The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter surrounded by the stunning backdrop of the red sandstone rock formations of Monument Valley.

Up for discussion is the highly disputed movie, “The Searchers”; which was directed by John Ford and written by Frank S. Nugent in early 1956. A couple of years prior to the film, Alan Le May’s novel,”The Searchers” was published in 1954 and is still regarded today as a “great American novel” (Goodreads). Le May’s creative narrative was undoubtably the groundwork for the production of John Ford’s adaptation; the question is, is John Ford successful in transforming Le May’s great words into picture form.

The Searchers begins with magnificent scenes of beauty and isolated danger as the audience is transported on a trip across the vast and deserted plains of Monument Valley. There are not many more highly captivating methods in which to establish a movie inception; than to see those immense red sandstone rock’s protruding from the equally red ground on the big screen, “astonishingly beautiful” (Roger Ebert). What a way to bedazzle the audience with such simplicity in the opening moments. Nature’s western earth at it’s finest.

John Ford’s “The Searchers” contains scenes of magnificence.

The narrative portrays the intensely complex journey of a dangerous, hate-driven pursuit; after a group of Comanche massacred the inhabitants of a nearby ranch and hijacked the two youngest members of the Edwards household. One of the plot lines of this film could be seen as a “homeric odyssey” (Xan Brooks) with regard to the main character Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who ultimately leads the search for the commandeered girls Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) and Lucy Edwards (Pippa Scott). Ethan Edwards is openly “racist without apology” (Roger Ebert) throughout the entire film, while The Searchers also delves into the realms of sexism, as well as the rampant racial prejudice.  The story examines the inner demons of Ethan as the narrative progresses throughout the entire five years of his searching; depicting a courageously independent civil-war veteran consumed with hostility for others and revenge and hatred for the Comanche tribes. Ethan’s hate runs so deep, that when his posse stumble across a dead Comanche buried in the ground, Ethan shoots out the dead man’s eyes so that he won’t be able to enter the Comanche spirit lands, as shown in the clip below. For a Comanche, dying with your eyes intact is highly significant to their culture and beliefs of life after death, so for Ethan to act in that way so heartlessly demonstrates that “he hates Comanches so much that he actually has bothered to learn their beliefs in order to violate them.” (Martin Scorsese).

The major contrast between The Searchers and many other western movies that came before John Ford’s epic, is the fact Ethan was not out to rescue his nieces in an effort to save them from the savages who stole them, like most traditional westerns. Instead, his motive for searching was to “to shoot her dead, because she had become “the leavin’s of a Comanche buck”” (Roger Ebert). This was unprecedented at the time and is one of the reason’s why this plot line was so innovative. The Searchers is argued to be a rebirth to it’s form, in a time when it was seen to be the “dying days of the classic Western” (Roger Ebert).

Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne team up in the search for self-discovery.

Thrown into the mix, to equal out Ethan’s desires to hunt down and kill the two girls who have fallen into the arms of the Comanche, is the supporting character Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Martin, an orphan after his family was murder by a Comanche attack, was brought up by the Edwards family. It was none other than Ethan who saved him as a young boy from death and brought him to his aunt and uncle (Aaron and Martha Edwards) to be cared for. Martin’s role is simply to combat Ethan’s intentions and ultimately save Debbie and Lucy so that they can both be brought back home alive. Against his will, Ethan finally accepts Martin to accompany him on the trail for the two lost girls. However, regardless of Martin and Ethan’s family connection, Ethan never truly treats Martin as an equal  and considers him a ‘half-breed’;  all of which just emphasizes Ethan’s “solitude, his separateness, his alienation — from his friends and family” (A. O. Scott).

The clip from The Searchers, shown above, could perhaps be seen as “inspiring such ’70s classics as Star Wars  (Stephen Metcalf). For example, in George Lucas’s “A New Hope” (1977), Luke Skywalker returns to his home planet, Tatooine, to find his aunt and uncle murdered by the empire and thus sets off on an epic journey of revenge and hatred. The main theme and even the setting in The Searchers is very similar to that in A New Hope and we can argue a strong connection to both narratives; the empire representing the savage Comanches, Skywalker’s aunt and uncles home on the vast plains of Tatooine representing the Edwards family home on the barren plains of Monument Valley, both of the aunt’s and uncle’s brutally murdered with the family home left in a fiery blaze of ruin, and the passionate desires of hatred and revenge themed throughout.

Regardless of it’s huge influence on such films such as “”Apocalypse Now,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Kill Bill,” “Brokeback Mountain”” (A. O. Scott), and including ““Star Wars” and “Taxi Driver.”” (J. Hoberman), the film, as a matter of fact, uses a very traditional structure for it’s narrative. The style of structure used is called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and is also known as the “monomyth” (Joseph Campbell) structure. The Hero’s Journey is the basis for many movie structures and stories alike; the idea is to bring the hero from one feeling to the next, for example “from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again” (Christopher Vogler). We can identify this especially with John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edward, and the way his characteristics are constantly changing throughout the story in a bi-polar fashion. By the end of the film the Ethan Edward’s merry-go round goes full circle and we are left with a gaping mystery, “the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realizes his goal, brings her back and then walks away” (Martin Scorsese). Ethan goes through so much and travels so far in order to find Debbie and ultimately kill her; but reconciles himself instead by rescuing her and bringing her back home alive. In a way, this accomplishes Ethan’s purpose in the narrative and leaves nothing left for him to do than to walk away and alienate himself from his friends and family yet again, “and like the man whose eyes he’s shot out, he’s destined to wander forever between the winds.” (Martin Scorsese).

The Searchers is more thoughtful than a traditional western movie, although it does possess familiar components and attributes at the same time. However, with it’s many influences and adaptations that followed, you’d have to agree, this is truly a great “Hollywood western” (A.O. Scott) which inspired other great movie makers.

“That’ll be the day” – Ethan Edwards.