- Director: John Ford
- Writers: Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan LeMay
- Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Henry Brandon, and Harry Carey, Jr.
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#12), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#7), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 list (#10)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV
Beyond being another Western starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford, in a decade full of them, The Searchers did not make a massive impression when it came out in 1956. But it is one of those movies that have since been re-evaluated by various critics, and with good reason. The Western is a genre built on a lot of fundamental assumptions. Ford takes those conventions and stretches them here all the way to the breaking point. One might say that this is the first “revisionist” Western, though I think the key to it working is that John Wayne is seemingly unaware of that. It has a mythological quality to it; I did not make up the idea that it feels like the closest thing America has produced to its own version of The Odyssey. Today, The Searchers is fairly consistently the highest-rated Western on “Best Movies of All Time” lists.
John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, who fought for the Confederacy, proudly says he “never surrendered,” and ended up fighting another war in Mexico. He shows up at his brother’s family’s house in Texas for the first time in a decade with a bag full of gold doubloons of indeterminate origin, and the local sheriff (Ward Bond) says he “fits a lot of descriptions.” Then the neighbor’s cattle get stolen, and the men of the town go off to find them. They realize too late that it was all a ruse on the part of the Comanche tribe to get the men away from their homes. They come back to find the brother’s house in flames and his family dead, with the exception of the two daughters, Lucy and Debbie, who they realize have been kidnapped. The visuals of this scene were cribbed fairly directly by George Lucas for that scene in Star Wars where Luke returns to the homestead to find his aunt and uncle killed.
Ethan and several men, including the sheriff and the adopted brother of the two girls, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), ride off in search of them, but they find Lucy dead and some of the men are killed in an ambush. The sheriff, like a sane person, says this is a wild goose chase, and everyone goes home except for Ethan and Martin. They continue searching for what’s apparently multiple years, while they have a running argument in which Ethan says that if they ever find Debbie alive he’ll kill her, because being dead is better than being “the leavin’s of some buck” (i.e. meaning he’d rather see her dead than the wife of a Native American). Martin spends the time arguing for his sister’s life and sending letters to his girlfriend back home (Vera Miles), who is none too pleased with him. Anyway, they eventually do find the Comanche, led by their chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who says he leads them against white people because they killed his two sons. Grown-up Debbie (a young Natalie Wood) is there too. Ethan is going to shoot her, but Martin stands in the way. In a later scene, Ethan finally catches her and we think he’s going to kill her, but instead he picks her up in his arms and says, “Debbie, let’s go home.” He returns her to her relatives (against her will, I might add), and then stands in the door, forever apart from everyone and framed by the West, in a famous last shot.
The story is supposed to be set in northwest Texas, but much of it was shot in the famous Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border (think cartoons with Wile E. Coyote). I’ve driven across that part of Texas, it doesn’t look nearly this interesting. Against this beautifully photographed backdrop, director John Ford is questioning many of the underlying assumptions of the Western. Sure, they’re fighting the Native Americans, but he really hates them. He kills them when he doesn’t have to. He may be one of the virulent racists ever to headline a movie. When Martin admits to being ⅛ Cherokee, he gets a look from Ethan that lets us know that he thinks that ⅛ is way too much. Most Westerns sort of assume the Native Americans are sub-human, but they don’t actually think through the implications of that. The key difference is that a lot of Westerns are just racist themselves and therefore don’t understand that’s not the default setting of the world, but this is a Western that understands that its characters are racists, and that they don’t actually have to be. And when we do meet the Comanche, we pretty much find that they’re people like us, who are fighting because their people were killed. And so on. But you can also watch the movie and just root for Ethan and Martin the whole time, which led some critics to question whether many audiences were even picking up on the subtext. It seems pretty clear that John Wayne wouldn’t have done the movie if he had.
This is, for the most part, Wayne at his Wayniest. He calls somebody “Pilgrim” for the first time here, and this is where he gets his other catch phrase, “That’ll be the day.” (As in “If you try to kill her I’ll stop you!” “That’ll be the day.”) His use of the phrase in this movie apparently inspired Buddy Holly to write the song of the same name. He had been one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars for many years at this point, mostly from Westerns. He broke through to superstardom in 1939 with another Ford western, Stagecoach. He eventually became one of America’s biggest exports, so much so that when both the Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited America for the first time, they each requested to meet him.
Wayne’s studio did not let him join the Army during World War II, despite his own desperate efforts. Many felt that his later, over the top American-ism was an attempt to make up for his feelings of guilt about this. Whatever the case, he is probably the most prominent Hollywood conservative who never ran for office. He was the most prominent voice in town in favor of HUAC and the blacklist. I’m fairly certain I’ve quoted him a few times here already calling things “unamerican.” He did that a lot. He also was quoted in interviews saying things like what the white people did in the West was OK because “they needed the land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” But he was also a complicated guy. He was a huge supporter of anti-cancer charitable causes, especially after he ended up with lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking. He actually is credited with coining the term “The Big C” to refer to cancer.
His foil in this movie, such as it is, is Jeffrey Hunter playing Martin. Hunter had a relatively brief career around this time as a professional Hollywood handsome guy. Other than this movie, he is probably best known today for playing Captain Pike in the original Star Trek pilot (footage from which was later re-used in the episode “The Menagerie”). Vera Miles makes the best of what is by far the movie’s least interesting subplot, as the erstwhile love interest of Hunter’s character. Hollywood had found her in Great Plains beauty pageants, where she had won Miss Kansas, among other, less impressive titles like “Miss New Maid Margarine.” She was still early in a big career here, including a stretch as Hitchcock’s blond muse of the moment in the 60s.
The Searchers’ version of the West is recognizable to fans of Westerns, but is just pushed slightly further. Rather than a land of hardscrabble opportunity, it feels more like a wasteland. It is a story about obsession driven, not by love, but by fear and hatred of the other. Ethan and Martin spend years searching for a girl who, it turns out, doesn’t actually want to be found. It is perhaps appropriate that the original Odyssey is about Odysseus trying to get home to his family, but the heroes of this American Odyssey are driven by racism and the preservation of their “way of life.”