expectations for a Western, particularly at the close of the film. Who is the hero? What has been accomplished? Is John Ford defending the encroachment of civilization in the west? Or is he critiquing society’s genocidal instincts? The questions remain unanswered and perhaps that is why this enigmatic film is one of the greatest of all time.
“That’ll be the day” –Ethan’s iconic and oft-repeated line
The Searchers is a remarkable and formative film that inspired the works of many modern epic directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. In fact, films like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a certain re-telling of The Searchers. Tragically, The Searchers was not celebrated upon its release and it only rose to prominence years later. It is a brilliant albeit unsettling film.