Sunday, September 25, 2011

#49 - The Searchers (1956)

BACK-STORY: “The Searchers” is a “war” movie based on the eponymous novel by Alan LeMay. It was released in 1956 toward the end of the great period of black and white Westerns and is considered by many to be the best movie of that genre. It is marked by peak performances by director John Ford and his perennial star, John Wayne. Shockingly, although the film did well at the box office, it did not get a single Academy Award nomination. The casting was interesting. Natalie Wood’s sister plays the younger Debbie. Natalie was still in high school at the time of filming and you can imagine the stir when Wayne and/or Jeffery Hunter would sometimes come to pick her up at school. Fess Parker of “Davy Crockett” fame was set to play the Martin Pawley role, but Disney would not allow him to. He later said it was the biggest loss of his career. Buddy Holly got the idea for the title of his hit “That’ll Be the Day” from the oft used line in the movie.

OPENING: The film opens in 1868 Texas. A typical old cowboy song plays over the credits. We view the Texas prairie from through a doorway (a frequent motif in the movie) and then the camera moves outside to greet the return of Uncle Ethan (Wayne). This scene sets the theme of the indoors representing civilization and the outdoors standing for savagery. Ethan has been gone for several years. He was on the losing side in the Civil War, but is unreconciled. Where he has been since the end of the war is unclear, but he has a Mexican medal (which he gives to Debbie) and a lot of gold coins. Ethan is out of place in his brother’s home (civilization) and it is obvious from body language that there was something between Ethan and his sister-in-law Martha. Another interesting dynamic is the family had adopted a boy rescued from the Indians by Ethan. Because Martin (Hunter) is part Indian, Ethan is cold towards him which is our first inkling that Ethan is a racist. At one point he calls Martin “blankethead”.

SUMMARY: A posse of Texas Rangers led by Capt. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) arrives searching for some cattle thieves. Ethan and Martin join the group. They discover that the culprits are Comanche raiders on a “murder raid” and they have been drawn away from the farm. As Martin spurs his horse back, Ethan stops to rest his horse knowing it’s a long (and probably fruitless) return. He is accompanied by an addled Mose (Hank Worden).

     The scene at the farm is fraught with omens. Dusk is coming in reddishly and faux bird calls pierce the air. Aaron and Martha know they are doomed. The emotions of the family vary by age and adulthood. Martha sends Debbie to hide in the family grave plot (next to the tombstone of Ethan’s mother who was killed by Indians). Soon she is covered by the shadow an Indian named Scar.

     When Ethan arrives at the farm (he has passed up Martin who is afoot having run his horse to death) it is aflame and he finds what’s left of the family in a shed. What he sees is left to our imagination as the camera focuses on him looking in through the doorway.

look at his eye - acting!
     Ethan, Martin, and Lucy’s (the elder daughter) beau go after the two girls. The Rangers are along, too. When they locate the Indian camp, Ethan wants to go charging in (seemingly unconcerned with the consequences to the captives). Clayton insists on using stealth which fails. The tables are turned with the Indians chasing the smaller group of Texans to the river. The Indians use the typical Hollywood tactic of a frontal attack across the river and are predictably mowed down by the repeating rifles. Ethan revels in the killing.

costarring Monument Valley
     The trio continue on alone and Ethan discovers Lucy’s body in a canyon. When Brad asks for details Ethan snarls “What do you want me to do – draw you a picture?!” Brad commits suicide by charging into the Indian camp. Once again our imagination is required as all we hear is a series of gunshots.

     Time passes and Ethan and Marty return to Brad’s parent’s home. Brad’s sister Lori (Vera Miles) has been pining for her childhood sweetheart although Martin seems clueless about their unofficial betrothal. Brad’s parents have taken his death stoically – they are frontier folk. Ethan tries to leave Martin behind, but Martin insists on coming along because he fears what Ethan will do when he finds Debbie. A trader gives Ethan information about Scar’s whereabouts. That night Ethan sets up Martin as bait for the inevitable campfire ambush by the trader and his cronies. Ethan kills the three.

     Some comic relief is thrown in as Martin accidentally “purchases” an Indian wife. Ethan gets a big kick out of this, Lori does not. The wife runs off when they ask her about Scar and later they find her dead body in a village that has been sacked by the U.S. Cavalry. The white girls rescued by the Cavalry are all mentally scarred by their experience as captives, but none are Debbie.

