US Release Date: 03-13-1956
Directed by: John Ford
- John Wayne, as
- Ethan Edwards
- Jeffrey Hunter, as
- Martin Pawley
- Vera Miles, as
- Laurie Jorgensen
- Ward Bond, as
- Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton
- Natalie Wood, as
- Debbie Edwards
- Patrick Wayne as
- Lt. Greenhill
Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne.
The Searchers is John Wayne’s and John Ford’s greatest collaboration. This mature, for the time, film gives Ford plenty of scenery to highlight and Wayne a few scenes to stretch his cowboy persona. Throw in some comedy, a little romance and good old fashion cowboy/Indian action and you have a classic western.
Wayne plays a civil war veteran, Ethan, who visits his brother and his brother’s family on their ranch out west. Shortly after arriving, an Indian raid kills Ethan’s relatives, except for the nieces, whom they take with them. Ethan, with the help of his brother’s grown adopted son, Martin, pursue the Indians in an attempt to rescue the girls.
The Searchers is one of the earliest movies I can think of where rape is so central to the plot. Shortly into the chase, Ethan finds the oldest niece, and he is visibly disturbed by the discovery. Her boyfriend anxiously asks, “Did they?! Was she?!” To which an angry Wayne responds, “What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more!” Later Martin asks about the younger niece. Wayne informs him, “They’ll keep her to raise her as one of their own till, until she’s of age to...”
At one point, Ethan and Martin visit a fort where a group of women, who have been recently rescued from Indians, are being cared for. It never gives details as to what happened to the women when in the Indians care but it must have been traumatic as the women all now act crazy. All of this has an effect on Ethan. He slowly loses himself in his vengeance. It gets to the point where you think he may kill his niece when he finds her just to put her out of her misery. Martin’s girlfriend, Laurie, has two of the scariest lines of the movie. When Martin tells her he is going to fetch his sister home, Laurie says, “Fetch what home? Leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder.” Even she sees Ethan’s mission as one of mercy. “Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain.”
Although this movie has some heavy scenes, it is lightened up with some comedic ones. At one point Laurie tells Martin that they have been going steady since they were three years old. A clueless Martin asks, “We have?” to which a perturbed Laurie says, “Bout time you found out about it!” My favorite light hearted scene is when Wayne’s real life son, Patrick, shows up as a cavalry messenger. He shares several lines of dialogue with Ward Bond where he talks about his father. John Wayne is in the background smirking at his son while Patrick barely keeps a straight face. Later, Patrick salutes Bond with his saber and almost cuts him with it. I laughed hardest though, at the politicaly incorrect scene where Martin kicks the squaw. You have to see it.
Wayne and Ford dominate this film. Wayne has all of the best acting scenes and Ford films the landscape as if it were a character in the story. Ford opens and closes the movie with a majestic western landscape seen through a dark doorway. They are perfect bookends to the story.
The rest of the cast is memorable but only because of other work they appeared in. Natalie Wood has less than a dozen lines here. Jeffrey Hunter has the distinction of being the very first captain of the star ship Enterprise. He filmed the pilot episode of Star Trek. Former silent film siren Mae Marsh has a small role as a woman who watches over the women rescued from the Indians.
My one and only complaint about this movie is the actor who played Scar, the Indian who kidnaps the girls. In 1956 some guys wore their hair high and full in the front. Indians in 1866 did not. This Indian looks like Elvis Presley with pigtails. Where did he get the hair gel?
John Wayne in an iconic screen moment.
I agree Eric this is John Ford and John Wayne’s greatest movie together; with The Quiet Man a close second. Ford loved filming in Monument Valley ever since his first foray there in 1939 for Stagecoach. The Searchers has the added benefits of VistaVision and Technicolor. Visually it is a work of beauty even as it is an ugly portrait of one man’s relentless hate. Will he be redeemed in the end?
Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is filled with vengeance right from the start. Early in their search for the two abducted girls they come across the body of a dead Comanche. Ethan isn’t satisfied with the dead body. He hates beyond the grave. He shoots the corpses eyes out because according to Comanche religion without eyes he will be unable to enter the spirit-land and will wander forever between the winds. In other words Ethan wants to send his soul to hell. He turns to Ward Bond and in that unmistakable raspy drawl says, “You get it, Reverend.”
