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!

24 thoughts on “Movie Project #50: The Searchers [1956]

  1. willontheinternet says:

    I’ve always thought John Wayne was a bit of a stereotyped Hollywood hero, but i you’ve convinced me to watch this one.

    Ever seen “Vera Cruz” with Cooper and Lancaster? if you want classic anti-heroic westerns, it’s the definitive i think.

  2. VictorsMovieReviews says:

    I love the way the end is framed. Ethan, unable to walk inside the house because he has changed too much, is framed by the door and is in silhouette. Then he slowly walks away still framed by the door.

    Wayne is an underrated actor. Due to the shear number of films he is in there is, of course, hackneyed stuff. But his good performances are great. Also, unlike some action stars of today, he didn’t always make it to the end.

    • Eric says:

      Yeah, that ending shot was fantastic. I feel like I have seen it before, or at least some sort of parody/homage over the years.

      I’m curious to see more of Wayne. The Green Berets left a sour taste in my mouth when I saw it years ago, but he impressed in The Searchers.

  3. Dan says:

    Eric, it’s really interesting that The Searchers is your first John Wayne film since it’s different than a lot of his movies. It’s pretty much the villain in the movie like Dave says, though I still think his ultimate move with Natalie Wood is a cop-out. This is one of the great westerns, though the sub-plot with the Native American wife is painful. It’s not my favorite western, but it’s up there for sure. It’s one of Wayne’s great performances, and I’m glad you were able to see it.

    • Eric says:

      Hi Dan, yeah, I agree about the end with Natalie Wood. It felt very out of character for him, and I can’t help but feel that wasn’t the original vision. A lot of the worst racism came in the form of the Native American wife subplot, as you said. I get that it was “part of the era”, but it’s still hard to watch today. Overall, though, a great Western. Not what I was really expecting plot-wise either.

  4. SDG says:

    It was your First John Wayne? Well, I haven’t seen lot myself but then I can certainly recommend you The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. I think you’ll love it.

    I have The Searchers on my Blind Spot list this year. I will get to it sometime but it’s still encouraging to see a favourable response.

    • Eric says:

      I’ve heard lots of great things about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Seems like it would be especially interesting to see Wayne and Jimmy Stewart together.

      Hope you enjoy The Searchers as well, SDG. I’ll keep an eye out for your future writeup!

  5. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric and company:

    First of all, if you are going to see a “first” John Wayne film, “The Searchers” is an excellent choice!

    Mr. Wayne is given lots of room to expand his character in many dimensions under John Ford’s wing. Deftly using silence in several key scenes. To express mood and speak volumes for a character who is driven and not all that likeable. In a film whose subject matter was considered “touchy” in the late 1950s. And even more controversial today.

    Tools that Howard Hawks had discovered, touched on and used to a slightly lesser extent almost a decade earlier in “Red River” opposite Montgomery Clift.

    Bottom line: You’ve got some catching up to do.

    • Eric says:

      Hi Jack! Heh, yeah I definitely have some catching up to do. I’ll have to check out Red River, and I’m also curious about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Outside of those two, are there any others you would recommend looking for next?

      • jackdeth72 says:

        Hi, Eric:

        I’d point you in the direction of ‘Stagecoach’ (1939) that put Mr. Wayne on the map. ‘They Were Expendable’. (1945) A great John Ford, John Wayne, WWII in the Pacific film. Also partial to ‘Flying Leathernecks’ (1951) for Wayne playing off his subordinate, Robert Ryan during the Guadalcanal campaign.

        The Ford trilogy. ‘Fort Apache’, ‘Rio Grande’ and ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’. Along with another Ford classic, ‘The Quiet Man’ from 1952. Great team up with Maureen O’Hara!

        • Eric says:

          Thanks, Jack! Stagecoach was on my shortlist for my next movie project, so I’ll likely end up adding that. Will also look up the other recommendations — especially interested in seeing more of Wayne’s pairings with Ford.

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