Martin shields Debbie
     A Mexican leads them to Scar’s camp to parley and trade. Scar recognizes them as his pursuers and makes a point of showing scalps he has taken to avenge the killings of his sons by whites. It turns out he is a racist, too. Guess who one of his wives is? Except she is not looking like a typical captive. In fact, she looks like she is going to a Halloween costume party dressed as a sexy squaw. Ethan and Martin play it cool and camp nearby. Debbie comes out to meet them to urge them to go. She is content with her situation. Ethan wants to shoot her. Martin shields her with his body and an Indian hits Ethan with an invisible poison arrow. The duo flee and take refuge in a cave where they beat off, you guessed it - a frontal attack. (Indians don’t sneak up on surrounded and outnumbered enemies in most Westerns.) So close and yet so far, they return to the Jorgenson’s.

     Lori is fixing to get hitched to a rube named Charlie (Ken Curtis). The traditions of frontier weddings is depicted quaintly. Naturally, Marty and Charlie have to settle this with a fist fight because this is a Western and two guys cannot share one girl. Ethan is about to be arrested for the “murder” of the trader, when word arrives that Scar is camped nearby. Ethan, the Texas Rangers, and the Cavalry (led by Patrick Wayne) head for the camp.

CLOSE: The whites plan an attack at dusk. Ethan hopes Debbie is killed in the attack. Martin sneaks in early to try to save her. He finds her in Scar’s tipi and she agrees to go. This is an unexplained change of heart from the last time they saw her. Scar appears in the doorway and in an anticlimactic moment, Martin shoots him. Done. The gunshot initiates the assault on the village which catches the Indians sleeping, but appears to result in no casualties for either side. Ethan chases Debbie to a cave. She is doomed as her psychotic uncle catches up, but he lifts her in her arms and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.” All those who expected John Wayne to kill his niece in cold blood will be disappointed. In the iconic closing scene, Debbie is taken into the bosom of the Jorgenson home and Ethan is left standing on the porch. Still not civilization-worthy nor wanting to be.


Acting - 8

Action - 7

Accuracy - 8

Realism - 6

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on whether they enjoy Westerns. ”The Searchers” is well-balanced. The plot includes some female roles and some gentle humor. Two men fight over the same woman. Women love that. The action is not graphic. The themes should be interesting for women.
Cynthia Ann Parker

Natalie Wood as Debbie

ACCURACY: I was surprised to find that “The Searchers” is based on a true story or stories. Author LeMay did his research on Indian captivities. The one that most closely corresponds to the movie is the story of Cynthia Ann Parker (which happens to be the most famous one). Parker was nine years old when she was taken by the Comanche in 1836. She was taken among others when the Indians took Fort Parker in Texas. Her uncle spent the rest of his life and his fortune searching for her. She was treated much worse than Debbie was apparently treated in the movie. The treatment included torture, but like Debbie she was eventually married to a chief. Unlike Debbie, she gave birth to three children, one of whom became the famous Quanah Parker (the last great Comanche leader). She was not “rescued” until twenty-four years later when Texas Rangers attacked her village. Uncle Parker was not with them, but she was soon reunited with him. She was unhappy living in civilization and once escaped only to be “rescued” again. From the pictures, she does not look like Natalie Wood. Surprise! Another surprising historical accuracy is the loony Mose character. There actually was a half-crazy Mad Mose in Texas who had the reputation of being an Indian fighter and rocking chair lover. By the way, in the book at the end Debbie runs away from the village and Martin only catches up to her days later after she has collapsed from exhaustion.

CRITIQUE: “The Searchers” is a great Western. It has all the ingredients of a classic. The music fits the movie well. So do the typical Ford touches of humor. The directing is robust with Ford at the top of his game. His use of doorways to frame his theme of civilization versus savagery is genius. It’s not the bullshit of an auteur. It is obvious what he is trying to say and you wait for the next use of the motif and nod that you get it. The opening and closing of the movie with the doorway imagery makes it clear you have seen something special. The cinematography is amazing with Monument Valley standing in magnificently for Texas. The outdoors may symbolize savagery, but savagery has never looked so awesome. Admittedly, some of the sound stage scenes have a phony look, but they seem to enhance the scenes set in Monument Valley.

