Movie Project #50: The Searchers [1956]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Searchers [1956]

The Searchers [1956]
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Alan Le May (novel)
Genre: Western
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles
Running Time: 119 minutes

That’ll be the day.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I had never seen a John Wayne film (outside of the terrible propaganda movie, The Green Berets). How could I have missed out on one of America’s most popular figures? There isn’t a better place to start than with John Ford’s The Searchers, ranked the seventh greatest film of all time per this year’s BFI Sight & Sound poll.

The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) has returned home from the Civil War after a three year absence. He takes in residency with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family. Almost immediately upon arriving, cattle from a neighbor are stolen. Ethan and a small group of Texas Rangers head out to investigate, only to find that the theft was a diversion from the Comanche Indians meant to draw them away from their families. The men realize this too late, and they return to find the house in ruins. Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew are all dead, and his two nieces are missing. Now, with vengeance on his mind, Ethan heads out to find the Comanche tribe that he suspects has kidnapped the two girls.

The Searchers [1956]

Upon first glance, this appears to be a formulaic American Western. It’s a battle of cowboys against Indians, with both groups out for blood. However, there is another layer to The Searchers that I didn’t expect to find, and it comes from the character of Ethan Edwards.

Ethan is the very definition of an anti-hero. When he returns home at the beginning of the film, hints at his troubled past are subtly acknowledged. He didn’t arrive until three years after the war ended, he has a large amount of unmarked money on his person, and he refuses to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers. He is a clear loner, and his stubborn tendencies make appearances throughout the entire film. He is also a blatant racist with absolutely no shame toward his beliefs, and at one point he even laughs as a Native American woman is kicked down a hill. In short, he’s an asshole, but he is a damn interesting character.

The Searchers [1956]

For most of the film, Edwards is joined by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an adopted member of his brother’s family. This accompaniment isn’t by Ethan’s choice, as he has an obvious resentment for this character (calling him a “half breed” early on, which Pawley rebuts that he is 1/8 Cherokee). Their partnership is shaky, and the men do not like each other at all. But both have the same goal, and somehow it makes sense to work together.

The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in vibrant Technicolor, and it makes strong use of its landscape (Monument Valley, Utah). It has been said that David Lean watched the film over and over again to generate ideas on how to use the desert in his brilliant Lawrence of Arabia. The VistaVision format really makes the colors pop, and this is easily one of the more visually stimulating American Westerns I have seen.

The more I think about The Searchers, the more I appreciate what it offers. I’m not ready to call it one of my favorites of the genre — some of the racism is really hard to stomach in this day and age — but it’s easy to understand how this has been so influential over the years.


And that wraps up this year’s movie project! Once again, this has been an enlightening journey. Stay tuned this week for a wrap-up of the entire project!