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Texas 1868. After a long, unexplained absence, Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards arrives at the home of his estranged brother, Aaron, and his wife, Martha, for whom he harbors a secret love. Soon after Ethan's return, a posse of lawmen headed by Captain Reverend Samuel Clayton invite Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin Pawley, to join them in a hunt for some cattle that was run off by marauding Indians. Leaving Aaron and his family at the homestead, Ethan and the posse soon realize the missing cattle was only a ruse to lure them away from their homes. Ethan races back to his brother's home, only to discover it in flames with everyone butchered by Indians, except for Aaron's youngest daughter Debbie and her teenage sister Lucy who are missing. What follows is a long and torturous search for Ethan's kidnapped kin and the bloodthirsty Indian chief Scar who initiated the massacre.
Film critic and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said of The Searchers: "How can I hate John Wayne upholding [Barry] Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?" This sentiment was also voiced by film students in the late sixties and seventies who began to revise their opinions of John Wayne after seeing him in John Ford's most mythic film, one that was largely misunderstood when it was first released in 1956 and features what is possibly Wayne's finest performance.
In a 1979 New York magazine article, Stuart Byron called The Searchers the "Super-Cult Movie of the New Hollywood." This amply encapsulates just one reason why the film is essential; it had a tremendous influence on filmmakers during the 1970s, arguably one of the most creatively periods in Hollywood history. Directors and screenwriters as varied in background and style as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Goddard, and George Lucas have all been influenced and paid some form of homage to The Searchers in their work. Scorsese, perhaps the greatest filmmaker of his generation, exclaimed, "The dialogue is like poetry! And the changes of expression are so subtle, so magnificent! I see it once or twice a year." Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) obviously shares some narrative similarities with the Ford film as does Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979). Spielberg, one of the most profitable film producer/directors in movie history, told Stuart Byron he had watched The Searchers a dozen times, including twice while on location for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). And it was in the late fifties when seventh grader Spielberg shot a two-reel Western in a friend's backyard imitating The Searchers, using a backdrop of Ford's beloved Monument Valley painted on a bedsheet. You can even see references to Ford's masterpiece in the work of Italian director Sergio Leone who stages a massacre scene in his epic, Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), that is remarkably similar to the one that destroys Ethan's kin in The Searchers.
The Searchers represents the apex of the Western genre and stands as John Ford's most emotionally complex and sophisticated film (It was also his 115th feature film!). But it is not simply a summation of the Western themes that Ford had previously explored in his films. The Searchers is one of the first Westerns to deal in a serious and unpretentious way with racism and sexuality. As Joseph McBride wrote in his monumental Ford biography, Searching For John Ford, the director's decision to tackle such a complicated and ambiguous film dealing with race and sex during the 1950s "was a shrewd career move, showing a willingness to make a more 'modern'-seeming Western for an audience that wanted greater psychological realism from the genre..." But more than just making a social statement like other Westerns of the period were apt to do, Ford instills in The Searchers a visual poetry and a sense of melancholy that is rare in American films and rarer still to Westerns.
For an essay in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, film scholar Ed Lowry wrote: "Never before in a Ford western has the wilderness seemed so brutal or settlements so tenuous and threatened. There are no towns -only outposts and isolated homesteads, remote and exposed between the awesome buttes of Ford's mythic Monument Valley. And while the Comanches are depicted as utterly ruthless, Ford ascribes motivations for their actions, and lends them a dignity befitting a proud civilization. Never do we see the Indians commit atrocities more appalling than those perpetrated by the white man. Not only does [Ethan] Edwards perform the only scalping shown in the film, but Ford presents the bloody aftermath of a massacre of Indian women and children carried out by the same clean-cut cavalrymen he depicted so lovingly in films like Fort Apache." For most viewers, however, it is John Wayne's performance in The Searchers that is a revelation. "I've always thought [Wayne is] underrated as an actor," James Stewart once said. "I think The Searchers is one of the most marvelous performances of all time."
Producer: C. V. Whitney, Merian C. Cooper
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan Le May
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch
Film Editing: Jack Murray
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Captain Reverend Samuel Clayton), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), John Qualen (Lars Jorgensen), Olive Carey (Mrs. Jorgensen), Henry Brandon (Scar), Ken Curtis (Charlie McCorry), Harry Carey, Jr. (Brad Jorgensen), Hank Wordon (Mose Harper).
by Scott McGee