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What's the big deal?
The Searchers is an epic western film released in 1956 and was based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Alan Le May. Directed by genre veteran John Ford, the film depicts a former Confederate soldier on the trail of Indians who have kidnapped his young niece and murdered the rest of his family. The film stars John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond and Henry Brandon. The film marked the ninth collaboration between Johns Ford and Wayne (who would come to call Ford 'Pappy') and Wayne considered his role to be among the very best of his career. The film was a critical and commercial success although it failed to earn a single Academy Award nomination. Nevertheless, its stature has grown over the years and today, it is widely recognised as one of the best westerns ever made as well as a masterpiece by Ford. It was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 1989, one of the first 25 films to be selected for this process. It was also one of the first films to have a making-of documentary made behind the scenes and the film has been cited by multiple filmmakers as an inspiration.
What's it about?
In 1868, former Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards returns to his brother Aaron's ranch in Texas after an eight year absence despite the Civil War ending three years earlier. Regardless as to his actions or how he came to be in possession of freshly minted gold coins, his family are pleased to see him although Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton is suspicious about Ethan's recent past. Shortly after Ethan's arrival at the ranch, cattle belonging to their neighbour Lars Jorgensen are stolen and Ethan joins Clayton's posse of men to investigate. They quickly find that the cattle were stolen by Comanche Indians to create a diversion, drawing the men away from the homestead. Ethan quickly heads back to warn his family but is too late, returning to discover the ranch is now a burning ruin and his two youngest nieces Lucy and Debbie kidnapped.
Teaming up with his adopted nephew Martin (who is partly of Cherokee descent himself), Ethan tags along with Clayton's Texas Rangers as they set off in pursuit to rescue the girls. But Ethan fears that the quest is hopeless as the girls will be forced into slavery and made to become some chief's wife - he is more concerned about simply killing the Comanche for vengeance. After an ambush by the Comanche results in their numbers being greatly reduced, Ethan insists on continuing the pursuit together with Martin and Lucy's fiancé, Brad Jorgensen. None of them, however, realise how long their pursuit of their foe will last or what will happen if they discover Debbie is still somehow alive.
What's to like?
It doesn't take long to appreciate that The Searchers is a film produced by a man at the peak of his powers. Ford has an exceptional understanding of how to frame a shot, whether its against the stunning backdrop of Monument Valley or through a darkened doorway as a character approaches. There aren't many shots in the film which aren't spectacular (although the scenes clearly filmed on a set do stand out) so it's an easy film to watch - at least, in some respects. Like the director, Wayne is also performing at his very best and delivers a portrayal of a tortured man haunted by his past and his prejudices. Ethan Edwards is by no measure of the word a 'hero' because he is openly racist towards Native Americans and ruthless in his pursuit of those who slaughtered his family. So blinded by hatred is he that he fires indiscriminately at a herd of bison so that they can't be used for food by the Comanche - he even threatens to kill Debbie if she is forced to "live with a buck".
The film doesn't have the proliferation of shoot-outs that one might expect from a western - this is no A Fistful Of Dollars - but what action is in the film is remarkably well staged and shot. The final assault on the Comanche camp is a startling sequence as the camera runs alongside Wayne on his horse through the camp as he fires his six-shooter wildly. The film is much more cerebral than simply a series of bloody (at least, by the standards of 1956) gun fights - it asks questions about both Ethan and Martin's motives as the quest gets ever more protracted and difficult. It even offers a subplot about Martin's love life, focusing on the promise of an easier life living with rancher's daughter Vera Miles if he were to walk away from Ethan's murderous pursuit. Hunter, as the much more noble Martin, has quite a difficult role as well as Wayne as he has to be a rugged man of action, comedic foil to Ethan's openly hostile ways and romantic lead opposite Miles. I confess I'm not familiar with Hunter's work but it's a solid supporting performance nonetheless.
Speaking of comedy, the film isn't afraid to lighten its rather bleak atmosphere with some more goofy additions. The character of crazy Mose Harper, played with good nature by Hank Worden, is a curious addition to the film and the second act focuses more on Martin's protracted love life rather than the main story, complete with a wedding scene and an awkward sequence where he finds himself accidentally betrothed to a Comanche bride. But for all the moments when the film feels uncomfortable (and it does at times), we get another blistering sequence fleeing from angry Comanche or a fiery confrontation between Wayne and Hunter and we forgive the film. It's highlighting racism as a flaw instead of hushing it up and leaving it unspoken - here, it is dragged out into the light and exposed for what it is. It's unusual to see an actor like Wayne tackling such a repugnant character and doing it well. For once, this is a western that isn't just about the superiority of the white man or the old fashioned good-vs-evil story lines but it introduces shades of grey more familiar with audiences these days than back in the mid 1950s.
- Although the film doesn't explicitly say, there are a few visual clues as to why Ethan becomes so consumed in his quest for revenge - it's implied that Ethan had an affair with his brother's wife, Martha which resulted in the birth of Ben Edwards eight years previously while Ethan's own wife died as a result of a Comanche raid in 1852. Her tombstone can be seen when Debbie flees from the ranch at the beginning.
