Let’s Talk About… ‘The Searchers’ (1956)

Film #53 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.


Directed by John Ford

Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood


The story begins in 1868 Texas, three years after the surrender of Confederate troops to the Yankee forces in the U.S. Civil War. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is returning home after an extended absence to the residence of his brother and his family. In addition to fighting in the Civil War, he also fought in the Mexican revolutionary war from which he was awarded a medal for bravery. One of the young men living in the Edwards homestead is Martin Pawley (Hunter) who was taken in after his own family was massacred by Indians. He is mixed race and though it was Ethan who saved Martin’s life, Ethan remains extremely passive towards him. Before Ethan has a chance to get settled in, Reverend Samuel Clayton (Bond) stops by the Edwards house in order to recruit help for Lars Jorgensen, a neighbour who has had his cattle stolen by Indians from the Comanche tribe. (When in uniform, Clayton is a commanding officer and his dual role as warrior/servant of God is prone to cause conflict between what is considered morally right and wrong.) Ethan offers to help in the place of his brother and the men leave on their expedition. After arriving at the Jorgensen’s pasture, they quickly realise that they have been set-up. In the meantime, the Comanches attack the Edwards family, killing everyone but their two daughters and then setting the entirety of their property ablaze. With the possibility of the girls, Lucy and Debbie (Lana/Natalie Wood), being found alive, Ethan, Clayton, and the others head off to follow the Comanche trail.

It does not take long for the men to cross paths with the Comanches. A gunfight ensues, allowing the men to defend themselves and to come face-to-face with Scar, the Comanche chief responsible for the killings and the kidnappings. The Comanches retreat and the men decide to split up, leaving Ethan and Martin to lead the search. They continue on and eventually come upon a cave where some of the Comanches trailed off before re-joining the main pack. While inspecting the area, Ethan discovers Lucy’s body and is further filled with rage against the Comanches. He vows to never give up trying to find Debbie all the while savouring the moment he can exact his own revenge on Scar. As the seasons pass, Ethan and Martin come back to the Jorgensen’s domicile where they are welcomed by the family. Their daughter, Laurie (Miles), is in love with Martin and has been waiting for him to come back so that they could pursue a relationship. Unfortunately for her, she will have to wait indefinitely as Ethan and Martin promptly leave, not to return for another five years.

Will Ethan and Martin eventually find Debbie? When will they finally return home for good? Will Laurie still be waiting for Martin?


*The following contains spoilers:*


Several members of the top billed cast had already worked with Ford or would end up working with him on other occasions. John Wayne appeared in a total of 14 Ford features with The Searchers being their 8th project together. Most of the films Wayne and Ford had made together were Westerns though this particular picture showed a different side of Wayne’s usual characters. Ward Bond was also in a great many Ford movies usually playing small starring roles or more prominent supporting ones. With Wayne and Bond having starred in a total of 22 films together, the two men developed a great camaraderie that would blossom both on-screen and off. Jeffrey Hunter had a diverse career before starring in The Searchers, in which he gives an extraordinary poignant performance that no doubt convinced Ford to cast him in two other of his films, The Last Hurrah and Sergeant Rutledge. Vera Miles would also later star alongside Wayne and James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. An immensely talented actress, Miles also appeared in several Hitchcock films. This is the only Ford production in which Natalie Wood would appear and according to her biography, she was grateful for the opportunity but found Ford difficult with whom to work. Wood reportedly mainly took the role so that her younger sister, Lana, could play the part of 8-year-old Debbie.




I have always loved the red rocks in Arizona and visited Sedona several times when I lived in the State. Sedona cannot compare to the vastness of Monument Valley but the natural formations there are equally breathtaking. John Ford filmed several of his pictures in or near Monument Valley so this area must have meant a great deal to him as well. Ford indeed takes full advantage of his filming locale, delivering many masterful shots which are even better enjoyed through a high-definition format. The story is also intriguing with the acting being of the utmost quality. Wayne is such a natural on-screen presence: he has confidence, he talks big, he knows how to defend himself, he outsmarts others and perhaps most importantly, he knows when to have a good hearty laugh. This film is, in my amateur opinion, as good as others in the Western genre like Winchester ’73 and Warlock and as nicely filmed as Ford’s McLintock!. Since I am not behind the camera or formally educated on filmmaking, it is likely that I am missing a part of the bigger picture though, at the same time, experienced amateurs like me still bring interesting and legitimate criticism to the table.

Much has been said of the “hidden messages” in The Searchers in that Ford captures a great deal from the emotions between characters that involves little to no dialogue. One of the reasons for this is that Ford could not readily talk about certain subjects like torture, rape, and racism.

• “Hidden”: In this scene, Martha (Ethan’s brother’s wife) and Debbie wave goodbye to Ethan as he sets off with Clayton and the others. It has been suggested that Martha and Ethan were lovers and that Debbie was really his child, further propelling him on his endless search to rescue her from the Comanches. It is rather obvious in the film about Martha and Ethan’s affections for one another as their body language says everything.


• “Not so hidden”: In this scene, Ethan and Martin interrogate an Indian woman who, by odd circumstances, becomes Martin’s wife. She knows the location of Chief Scar and is reluctant to share information which, in turn, makes Ethan grow very impatient. Ethan is usually able to contain his hatred in a physical sense although there are some moments when his spewing racist attitude pours out of him, case in point.


