The Searchers is a 1956 American Technicolor VistaVision Western film directed by John Ford, based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, and set during the Texas–Indian Wars. The film stars John Wayne as a middle-aged Civil War veteran who spends years looking for his abducted niece (Natalie Wood), accompanied by his adoptive nephew (Jeffrey Hunter). Critic Roger Ebert found Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, "one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created."[2]

The film was a commercial success, although it received no major Academy Award nominations. Since its release, it has come to be considered a masterpiece, and one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. It was named the Greatest American Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008, and it placed 12th on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time.[3] Entertainment Weekly named it the best Western of all time.[4] The British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine ranked it as the seventh best movie of all time based on a 2012 international survey of film critics [5][6] and the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma ranked The Searchers in 2008 number 10 in their list of the top 100 best films of all time.[7]


 [hide*1 Plot


In 1868, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns from the American Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in the wilderness of west Texas. Wrongdoing or legal trouble in Ethan's past is suggested by his three-year absence, a large quantity of gold coins in his possession, a Mexican revolutionary war medal that he gives to his young niece Debbie (played as a child by Natalie Wood's sister Lana Wood), and his refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers, as well as Rev. Samuel Clayton mentioning that Ethan "fits a lot of descriptions".

Shortly after Ethan's arrival, cattle belonging to his neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) are stolen, and when Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) leads Ethan and a group of Rangers to follow the trail, they discover that the theft was a ploy by Comanche to draw the men away from their families. When they return home, they find the Edwards homestead in flames; Aaron, his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their son Ben (Robert Lyden) dead, and Debbie and her older sister Lucy (Pippa Scott) abducted.

[1][2]John Wayne as Ethan Edwards

After a brief funeral, the men return to pursuing the Comanches. On the trail, they find some of the Comanches buried who apparently were shot during the raid. Ethan further mutilates one of the bodies. When they find their camp, Ethan recommends an open attack, in which the girls would be killed, but Clayton insists on sneaking in. The Rangers find the camp deserted, and when they continue their pursuit, the Indians almost catch them in a trap. The Rangers fend off the Indian attack, but with too few men to ensure victory, Clayton and the posse return home, leaving Ethan to continue his search for the girls with Lucy's fiancé Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Debbie's adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). However, after Ethan finds Lucy brutally murdered and presumably raped in a canyon near the Comanche camp, Brad becomes enraged, rides wildly into the camp, and is killed.

[3][4]"I figure on gettin' myself un-surrounded," insists Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) to Ethan (John Wayne) as they realize they're caught in a trap and must run for their lives.[5][6]John Wayne

Ethan and Martin search until winter, when they lose the trail. When they return to the Jorgensen ranch, Martin is enthusiastically welcomed by the Jorgensens' daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), and Ethan finds a letter waiting for him from a man named Futterman, who has information about Debbie. Ethan, who would rather travel alone, leaves without Martin the next morning, but Laurie provides Martin with a horse to catch up. At Futterman's (Peter Mamakos) trading post, Ethan and Martin learn that Debbie has been taken by Scar (Henry Brandon), the chief of theNawyecka band of Comanches. A year or more later, Laurie receives a letter from Martin describing the ongoing search. In reading the letter aloud, Laurie narrates the next few scenes, in which Ethan kills Futterman for trying to steal his money, Martin accidentally buys a Comanche wife (Beulah Archuletta), and the two men find part of Scar's tribe killed by soldiers.

[7][8]Martin shields Ethan's niece to prevent Ethan from murdering her.

After looking for Debbie at a military fort, Ethan and Martin go to New Mexico, where a Mexican man leads them to Scar. They find Debbie after five years, now an adolescent (Natalie Wood), living as one of Scar's wives. When she meets with the men outside the camp, she says she has become a Comanche and asks them to leave without her. However, Ethan would rather see her dead than living as an Indian. He tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her with his body and a Comanche shoots Ethan with an arrow. Ethan and Martin escape to safety, where Martin saves Ethan by tending to his wound. Martin is furious at Ethan for attempting to kill Debbie and wishes him dead. "That'll be the day," Ethan replies. The men then return home.

