Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

The Searchers

by Peter Bogdanovich
August 10, 2011 6:39 AM
20 Comments
  • |

Even if you don’t like Westerns, there are at least four or five that must be seen by any civilized person, and since John Ford indisputably made the finest of them all in that most profoundly American genre, one of his would have to be at the top. Which to choose of the 20-odd Western features surviving from the approximately 60 he made between 1917 and 1964, when he directed his last of them? My Darling Clementine (1946)? Fort Apache (1947)? Rio Grande (1950)? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)? Well, certainly high among the contenders for the crown would be Mr. Ford’s deeply ambiguous, disturbing post-Civil War domestic tragedy set in Texas during the Indian Wars of the late 1860’s, filmed in Technicolor and VistaVision less than a hundred years later, in 1956, starring America’s most enduringly popular Western star, John Wayne, and based on Alan LeMay’s excellent novel, THE SEARCHERS (available on DVD).

The irony is that in its own day—-now over half a century ago—-The Searchers, while a successful box-office attraction, was nowhere considered among the premier in its field. Here it was mainly taken for granted, as usual with our most traditional aspects; just another quite good John Wayne-John Ford Western, at a period when Wayne’s right-wing Republican politics were beginning wrongly to color certain people’s view of liberal Democrat Jack Ford’s movies. Nevertheless, seen from the truer perspective of time, The Searchers stands not only among the very best, but also among the final Western masterworks of the movies’ golden age. Reinforcing my point, on the commemorative postage stamp the U.S. is soon issuing as a tribute to Ford is an image drawn from this film.

The picture begins with the classiest Western opening of all, a black screen becoming a door that opens from within a home to the red desert outside this settlers’ house as the whole family—-father, mother, three children (two daughters, one son) and a dog—-walk onto the porch while a lone horseman rides up from the gigantic red buttes in the far distance. The rider is the father’s long-absent brother, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), returned for the first time since the end of the Civil War, three years previous, during which Ethan was on the side of the Confederacy, a loner who has spent the bitter years since then fighting as a hired gun in Mexico. What is conveyed in a few small private moments is that Ethan is chastely in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him, though neither would think of showing it in any overt way.

There is the alarm of a Comanche uprising, and Ethan rides off with the sheriff’s posse to check on a nearby ranch. While he and the others are gone, Comanches attack Ethan’s brother’s house, brutally murdering the man and his young son, raping and killing the beloved wife and teenage daughter, abducting the eight-year-old little girl, burning down the house from which we have emerged so recently to begin this story of Ethan’s subsequent ten-year search. He and an adopted “quarter-breed” (Jeffrey Hunter) become the searchers not only to find the kidnapped young niece but also to avenge the terrible deaths by executing the destroyer, a proud and virile Comanche chief, who will become the child’s husband. The search is both love-and-vengeance ridden and racial.

The saga that ensues is remarkably vivid, filled with incident, superbly composed, emotionally complicated, often darkly funny, deeply moving. That Ethan’s obsessive fury and hatred in some way turns against the young victim as well is among the most troubling aspects of the story, resolved by Ford (at odds with the novel) in one of the most profoundly touching moments in picture history. The ironic theme of the work, spoken by settler Olive Carey, is that all the sufferings these “Texicans” (read Americans) must endure will make it possible for future generations to live in harmony and peace. Although Ethan succeeds in his quest, at the end another settler’s door closes on him walking away toward horse and desert as alone as ever; thus concluding John Ford’s penultimate poetic landmark of the West that has shaped us, that haunts us still as both history and myth.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

20 Comments

  • wrapper | October 14, 2011 4:08 AMReply

    I can't stand American style westerns where everyone is clean as a whistle. I can't stand the nonsense of settlers and Indians fighting over a landscape that can barely grow cactus.

    However, I like long shots with lots of clouds.

  • Rodney Welch | August 20, 2011 8:31 AMReply

    Another point worth making: "The Searchers" has become a sort of template. Paul Schrader's script for "Taxi Driver," for example, was clearly influenced by it: with Robert DeNiro as an Ethan Edwards-like disaffected loner (as well as a veteran) who takes up his own mission of vengeance. I'm sure there are other examples -- that's just the main one that springs to mind.