     The acting is strong across the board and is anchored by what most consider to be Wayne’s greatest performance (and his personal favorite). Wayne was notorious for avoiding roles that were not heroic, but he made an exception for Ethan (a similar exception was made for “Red River”). Ethan is an anti-hero predating the vogue of the sixties. Ethan’s racism and abhorrence of miscegenation was typical of a majority of white frontiersmen of the time, but still a daring portrayal for the Duke. One has to add, however, that the offensiveness of the character is diluted in the abrupt acceptance of Debbie when he “rescues” her. It appears that Wayne and Ford could only go so far in amending their previous depictions of the West and the Indians. I guess they were willing to settle for Purgatory instead of Heaven.

     The supporting actors are good and for lovers of old Westerns have a familiar vibe. Jeffery Hunter is only singed a bit by Wayne’s volatile performance. He does not embarrass himself. Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Ken Curtis, and Hank Worden are solid, as you would expect. It was probably a fun movie to make.

Martha and her brother-in-law
     The best thing about the movie is it is not the usual white hat/horse hero versus either bad guys or Indians. Don’t get me wrong, Scar is a classic villain. But Ford throws in the fact that he is avenging his murdered sons when he takes scalps. This mirrors the motivation of his foe Ethan. Speaking of Ethan, he is a fascinating character. The movie makes you think about issues deeper than your average Western. Should I empathize with an obvious racist? If my mother and the love of my life (Martha) were killed by Indians, would I feel the same obsession with vengeance? What is harder to empathize with is Ethan’s primitive take on miscegenation. It is hard for our tolerant society to fathom why Ethan would search for years for Debbie seemingly just so he could kill her for sleeping with a “buck”. The movie does not make it clear whether Ethan is principally motivated by revenge for Martha’s death or the purifying of his family name by eliminating Debbie. It is interesting to consider what would have happened if Scar had traded Debbie to another tribe. Who would Ethan have searched for then? Critics have introduced the intriguing theory that Debbie is actually Ethan’s daughter (the timing of her birth makes this possible). This just makes his objective more fascinating.

CONCLUSION: While certainly a great movie and possibly the best Western ever made, “The Searchers” is not even close to being a war movie. The editors of Military History magazine should not have included any movie that is a war movie second, another genre first. If they truly felt it was a war movie, it should have been ranked much higher (a similar situation to “Casablanca”).

the trailer

the opening scene


  1. Check out the poster - "He had to find he could kill her."

    I have been unable to get a copy of #49 - "Colonel Redl"

  2. Should I ever be in a Western mood, I might give it a try. It seems to have a few great aspects but there is the same old problem again, why include it in that list? And at postion 49!

  3. If your last John Wayne movie was "The Alamo", I strongly recommend you watch this!

  4. Just wanted to let you know that Macmillan Audio is offering 3 audio books to participants in the War Through the Generations Civil War Challenge. Go here to enter!

  5. Ethan's attitude was still common in the 1950's, and movies apparently had a ban on miscegenation until 1956 or '57. Whenever a white man and an Indian girl got married in a Western, she was killed by the end of the movie (Broken Arrow, Across the Wide Missouri). Run of the Arrow may have been the first Western to allow a cross-racial couple to both survive.

  6. IMHO, blending comedy with drama was not John Ford's strong suit. The brawl between Jeffrey Hunter and Ken Curtis was jarringly out of place, as was the Dodge City segment of Cheyenne Autumn. Both sequences would have fit better in a movie like Cat Ballou.

  7. Lana Wood, who played a young Debbie Edwards in The Searchers, is scheduled to appear at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, Sept. 18-20, in Hunt Valley, Md., at the Hunt Valley Wyndham Hotel. Also scheduled to appear are Piper Laurie, Veronica Cartwright, Angela Cartwright, Lee Meredith, George Lazenby, and more. More information is at

    1. Interesting. Thank you. Sounds like a great event!

  8. I agree that this is not a war movie but I suppose you could argue that it depicts a low-level war between the United States and Native American tribes. As dialogue with Ethan suggests, it's an asymmetric conflict that reflects different cultural understandings of war. On the front lines you have people with some connection to both societies, or like Ethan have some understanding of both - but are not necessarily any more compassionate as a result.

    My guess is that Debbie had not processed the possibility of rescue the first time around and was trying warn Martin off to keep him from getting killed.

    I feel most sorry for the purchased indian wife. If Martin had been kinder to her she might have lived.

  9. Thanks for the input. You make some good points.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.