Meanwhile, Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) has been courting Laurie in Martin's absence. Ethan and Martin arrive home just as Charlie and Laurie's wedding is about to begin. After a fistfight between Martin and Charlie, a nervous "Yankee" soldier, Lt. Greenhill (Patrick Wayne), arrives with news that Ethan's half-crazy friend Mose Harper (Hank Worden) knows where Scar is. Clayton leads his men to the Comanche camp, this time for a direct attack, but Martin is allowed to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. During the attack, Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps him. When Ethan sees Debbie, Martin is unable to stop him from chasing her, but instead of killing her, Ethan carries her home. Once Debbie is safely with her family, and Martin is reunited with Laurie, Ethan walks away, alone and clutching his arm, the cabin door closing on his receding image in one of the most famous and iconic closing scenes in film history.[8]



[9][10]The landscape of Monument Valley inUtah was used extensively by director John Ford throughout the film.

The Searchers was the first production from "distinguished turfman"[9] C.V. Whitney; it was directed by John Ford and distributed by Warner Brothers. While the film was primarily set in the staked plains (Llano Estacado) of Northwest Texas, it was actually filmed in Monument ValleyArizona/Utah. Additional scenes were filmed in Mexican Hat, Utah, in Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, and in Alberta, Canada.[10] The film was shot in the VistaVision widescreen process. Ford originally wanted to cast Fess Parker, whose performance as Davy Crockett on television had helped spark a national craze, in the Jeffrey Hunter role, but Walt Disney, to whom Parker was under contract, refused to allow it, according to Parker's videotaped interview for theArchive of American Television. Parker notes that this was by far his single worst career reversal.[11]

As part of its promotion of "Searchers" in 1956, Warner Bros. produced and broadcast one of the very first behind-the-scenes, "making-of" programs in movie history which aired as an episode of its ongoing Warner Bros. Presents TV series.[12][13]

The Searchers is the first of only three films produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney's C. V. Whitney Pictures; the second being The Missouri Traveler in 1958 with Brandon deWilde and Lee Marvin, the last being The Young Land in 1959 with Patrick Wayne and Dennis Hopper.

Historical background[edit]Edit

[11][12]Brutal attack on Native American village

Several film critics have suggested that The Searchers was inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche warriors who raided her family's home at Fort Parker, Texas.[14][15] She spent 24 years with the Comanches, married a war chief, and had three children (one of which was the famous Comanche Chief Quanah Parker), only to be rescued against her will by Texas Rangers. James W. Parker, Cynthia Ann's uncle, spent much of his life and fortune in what became an obsessive search for his niece, like Ethan Edwards in the film. In addition, the rescue of Cynthia Ann, during a Texas Ranger attack known as the Battle of Pease River, resembles the rescue of Debbie Edwards when the Texas Rangers attack Scar's village. Parker's story was only one of 64 real-life cases of 19th-century child abductions in Texas that author Alan Le May studied while researching the novel on which the film was based. Moreover, his surviving research notes indicate that the two characters who go in search of a missing girl were inspired by Brit Johnson, a black man who ransomed his captured wife and children from the Comanches in 1865.[16] Afterward, Johnson made at least three trips to Indian Territory and Kansas relentlessly searching for another kidnapped girl, Millie Durgan (or Durkin), until Kiowa raiders killed him in 1871.[17]

The ending of Le May's novel contrasts to the film's, with Debbie, called Dry-Grass-Hair by the Comanches, running from the white men and from the Indians. Marty, in one final leg of his search, finds her days later, only after she has fainted from exhaustion.

In the film, Scar's Comanche group is referred to as the Nawyecka. The more common names for this Comanche division (with whom Cynthia Ann Parker lived) are Nokoni or Nocona. Some film critics[specify] have speculated that the historical model for the cavalry attack on a Comanche village, resulting in Look's death and the taking of Comanche prisoners to a military post, was the well-known Battle of Washita River, November 27, 1868, when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked Black Kettle's Cheyenne camp on the Washita River (near present day Cheyenne, Oklahoma). The sequence also resembles the 1872 Battle of the North Fork of the Red River, in which the 4th Cavalry captured 124 Comanche women and children and imprisoned them at Fort Concho.