  • Frank Burchill | August 19, 2011 12:21 PMReply

    I saw the Searchers in the cinema on it's release in1956 in Salford, UK. Salford was then a town of small cobbled streets with no sign of grass in it's central locations. However there were enough cinemas to see more than one film a day and I had seen everything, one way or another. I knew I was going to see a John Ford western, but that was all I knew.
    It was immediately beautiful and shocking. Never had I seen a film where the cowboys were outwitted by the Indians and to such a devastating effect.like everybody else I was transfixed by the themes, the grandeur of the scenery and the subtlety of the set pieces - especially the scene where the Indians ride parallel to the homesteaders.
    The odyssey never faltered and never once did Ford dissemble on the main themes.
    I probably showed it to my children too early. Only now as they approach their forties do they now contact me and say they have recently seen it and how impressive it is. I have certainly watched it more than I have watched any other film.
    The music is rarely commented on but it is all outstanding from the opening credits and the weaving of that melody into spectacular background music and occasionally balletic themes.

  • John B. | August 19, 2011 5:00 AMReply

    I grew up on John Wayne thanks in part to my parents and *especially* my grandfather . The Searchers was the fifth Wayne film I watched and enjoyed it and it really grew on me over the years. The appreciation of this complex Western hit a high point when I began study Ford's career in college. One of the classes I enrolled in called Film Appreciation was focused on Ford for two days. The first day was a screening of a 16mm print of the original Directed by John Ford. The second day was a print of The Searchers. I sadly overheard a student in the class say after one of the screenings 'There goes another two hours of my life.' Such a lack of interest in cinema's history and masterpieces seems to grow more and more. It's such a tragedy. Depending on the day, I consider The Searchers my favorite film and wish people my age would gain a better perspective for the classics such as this one.

  • Belinda | August 17, 2011 6:45 AMReply

    I am a new author ,Will you please read my book" MY LITTLE SECRETS" author Belinda Davis,My book is about the south and it make me think of the movie COLOR PURPLE and I know my book will make a great movie Belinda!

  • Stefanie | August 14, 2011 5:22 AMReply

    Although I was first introduced to John Wayne in "True Grit" and -- as a 14 year-old at the time--- fell smack dab in love with him..."The Searchers" blew me away the first time I saw it (on t.v., of course). Naturally, I audio-recorded it (way before we could even imagine video tapes of our favorite films). Can recite the entire film from memory (which annoys my family from time to time). To this day, I cannot watch "The Searchers" without the same emotion (laughter, tears, fear) I had at the very first viewing...maybe 40 years ago now.
    So much to admire -- but what always haunts me...
    The rawness of Ethan's reaction to what he found in the burning cabin when he ran in, calling Martha's name...and the awful scene with HC Jr and Jeffery Hunter when Ethan is trying to tell them what happened to Lucy -- o my goodness. I can feel it in my gut even as I type this.
    Amazing film. I consider it a privilege every time I view it.

  • The Lady Eve | August 14, 2011 3:59 AMReply

    Thanks to John Ford, John Wayne's talent as an actor will long outlive his less admirable political bent. Your review of "The Searchers" is incisive and poetic - and timely - I'd just a few hours earlier watched one of my Ford favorites, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and am very much in a Ford frame of mind. Now, for "Stagecoach."

  • Steve Joyce | August 14, 2011 2:37 AMReply

    One of the best scenes I have ever seen is the breakfast scene with Ward Bond eating a donut and drinking coffee while standing in the foreground and John Wayne and his brother' wife delicately saying goodbye in the background. This scene sets the mood for the rest of the film that follows.
    Can it get any better that this?