- Wayne was acutely aware of the racist nature of his character as such attitudes were prevalent at the time the film was set. But Wayne himself had no such problems working with the mostly Navajo cast on set, stopping production for a few days so that Beulah Archuletta could fly to attend her son's wedding in California and getting his personal pilot to fly a Navajo child to a nearby hospital when they became seriously ill. In gratitude, the Navajo named Wayne 'the Man With The Big Eagle'.
- Ethan's scene when he discusses finding Lucy's body was nailed by Wayne in one take but for some reason, the camera wasn't working. Furious, Ford went to investigate why when the camera suddenly switched back on again and the scene was shot again. Unbeknown to the famously idiosyncratic director, Ward Bond had unplugged the camera so he could enjoy an electric shave and the crew never told Ford for fear of repercussions. Ford only learned the truth years later after Bond had died and apparently went white with shock.
- A number of people have suggested that Le May's novel may have been based on a real-life incident in 1836 when nine-year-old Cynthia Parker was kidnapped after what was later dubbed the Fort Parker Massacre. Cynthia was captured and spent most of her adult life living among the Comanche, marrying and having three children including the last free chief of the Comanche, Quanah Parker. Cynthia was recaptured and forcibly returned to her family years later when she was 33, having discarded almost everything about her childhood identity and culture. Unable to readjust back to her native society and traumatised by the death of her daughter, she died just ten years later in 1871.
What's not to like?
At this point in the life of this film, such criticism levelled at it must seem meaningless but it's hard to argue that it's perfect. The second act in particular seems at odds with the first, becoming an odd blend of wistful romance and period comedy instead of the hard-nosed odyssey the first act promises. It also seems unable to demonstrate the passing of time that well - the story takes place over the course of some five years but you rarely get the vibe that much time has passed at all. Indeed, there are some moments when you're convinced that Wayne and Hunter ride past the same towering sandstone buttes they had earlier in the film which makes it look as if they are riding in circles rather than cross-country. There are also some notable scenes that were obviously filmed indoors on a studio for whatever reason. Maybe the weather was inclement or the budget was getting stretched too thin - I'm sure there were practicable reasons behind such decisions but they are worryingly obvious and break the illusion somewhat.
Perhaps the film's biggest issue is actually with me and what I call "Shawshank syndrome". I can't deny that The Shawshank Redemption is anything less than a solid-gold piece of filmmaking - it's genuinely moving, brilliantly performed, ably directed and a stirring story of hope in the face of the hopeless. But having seen it, I have no real desire to see it again and The Searchers is the same. It's a wonderfully crafted film fuelled by one of Wayne's best ever performances but thanks to its more unsavoury elements, it doesn't sing to me in the way it does to so many others. Call it personal taste if you like but I can't say it's a film I enjoyed. It's a film I respect, certainly but I just couldn't ride along with it the way I wanted to.
Should I watch it?
It may lack the excitement of more famous spaghetti westerns but The Searchers is a much more rewarding experience, providing an epic tale of obsession and revenge that feels like a cowboy-reimagining of Moby Dick. Wayne has rarely been better here as the complex and unlikeable Ethan Edwards while Ford works his own magic behind the camera, presenting us with a vision of the Old West that is breath-taking and savage in equal measure. For fans of the genre, this is simply unmissable.
Great For: fans of westerns, John Wayne's detractors, examining stereotypes of westerns, big screen showings (the film really benefits from as giant a screen as possible)
Not So Great For: depictions of Native Americans, racists, anyone hoping for an all-action affair
What else should I watch?
Compared to the number of westerns produced over the years, my exposure to the genre has been rather limited but then again, I grew up on the rural east coast of England in the 1980s instead of some California paradise in the 1950s. Personally, those I have seen tend to be more of a spaghetti western variety and none more so than The Good, The Bad And The Ugly which concluded Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name trilogy directed by the great Sergio Leone. First introduced in A Fistful Of Dollars, Eastwood's mysterious sharp-shooting stranger became arguably the face of the western in the 1960s and introduced a more action-orientated style of film that dispensed with the idealistic and corny portrayal of cowboys being heroic men of action who could probably play the guitar and serenade the love interest at the same time. Even more violent was the original Django, played with menace by Franco Nero in the role that made him famous.
Of course, there are no shortage of more traditional westerns for fans to track down. From the increasingly dusty Stagecoach (which also saw John Ford and John Wayne work together), the dramatic High Noon, the classic Rio Bravo and Clint Eastwood's magnificent farewell to the genre Unforgiven, westerns continue to enjoy popularity although their heyday has probably long passed. Audiences are more suspect about the frequent demonising of Native Americans that the genre helped to perpetuate and these days, the setting can be used for a variety of stories and even other genres. Brokeback Mountain achieved success for depicting the gay relationship between two cowboys in the 20th century, Wind River is a murder mystery set on an Indian reservation, The Revenant is a powerful survival story that finally got star Leonardo DiCaprio his Best Actor Oscar while Casa Di Ma Padre and A Million Ways To Die In The West are both more comedic options, despite the best comedy western still being Mel Brooks' outrageous satire Blazing Saddles.
Rev. Capt. Samuel J. Clayton
Debbie Edwards (adult)
Chief Cicatriz (Scar)
Frank S. Nugent*
Release Date (UK)
23rd September, 1956
U (2008 re-rating)
Adventure, Drama, Western
© 2022 Benjamin Cox