[13][14]Although the film was set in Texas it was filmed in Monument ValleyUtah.

Upon the film's release, Bosley Crowther called it a "ripsnorting Western" (in spite of the "excessive language in its ads"); he credits Ford's "familiar corps of actors, writers, etc., [who help] to give the gusto to this film. From Frank S. Nugent, whose screenplay from the novel of Alan LeMay is a pungent thing, right on through the cast and technicians, it is the honest achievement of a well-knit team."[9] Crowther noted "two faults of minor moment":[9]

  • "Episode is piled upon episode, climax upon climax, and corpse upon corpse...[t]he justification for it is that it certainly conveys the lengthiness of the hunt, but it leaves one a mite exhausted, especially with the speed at which it goes.
  • "The director has permitted too many outdoor scenes to be set in the obviously synthetic surroundings of the studio stage...some of those campfire scenes could have been shot in a sporting-goods store window."

Variety called it "handsomely mounted and in the tradition of Shane", yet "somewhat disappointing" due to its length and repetitiveness; "The John Ford directorial stamp is unmistakable. It concentrates on the characters and establishes a definite mood. It's not sufficient, however, to overcome many of the weaknesses of the story."[18]

The New York Herald Tribune termed the movie “distinguished”; Newsweek deemed it “remarkable.” Look described “The Searchers” as a “Homeric odyssey.” The New York Times praised Wayne’s performance as “uncommonly commanding.”[19]

The film earned rentals of $4.8 million in the US and Canada during its first year of release.[20]

Later assessments[edit]Edit

[15][16]Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) prepares to gun down his own niece in cold blood.

In 1989, The Searchers was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry; it was in the first cohort of films selected for the registry. The Searchers has been cited as one of the greatest films of all time, such as in a Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films ever made. In 1972, The Searchers was ranked 18th; in 1992, fifth; in 2002, 11th; in 2012, 7th. The 2007 American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films list ranked The Searchers in 12th place. In 1998, TV Guide ranked it 18th.[21] In 2008, the American Film Institute named The Searchers as the greatest Western of all time.[22] In 2010, Richard Corliss noted the film was "now widely regarded as the greatest western of the 1950s, the genre's greatest decade" and characterized it as a "darkly profound study of obsession, racism and heroic solitude."[23] The film also maintains a perfect 100% rating on review aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes.[24]

The film has been recognized multiple times by the American Film Institute:

The film has also been recognized by the critically acclaimed film-site "They Shoot Pictures Don't They" ... Top 100 Movies – No. 8

Scott McGee noted that "...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.[25]

Critical interpretations[edit]Edit

[17][18]The unspoken love between Wayne's Ethan and his brother's wife Martha and his obsession with avenging her drives the film.

Many critics maintain that Ethan Edwards is in love with his brother's wife Martha. The most startling part of this plot undercurrent is that there is not one word of dialog alluding to the relationship and feelings between Ethan and Martha, despite the importance of those factors to the plot. Every reference to this relationship is visual.[26][27][28]

In addition, the unspoken but true passion between Ethan and Martha leads to a possible conclusion: that Debbie, who is a mere eight years old when the film begins, may be Ethan's daughter. In one exchange with Ethan, Martin says he has to keep looking for Debbie because she is family. Irritated, Ethan says Debbie is not Martin's kin. Ethan left at the dawn of the Civil War, eight years before, and his obsessive quest to find Debbie and his refusal to let her live as an Indian, along with his gift to her of his medal, might bespeak more than mere racism and revenge and his desire to save a niece; it might depict an absentee and guilt-ridden father's attempt to save the daughter he never raised and shamefully made by cuckolding his brother.[29]

[19][20]Ethan (John Wayne) angrily confronts the Reverend (Ward Bond) after being interrupted while gunning down retreating Indians.