Influence on Other Directors

The Searchers first debuted at number 96 on the AFI 100 Greatest Films list in 2007. Remarkably, the film jumped an incredible 84 spots to land at 12th place for the 2017 update. As time goes on, appreciation for the film continues to increase thought it has been influencing prominent directors since the moment it was released.

The first person to notably incorporate techniques from The Searchers was David Lean, who was enchanted with Ford’s cinematography on the film in addition to how he set-up certain shots. Lean would heavily rely on these aspects in making his best-known film Lawrence of Arabia, in which he made extensive use of panoramic shots of the desert as well as copying Ford’s style for some of his more enhanced ideas. An example of this would be the infamous shot of Omar Sharif arriving at his well from afar. This originated from John Wayne’s entrance on-screen from the feet of Monument Valley, only on a much larger scale. Lean reportedly watched Ford’s film dozens of times in order to fully absorb it, therefore giving him a more definite vision while adding the finishing touches to the script and before commencing photography on Lawrence of Arabia. The end result was extraordinary and, in many ways, Lean’s film is richer than Ford’s. Of course, Monument Valley is neither on the same scale as the Saharan Desert nor does it boast the same characteristics, so the two natural marvels are bound to be portrayed differently. Each place has a unique beauty.

Interestingly enough, Steven Spielberg was equally as inspired by Lean as he was by Ford. Spielberg has stated that he systematically watches The Bridge on the River Kwai before starting work on one of his own films as it puts him in a certain mindset to achieve a specific quality of work. When it comes to Ford, Spielberg also watches a rotation of several of his films before starting a project including: The Searchers, Tobacco Road, Stagecoach, and The Informer. He admires Ford for “celebrating the frame, not just what is inside of it” as well as “using nature as a character”. One of his most precious memories is having met Ford as young man with a desire to become a filmmaker. Spielberg manages to render homage to The Searchers in several of his films including Back to the Future: Part III. There is a moment in The Searchers when the Comanches are chasing Ethan, Clayton, and the others, right before their gun-laden confrontation. The scene really screams “Cowboys & Indians” but not in a way that would be considered cliché. I believe that Spielberg took inspiration from this when Marty travels to 1885 and lands right in the middle of Monument Valley. The DeLorean is chased by Indians and the set-up of the scene looks strikingly like the one from The Searchers. Coincidentally, Martin Pawley’s nickname is “Marty”.

While watching The Searchers, there was something about the film that reminded me of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, released 12 years after Ford’s film. The two films share similarities in that they were both considered to be epic westerns of their times as well as being amongst the best work of both Ford and Leone. Leone’s style is much different than Ford’s though he also had a knack for photographing the arid desert landscape in a beautiful fashion. (Unlike Ford, Leone did not have the luxury of Monument Valley but rather had to settle for the heart of Spain!) In Once Upon a Time in the West, the McBain family is brutally killed at the beginning of the film, an act committed by an outlaw named Frank (Henry Fonda) and his gang in order to make the resourceful McBain property ownerless and eventually for sale to his Frank’s wealthy and corrupt boss. In The Searchers, the Edwards family is brutally killed by the Comanche Indians as a way to eliminate White presence on Indian soil and half the expansion of the Edwards ranch. In both instances, the youngest child of each family is spared the initial mass murder. The McBain boy comes out of the house to find his family shot to death and is then approached by blue-eyed Frank, who smiles at him before drawing his gun and having the scene sharply transition to the next. (There is not much guessing involved in understanding the boy’s fate.) On the flip side, young Debbie Edwards is sent out by her parents to hide in an unsuspecting hiding place – a graveyard – in the hopes of saving her life. When the girl is approached by the Comanche Chief Scar, you fear that she, too, will be massacred. In Ethan’s eyes, she is somehow dead because she eventually adapts to the Comanche lifestyle in more ways than one.

Martin Scorsese is also a huge fan of The Searchers, having seen it for the film time at the age of 8 and remembering how profound the experience it was to see it in theatre VistaVision. Ford mainly influenced his appreciation of cinematic art, especially as being one of the grandest directorial masters in the history of film. Orson Welles also believed John Ford to be “the best of the best”. Howard Hawks, Sidney Lumet, and Peter Bogdanovich – amongst many others – were also positively impacted by John Ford, particularly in regard to his directorial and shooting styles. Hawks admired John Ford’s ability to “get all the things you are after without a lot of fuss” and the fact that he had “worked beautifully with bad weather and he (didn’t) care whether it matched when he went into close-ups”. This aided him immensely when filming his 1959 picture Rio Bravo. Lumet appreciated that Ford “made it known that he expected the actors’ performances in the first couple of takes” while Bogdanovich, who was a close personal friend to Ford, shot his film The Last Picture Show with Ford in mind.

Source: Who The Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich, 1997: pages 345, 791 & 807

What amazes me the most about the other directors’ names that I have listed is that they were both Ford’s peers and successors. He inspired directors like Hawks and Welles even after they had made incredible, groundbreaking films like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and Citizen Kane. He inspired directors who were up and coming, becoming our generation’s greatest directors. Now, we will see who he will inspire for the generations to come.


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