The search for these girls goes on and on, year after year, for five long years, covering much of the Western half of the United States. Ford tells the story in an interesting way. Some of the scenes are shown as events depicted in letters Martin writes to Laurie.
The scene you mention with the deranged women that have been rescued from the Comanche Eric, is the one scene that is over done. They are clichés of insanity. At one point one of the men says about these women, “It’s hard to believe they’re white.” To which Ethan replies, “They aren’t white, not anymore.” So they are not acting crazy, just Indian?
On the surface this is blatant racism. However it is absolutely integral to the time and place of the story. And in fact Ford does a balanced job of portraying the whites and the Indians as being equally capable of deeds both noble and foul.
Henry Brandon, who plays Scar, was German born. Eric, you are so right about his hair style. He looks ridiculous and it is all the more glaring because he is the only Comanche that is obviously being played by a white person in red face.
This movie was a hit, grossing nearly 5 million dollars in 1956 currency. Wayne even recycled the basic plot 15 years later in Big Jake. Both movies begin with an attack on a ranch. In that movie his grandson is kidnapped by outlaws whereas here it is his nieces by Comanche’s. In both movies they begin the pursuit with a large posse before Wayne’s character takes over the chase. Both movies mix tense action with lighter moments and Jacob McCandles could certainly be an older version of Ethan Edwards. And Wayne’s real life son Patrick appears in both movies. In Big Jake he plays Jeffrey Hunter's part. The main asset that Big Jake possesses that is missing from The Searchers is the regal Maureen O’Hara.
The performances by the actors are pretty much all decent. Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles both have a couple of good scenes. Still this is John Wayne’s movie all the way. In fact I think this is THE performance of his career. The Academy that year nominated James Dean and Rock Hudson both for Giant, Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, Sir Laurence Olivier in Richard III and Yul Brynner, who won for The King and I. Not only should John Wayne have been nominated (instead of Dean who really belonged in the supporting category) but what’s more he should have won.
The final shot of Wayne framed in the doorway is a classic screen moment. He holds one arm with his other hand (a tribute to Harry Carey Sr. as this was his signature movement) and then turns and slowly walks away from the camera as only the Duke could. The Searchers, flaws and all, is a brilliant Western.
John Wayne in The Searchers.
Patrick, I agree with you that this is possibly the best performance of Wayne's career. He plays it very darkly for most of the film. And he shows real emotion several times, including the scene you mention Eric where he talks about finding his niece's body. You're still aware that this is John Wayne, but he's definitely pushing his boundaries as an actor.
There are some lighter moments in the story, but they're probably my least favorite parts. This is a dark movie and the humor undercuts that. I mean, the central plot is that of a mean, racist, former confederate soldier, with a criminal past who is so filled with hatred for Indians that he believes his niece is better off dead because she's lived with them. This man becomes obsessed and spend five years hunting and tracking these Indians. So to me, when the movie threw in these lighter moments they stood out like a sore thumb and although I laughed, I wanted to get back to the action and darkness.
It's also because of this dark aspect of the story that I disagree with you Patrick when you compare this one to Big Jake. While they do share some superficial plot similarities, Big Jake is a much more lighthearted film and there's never really a sense of danger in it. Jake could never be an older version of Ethan if no other reason than one of Jake's best friends is an Indian and it's difficult to ever see Ethan getting married as Jake was at one time.
Visually, this movie is stunning. The wideshots of the landscape are amazing and the VistaVision and Technicolor really make it pop. Ford makes good use of shadow and silhouettes as well.
I have to add my voice to the complaints about Scar. Why didn't they hire an actual Indian? His hair is laughable and as you mentioned Patrick, because all the other Indians are played by Indians, it is so obvious that he isn't one.
The reason I can't give this movie four stars is I didn't feel like the ending lived up to all that came before it. I don't want to give it away, but Ethan's actions at the end aren't what they should have been given all that came before it. No explanation is given as to why he makes the decision that he makes. The ending should have been darker and ended with someone's death.
Although I don't think this movie is perfect, it is still a classic and definitely one of Wayne's best overall perfromances.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1956)