A major theme remains the examination of the issues of racism and genocide towards Native Americans. Ford's was not the first film to attempt this, but it was startling (particularly for later generations) in the harshness of its approach toward that racism. Ford's examination of racism starts with Edwards and his openly virulent hatred of Native Americans, opening the door for the film to examine racism as an excuse for the genocide of the Indians. Roger Ebert has written, "In The Searchers I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide."[2]However, Ford shows in several scenes that Ethan's racist hatred for the Indians is primarily motivated by the atrocities committed by them. Thus he is driven far more by an obsessive need for vengeance than pure unmotivated racism.[citation needed] Perhaps significantly, Ethan, despite his hatred of the Comanches, appears to be very learned in their language and culture. When Ethan finally encounters Scar, Ford indicates that Scar's cruelty too is motivated by revenge ("Two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many... scalps.").[30]

At the heart of “The Searchers” is Wayne’s performance as the angry, vengeful Ethan Edwards. From the beginning of his quest, it is clear he is less interested in rescuing Debbie than in wreaking vengeance on the Comanches for the slaughter of his brother’s family.[31] Film scholar Ed Lowry wrote: "...[W]hile 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.[25]“Wayne is plainly Ahab,” wrote cultural critic Greil Marcus. “He is the good American hero driving himself past all known limits and into madness, his commitment to honor and decency burned down to a core of vengeance.”[31]

[21][22]Natalie Wood as Debbie

The theme of miscegenation also runs through this film. Early in the film Martin earns a sour look from Ethan when he admits to being one eighthCherokee. Ethan says repeatedly that he will kill his niece rather than have her live "with a buck", that "living with the Comanche ain't living". Even one of the film's gentler characters, Vera Miles's Laurie, tells Martin when he explains he must protect his adoptive sister, that "Ethan will put a bullet in her brain. I tell you Martha would want him to." This outburst made clear that even the supposedly gentler characters were thoroughly affected by racism and the fear of miscegenation.[30] In a 1964 interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, Ford said:[30]

There's some merit to the charge that the Indian hasn't been portrayed accurately or fairly in the Western, but again, this charge has been a broad generalization and often unfair. The Indian didn't welcome the white man... and he wasn't diplomatic... If he has been treated unfairly by whites in films, that, unfortunately, was often the case in real life. There was much racial prejudice in the West.

Glenn Frankel's 2013 study of the film calls it "the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen."[19]


[24][25]The final scene.

The Searchers has influenced many films. David Lean watched the film repeatedly while preparing for Lawrence of Arabia to help him get a sense of how to shoot a landscape.[32][unreliable source?] The entrance of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, across a vast prairie, is echoed clearly in the across-the-desert entrance of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia.Sam Peckinpah referenced the aftermath of the massacre and the funeral scene in Major Dundee[33][unreliable source?] and, according to a 1974 review by Jay Cocks, Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia contains dialogue with "direct tributes to such classics as John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and John Ford's The Searchers."[34]

Martin Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door features an extended sequence in which the two leading characters discuss the film.[35] Scorsese has listed the film as one of his all-time favourites.[36]

Scott McGee, writing for Turner Classic Movies, notes "Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, John MiliusPaul SchraderWim WendersJean-Luc Godard, and George Lucas have all been influenced and paid some form of homage to The Searchers in their work."[25] In fact, in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema essay, Godard compared the movie's ending with that of Homer's reuniting ofUlysses with Telemachus. In 1963 he ranked The Searchers as the fourth-greatest American movie of the sound era.[19]

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan pays a shot-specific homage to the famous doorway shot when the Army brings the news of the death of Private Ryan's three brothers to their mother.[citation needed]

Alex Cox's Searchers 2.0, while not a sequel or a remake as the title may suggest, is named for the John Ford classic.[citation needed] The main characters discuss films, especially westerns, including The Searchers throughout the film.

The film served as the inspiration for the name of the British band The Searchers.[37][38]

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan stated that the ending to the show's final episode, "Felina", was influenced by the film.

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