I consider this to be the greatest film that John Ford ever directed, and that is saying something considering that John Ford made so many fine films during his long career. He was one of the best directors of Western films there has ever been as far as I’m concerned.
When I watch a John Ford Western, I feel as though I have actually been transported back to the particular time period the films are set in. Ford’s Western films really bring that era to life for me. I consider this film to be a high point, not only in the Western genre, but also in Ford’s film career. This film is also one of the best films to come out of Warner Brothers Studios during the 1950’s.
This film is dark, complex, exciting, epic and powerful. It’s a film about doing everything in your power to save your family, and also about letting go of the past and of any hate you may be carrying.
For those who think John Wayne can’t act, I say that they should really watch this film. He delivers what is possibly his best performance here, as the complex, fearless, and endlessly fascinating Ethan Edwards.I think that John does such a superb job of conveying the inner workings of this man’s mind to us through his expressions alone.
There’s so much to enjoy in this film. The acting is terrific, the story is thrilling, moving and powerful. In short this film has something in it for everyone to be able to enjoy and marvel at.
The visuals in this film are absolutely stunning. So many scenes stand out to me in this film: That opening shot of the door. The sequences shot out in monument valley. Ethan’s reaction to seeing the burning home(surely an inspiration for George Lucas when he made Star Wars? I’m thinking specifically of the scene in Star Wars:A New Hope where Luke returns home to see his aunt and uncle, and instead finds their home ablaze). That unforgettable close up of Wayne’s face looking in horror, pity and disgust at a group of emotionally damaged white women rescued from captivity amongst Native American Indians.
The film is based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May. I’ve yet to read the novel, but I am very eager to do so. Apparently the ending of the novel is much bleaker than what we get in the film. It will be interesting to compare the book to the film.
I want to take a moment to mention my thoughts concerning the opening title sequence, and also that famous final shot of the film. The title sequence sees the opening credits play out against a backdrop of what looks like a wall. This wall consists of what looks like bricks or big slabs of stone. Homes and communities are of course built using such things. I think that this was used to convey that the story we’re about to witness is one such story showing what happened during the time towns and communities were being built in the old west.
I’d also like to say a few words about the final scene of the film. I see the final shot as saying that the family we see here represent the future of the country of America. People like Ethan, and the violence and horror he causes, belong firmly in the America of the past. That family going into the home represent the civilised society of the future, and people like Ethan will find that they have no place in such a society.
Ethan Edwards(John Wayne)returns home to Texas, after fighting in the civil war. He goes to the home of his brother, Aaron(Walter Coy). We pick up instantly(without any dialogue to tell us)that Ethan and his sister in law Martha(Dorothy Jordan)are in love, and that they have been for some time.
Whilst Ethan is away one day with some neighbours, a Comanche raiding party led by Chief Scar(Henry Brandon)attacks the Edward’s home, burn it to ground, kill Aaron, Martha, their son and kidnap their two daughters, Lucy(Pippa Scott)and Debbie(Lana Wood). Ethan sets out to find his nieces. He is helped in his quest by half Indian Martin Pawley(Jeffrey Hunter)who was raised by Aaron and Martha as their son. Also along for the trek are the loveable Mose Harper(Hank Worden),fearless Reverend Clayton(Ward Bond)and Lucy’s boyfriend, Brad(Harry Carey Jr). Will they find the girls?
Many viewers call Ethan racist because of the attitude he displays towards the Native American Indians that he encounters. While his behaviour towards them is very unpleasant, I actually don’t think his behaviour and attitudes are born out of racism. During the scene where Martha tells Debbie to hide in the family graveyard during the raid, make sure you pause the DVD just before she sits in front of the headstones. These graves she sits beside are her grandparents(Ethan and Aaron’s parents). Under the name, date of birth and death dates etc, the headstone inscriptions state that the grandparents were killed by Comanches.
The gravestone that may hold the key to Ethan’s hate.
Screenshot by me.
It took me a few viewings to pick up on the details above, but that detail now makes me think those deaths are actually the reason for why Ethan hates Native Americans so much. He doesn’t hate these people for who they are, but rather he hates them for what some of the tribe did. I personally think he would be just as hateful towards anyone who had done that to his family, regardless of their skin colour and background.
It also explains why he lets Martin stay with him on his search to find his nieces. If he really was racist and hated Native American people for who they are, then surely he wouldn’t be around Martin at all because of his heritage? I think all of this information adds another layer to this film and to Ethan’s character. I also like how we see that he has clearly studied the Comanche culture very closely. Ethan knows more about them than any of the other white men and women we see in the film.
