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The Searchers

The Searchers

By Colin Williamson • June 18th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros.

Original release: March 13th, 1956
Running time: 119 minutes

Director: John Ford
Writer: Frank S. Nugent
Composers: Max Steiner (score), Stan Jones (title song)

Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood

The Searchers

Full disclosure: I have a poster of The Searchers hanging on my bedroom wall and I consider the film to be one of the best I’ve ever seen. I’m a cinephile due largely to John Ford and John Wayne. One afternoon I watched Stagecoach (1939) on Turner Classic Movies and over the course of the film I came to the startling realisation that black and white movies could indeed not only be good, but better than anything else I’d seen to that point. Many years and over a thousand films later, here I am.

The Searchers is rightfully considered by many critics to be John Ford’s greatest work, in fact, in his 2007 review of the film, Dave Kehr famously called the it “the Great American Film.” Extremely high praise, especially considering that in that same review he leads up to that that remark by saying “We may still be waiting for the Great American Novel . . .” Now, the generally accepted definition of the “Great American Novel” is a novel which captures the American experience, especially of the time it was written. Some famous contenders for the Great American Novels include Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby. What separates The Searchers from these novels though, is that it was obviously not filmed during the time period it portrays, in fact it was filmed in 1956, nearly one hundred years after the events it describes!

The film begins by telling us that the time and place is Texas, 1868, and then opens with a shot of Monument Valley (Arizona/Utah) — to which Peter Bogdanovich commented “is definitively not Texas.” Right from the outset, we can tell that John Ford is unconcerned with capturing the reality of the situation (the historical incident, which occurred in 1836, that the novel/film is supposedly based upon) and instead is trying to capture a deeper truth.

The Searchers

The Searchers’s plot is rather straightforward: Confederate war veteran Ethan Edwards arrives at his brother Aaron’s and his wife Martha’s home in Texas to find that not only has his brother fathered three kids, but they’ve adopted another named Martin, who (scandalously enough) is 1/8th Cherokee. On top of learning Ethan’s been away so long that he didn’t even know that his brother has had several kids, but it’s also heavily hinted at that Ethan and Martha are in love with each other.

Ethan’s only there for a short time when the Edwards’ neighbor’s cattle are stolen. In response, Ethan and Martin join an unsuccessful search party (posse) to find the Indians who stole the cattle, only to discover upon their return to the family’s ranch that Ethan’s brother, his wife Martha, and their son have been killed, while their two daughters, Debbie (who’s only a toddler) and Lucy, have been abducted.

In an attempt to rescue the girls, Ethan, Martin, and Lucy’s fiancé, Brad, head out after the band of Comanche Indians, led by the infamous chieftain Scar, responsible. However, when Ethan finds Lucy’s corpse (after she has presumably been raped), Brad, in a fit of rage, foolishly attacks the Comanche camp by himself and is killed in the process. Ethan knows that Debbie won’t have been killed because she’s so young The Searchersand will instead be raised as a Comanche, which absolutely infuriates him. So much so that he decides that if/when he finds Debbie he will kill her, because in his opinion it’s better to be dead than a Comanche. Martin decides to join Ethan in his search, hoping to both rescue Debbie and prevent Ethan from killing her.

Ethan and Martin search for Debbie for close to ten years, endure a series of adventures over the course of the film (and Martin gains a love interest, Laurie, back home) before finally tracking the Comanches to their home county. With the support of the Texas Rangers, led by Ethan’s (sorta) friend Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), Ethan and Martin attack Scar’s encampment, find Debbie, and kill Scar and most of his tribe in the process. At the last second Ethan decides not to kill Debbie and instead takes her home to what’s left of her family, while Martin finally gets together with Laurie. The film then ends with the famous shot of Ethan, framed by the doorway of the cabin, walking off into the desert by himself.

Some people balk at the film’s portrayal of the American Indians as racist because they’re presented as nothing more than savages, but what so many people miss when watching this film is that not only are the Indians savages, but so is everyone else. The SearchersThe film’s hero Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is every bit as brutal, obsessive, and racist as the Comanche chief, and ostensible villain of the film, that the two make for extremely compelling foils for each other.

Ford constantly undercuts our ideas of what we think the film should be; when Ethan and Martin are abusing Martin’s Indian “wife” (he unwittingly bought her at a trade post) in what is supposed to be one of comic relief scenes, we as modern viewers are (hopefully) disgusted by the portrayal we’re witnessing. However, when Ethan and Martin find the woman killed later, they’re as shocked and saddened as we are. When Martin’s love interest, Laurie, tells him that he should let Ethan kill Debbie, it makes for one of the biggest shocks of the movie. Revealing the supposedly innocent and cute Laurie as prejudiced as Ethan; showing that no one in this society is innocent. John Ford shows the viewer an America that was forged by violence, and does so totally unflinchingly. Creating a savage, mythical world, and in doing shows us the truth of the Wild West, not necessarily the reality.

Of course, after reading all this, one question about the film might be: if I’m not an American why should I see this movie? That’s much easier to answer than almost any other possible question you could ask about the film. You’ll experience some of the most beautiful cinematography ever captured on film, almost any and every shot of it is a masterpiece. Then there’s John Wayne who, by his gait alone, gives what’s almost unquestionably the best performance of his career. Throw in a compelling story and a ton of interesting intellectual subtext, and you’ve got yourself one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Searchers

Colin Williamson

Colin Williamson

Colin has been a dedicated cinephile for many years now and finds nothing more rewarding than discovering and experiencing a terrific film. Colin has no explicit criteria as to what makes something a great film, but finds that he often values the image more than anything else when it comes to his favorite movies, but of course there are exceptions.

Some of Colin’s favorite films include The Night Of The Hunter, Tabu, Chimes At Midnight, Pierrot Le Fou, Solaris, and The Big Combo.

Colin also writes for and is the editor in chief of the film website thereisnomoon.com and you can follow him on twitter (appropriately enough) @thereisnomoon.

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