  • Christopher Stilley | August 13, 2011 10:42 AMReply

    Having lived in Texas the largest portion of my life and familiar with many of the best "out of the way places",I can forgive the monumental obstruction of Monument Valley standing in for the Lone Star State because the characterizations,set pieces and overall mood ringing true, more than make up for it...and of course its all relevant to the actual documents of Indian depredations in Texas from the 1830s-1880s of countless attempts to ransom settlers from Kiowas,Comanches and Apaches..THe last of the white settlers turning up on reservations in the 1900s..many of whom willing joined native american bands to do"the things Comanches do"..

  • Rose Pacatte | August 13, 2011 8:22 AMReply

    Thank you for this tribute to "The Searchers", where John Wayne is the anti-hero hero, the antagonist and protagonist as one. Writer Frank Nugent had to change the novel to fit Wayne's icon status, but it was done to great effect. LeMay's ending, while it did confront raging social issues maintained the romantic ending. By making John Wayne live, Ford changed the trajectory of the western and I think opened the way for Clint Eastwood's westerns (war and urban films) that challenge the very myth on which they are built.

    I had a chance to read an advance copy of Sarah Anson Vaux's "The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood" . It's well worth a read if you admire "The Searchers".

  • PB | August 13, 2011 3:35 AMReply

    Thanks for all of your warm and personal appraisals of "The Searchers," and especially Blake's touching tribute.
    You've asked about my movie-card file, and the two cards on this Ford film show that I saw it in the year of its original release, 1956, when I was 16 or 17, and then seven more times starting in 1961 to 1970, the last year I kept the cards. Countless times since then. Gave it my highest rating right away:
    Exceptional* (plus). As a teenager I wrote that was "Stunningly color-photograped, superbly directed and acted, exciting, deeply stirring western drama...a vivid and beautiful piece of Americana." When I was 24, I called it "Perhaps Ford's purest film and certainly one of his most personal; truly a masterpiece by one of the four greatest directors in cinema history." That year, 1963, I saw it again and also finally was privileged to meet the Old Man himself. In l969, turning 30 (and having done an Esquire piece on Ford, and an interview book, and started on a documentary about him), I said: "It really is a remarkable film, so complex in its effect, so deep in its emotions...it is continually engrossing and always fresh. An unqualified masterpiece." Forty years later, I still feel the same way.

  • JimiJ | August 12, 2011 9:26 AMReply

    There is no denying the beauty of the Searchers. The same could be said for all of John Fords movies. Especially any filmed in Monument valley. I have to agree with a earlier comment about some of the greatest westerns. Especially with Stagecoach. Wonderful movie.

    I'd also add 'The Cowboy's' in as a film that holds up well with a great performance by Wayne. A rather overlooked film when the 'greatest' westerns are mentioned.

    I've always wanted someone to make another grand western in monument valley based on the real like Cynthia Parker who the abducted girl in the movie was based off. Its so fascinating how she became the mother of the last Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Plus the later life of Quanah Pareker. Eventually conforming to a America, or in those days for a Indian an arguably "civil", life. To becoming a wealthy land owner. Makes for some great drama.

  • Dan Luft | August 12, 2011 1:33 AMReply

    This movie kind of shocked me when I saw it as an adult. It proved to me that John Wayne was a really good actor. I never saw that coming.

  • Blake Lucas | August 11, 2011 9:57 AMReply

    This is my favorite movie and always has been since I first saw it. Alas, this was not in 1956--two months away at camp with no movies meant it was gone when I got home. I finally saw it in 1963 in a little revival house in San Francisco; not an art house--they just played old Hollywood movies and I was one of the few people in there for this. I didn't realize the effect it had on me until the very end, maybe not even in the climactic Ethan/Debbie moment, as moving as this was and is. It was in the sublime final shot, from which one of the images appears above, and which even on first viewing, made me remember the opening shot and so brought the whole together. I walked out on the street late in the night and knew I had taken something deep into my soul and it would always be there.

    This isn't a critique. Yours is excellent, and all the comments are appreciated too, but I'm glad Jon O. corrected about Ford and Carey. That Carey was singularly important to Ford personally as well as in his art is indisputable and Ford more than anyone must have felt this deeply. Carey was also Wayne's idol and it's always been believable to me that he did the hand on the arm gesture as the shot was being made, but Ford was the director here and if he didn't like it he could have just said "Do it over without that." He didn't, and that should tell us how he felt about it.