What’s so interesting about Ethan and his issues is that Ford does not spoon feed any of this information to us, it’s there if you look out for it and pay close attention, but it’s not immediately obvious to the viewer. We are left to make up our minds about Ethan and his attitudes. The ambiguity about his character is part of what makes this such a fascinating film to watch, and I think it also helps make it a film that is far from a typical Western.
I have also always thought that Ethan and Scar may have had dealings before. The way they look at one another when they meet, and how Ethan’s hatred seems to lift after his confrontation with him, has always led me to believe Ethan hated him solely for what he had done to his family and perhaps for something else he had done in the past.
Listen to what Ethan tells Martin about the woman’s hair they find in Scar’s tent. How could Ethan know that information unless he had been present at the event he mentions?
I also really love how so much of the violence and horror in this film is suggested to us by Ford. The horror Ethan finds at his destroyed home, and the state of his families bodies, don’t need to be seen by us in detail because we can imagine all too well what has been done to them. The reactions of Wayne and Hunter in this scene also convey to us just how horrible the situation is.
When we find out what happened to Lucy, again we don’t need to see that in graphic detail. The way Wayne describes what he found when searching for Lucy, and his haunted look when he speaks, tell us everything we need to know about what he came across in that canyon. These are two very powerful examples of how suggestion can be even more disturbing and effective as showing us terrible things in graphic detail.
I also like how Ford shows us that white people committed plenty of atrocities against the Native American Indians. This film shows that it wasn’t all one sided with the Indians being the villains they were so often depicted as being in many films. This is depicted best in the sequence where the army ride through and destroy an Indian settlement. Ethan and Martin arrive at the settlement later and find the inhabitants all slaughtered. That was really quite a bold thing for Ford to put in the film I think.
The heart of the film lies in the desperate attempts to find Debbie(played as an adult by Natalie Wood) Martin fears for her because he is starting to believe Ethan may kill her if he ever finds her because she will be so changed. But Ethan is unpredictable and perhaps Martin need not worry so much.
If there is a downside to this film, I think it certainly lies with two things. Firstly having white actors play Native American Indian characters is incredibly wrong and problematic.
I totally understand that this was accepted acting practice back in the day, but I’ve just never understood why actual Native American actors couldn’t have been cast at the time, same goes for films which have white actors in black or yellowface. It’s wrong and offensive.
Also the lack of screen time for the female characters in this bothers me. This story is not only Ethan’s story. I would have liked to have seen more of Martha, Mrs. Jorgensen(Olive Carey), Debbie, and of Laurie. When these characters are on screen the actresses playing them certainly do their best, and they all make an impact delivering solid performances, but it never feels like we get to know them as much as many of the male characters in the film.
I’d also like to have seen a few more scenes of Ethan and the older Debbie reconnecting on the journey home. I also think the film ended a bit abruptly. Debbie faces emotional trauma as she gradually comes to remember what happened as a child. There will no doubt be years of reconnecting with those she hasn’t seen for a long time lying ahead for her. I think it would have been good if we had got a taste of some of that at least. It’s like the film ended a bit too quick, without really addressing the difficult stage that comes next for the characters. These are minor complaints though and the film doesn’t really suffer because of these issues.
The entire cast are superb. Vera Miles provides good support as the strong Laurie, the strong daughter of the west who loves Martin.
John Wayne delivers a fine performance as a complex and bitter man who is needed to confront violence with violence, but who has no place in the civilised world and society that remain after such acts have been finished. That famous final shot of the door closing on him symbolises him being shut out of society. He becomes the old West making way for the new and more civilised one.
Natalie Wood is very good as the older Debbie, a young woman torn between two worlds and communities.Her performance here is all in the eyes and in her body language. I just wish we could have seen more of Natalie in the film.
My favourite scenes are the following. The river shootout. Laurie pouring water all over Martin. Ethan being asked what he had found back in the canyon, we see he is traumatised and we can guess what he found. The raid on the ranch. Ethan coming back to find the ranch ablaze. Ethan chasing Debbie.
The Searchers is a thrilling psychological Western, featuring stunning visuals, and a truly magnificent score by Max Steiner.
This is John Ford at his best. His film shows us the good things about the old west – the strong community bond, people willing to help strangers, people risking all to start new communities. We also see the bad side of the west – the violence, the lawlessness, the death. We also get a sense of the old and open country of the west starting to disappear, as white men move out into the land of the Native Americans destroying and changing it to build their own communities on this ancient land that is not theirs to change or claim.
I urge you all to see this one on Blu-ray, the picture is so clear that it looks like it was made today. Seeing this in such good quality makes me long to see this masterpiece up on the big screen as it was intended to be shown.
Edit 14.04.2018: I am entering this into Thoughts All Sorts Great Western Blogathon. Find all the entries here.
I’d love to know what you think of this film. Please leave your comments below.