The Searchers (1956)

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Directed by John Ford
Written by Frank S. Nugent from the novel by Alan Le May
1956/USA
Warner Bros./C.V. Whitney Pictures
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#318 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Reverend Clayton: You wanna quit, Ethan?

Ethan: That’ll be the day.

My husband said “It’s that sad Western, isn’t it?” That’s right.  Also the really beautiful one with the great John Wayne performance.

Ethan Edwards (Wayne) comes home to the Texas wilderness three years after the civil war.  He has a cache of Yankee gold which he never really explains, giving him a mysterious air.  “Home” is the household of his brother Aaron, sister-in-law Martha, nieces Lucy and Debbie, blood nephew Ben and adopted nephew Martin Pawley.  Wordlessly, we learn that Martha and Ethan have feelings for each other.  Also that Ethan resents Martin for his 1/8 Cherokee heritage.  Lucy is being courted by Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey Jr.), son of Swedish settler Lars Jorgenson (John Qualen).  Martin is shyly courting Jorgenson’s daughter Laurie (Vera Miles).  Debbie is maybe ten years old.

On the very night of Ethan’s return, Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) comes to call.  Clayton is also a Captain in the Texas rangers and is there to deputize Martin and Aaron on a mission to chase some Indians who have slaughtered Jorgenson’s cattle.  Ethan volunteers to take Aaron’s place.  It turns out that the rustling was a trick to draw the men away from their homes.  By the time Ethan and Martin can return to the Edwards homestead the Indians have burned the place down.  They find the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben.  Lucy and Debbie have been spirited away to some unspeakable fate.

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The Raiders set out on the trail of the war party.  Clayton and Ethan clash over strategy, Ethan always favoring the most brutal method, and eventually the Raiders go home leaving Ethan and Martin to search on their own.

So begins a search that lasts many years.  Martin and Ethan spar throughout.  Martin is determined to stick with Ethan to the end though as he fears that Ethan will kill Debbie if he finds she has adopted Indian ways.  With Olive Carey, Hank Worden, and Wayne’s son Patrick.

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I seem to love this film more every time I see it.  The vistas and compositions leave me awestruck.  It’s also a powerful story of racism in the old West along with the bravery and strength of the people who conquered it.  Wayne was never better.  He has a taciturn, savage edge  that complements his heroism.  Most highly recommended.

Trailer

6 thoughts on “The Searchers (1956)

  1. This is in my opinion the best western on the list so far. Wayne’s character is the most complex and ambivalent I have ever seen him. And this brilliantly reflects the ambivalence of the themes of the movie. Nothing is ever clear cut in this movie and that involves the viewer. It also has my highest recommendation.

  2. I may not go as far as Thomas in calling it the best of its genre ever made, but I would without question put it in the top 5, probably the top 3. It is a magnificent film in every respect and not a frame of it is wasted.

    I’d rank it with Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in the West, and that is heady company, indeed.

    It’s worth noting that this was evidently Wayne’s favorite film of his own. He named his son Ethan after his character.

    • How did this miss one single Oscar nomination? If it’s not the best Western, maybe the best of the classic Westerns?

  3. I like to think of this one as a bridge between the classic western that came before and the “modern” western. It is excellent and John Wayne earns that Oscar here that he would receive many years later.

    • By the time Wayne got his Oscar, I thought he should have got a Lifetime Achievement award. I always underrated Wayne when I was young because of his politics but he really could be a fine actor. Even when he was only playing himself, he had an iconic presence that was riveting.

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