    Do you mind if I ask why you opened with the note "Even if you don't like Westerns..."? Is there some apology that needs to be made about Westerns now, because I never hear anyone say "Even if you don't like comedies" or "musicals" or (God forbid!) "film noir?"
    The reason I ask this question is that the Western is film's greatest genre, certainly in American cinema, and especially when it hit its peak in the 50s; it has the most depth as well as the most beauty. One has to go to filmmakers like Dreyer and Mizoguchi to find anything so spiritually profound as the great 50s Westerns. This isn't only Ford we're talking about, even if it's him above all the others (but it also says something that he chose to make this genre an especially important part of his art and body of work)--it's many other directors too and not only genre specialists like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher or longtime classical masters like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh. It's also many talented but lesser filmmakers brought to their absolute best, and in a number of cases, their only great film, or one of a very few, in this eternal genre.

  • Sgt. York | August 11, 2011 6:47 AMReply

    This film - along with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, STAGECOACH, UNFORGIVEN and WYATT EARP - stands among the greatest western films ever produced.

    My parents kept e from watching it until I was an adult. Not because they objected to its content, but because I wouldn't understand fully the depth of the themes (racism, obsession) until I was old enough. I'm glad i was made to wait.

  • Jon O. | August 11, 2011 6:16 AMReply

    Ford was remorseful over his falling out with Carey Sr., who had died eight years earlier. He brought in Dobe as a member of his "stock company" soon after his father died in 1948, and of course hired both him and his mother Olive, Sr's widow, for The Searchers. Ford opened 3 Godfathers (1948), which co-starred Dobe, with a tribute to his late friend and collaborator: "To Harry Carey--Bright Star Of The Early Western Sky."

  • Frank P. | August 11, 2011 5:12 AMReply

    THE SEARCHERS rests in my heart. There is not much I can say about the film that has not already been said. As a boy, I discovered THE SEARCHERS on New York television and watched it over and over again. Today, if I come across it on cable, I stop (out of respect for it) and finish screening it with as much involvement as if I was seeing it for the first time. I was sick for quite awhile, and THE SEARCHERS, along with a handful of other Classic Films by the Masters, gave me comfort and solace, even if it was simply running in the dead of night as I slept. Max Steiner's score makes my eyes well-up. At times, I just start quoting the dialogue. I love seeing it in MEAN STREETS. In film school, we did a short called WHO HIT JOHN with a nod to "The Duke" and Frank S Nugent. And t the end of THE SEARCHERS, Ford's salute to his deceased pal Harry Carey (with John Wayne's elbow clutch) still puts a lump in my throat.

    Thank you, Mr. Bogdanovich, for giving us this opportunity to share our THE SEARCHERS sentiments with you!

  • Jim Conway | August 11, 2011 5:08 AMReply

    Nearby ranch was 40 miles distant, Texas remember? It was Wayne who demonstrated his regard for the elder Carey with the hand on elbow pose, not Ford. Ford and Carey were estranged in Carey's later years. Wayne also eschewed LeMay's "Amos" for the name he ultimately gave his son, Ethan.

  • Jake | August 11, 2011 4:34 AMReply

    Just one small error - Lucy was killed later in the movie - not with her parents.

  • Jon O. | August 10, 2011 7:02 AMReply

    What a magnificent film - one which rewards more fully with each viewing. I first saw it when I was in my 20s, and thought, as you say, that it was just another good Western. I only really began to appreciate it when I was in my 40s, and now that I'm in my 50s I realize its multi-layed brilliance is much more profound than I ever could have grasped in relative callow youth. American Heritage called it The Movie of the Century in 1998. Thanks for remembering it, Peter, and thanks also for "Directed by John Ford," which should be on everyone's must-see list.

Follow Me

Latest Tweets

Follow us

Popular Posts

  • The Orson Welles File - Part 4