A galvanizing western that has become one of the most influential films of all time
In a world we often think of as black and white, “The Searchers” is all about the gray. Breathtaking in its grandeur and exposing a West that is both beautiful and brutal, it might seem like just another well made western, but it's actually a film of jarring contrasts, complexities, and ambiguities. It is a grippingly ravishing, uncomfortable journey about revenge, race, family, finding the American identity, and the effects of festering racism. “The Searchers” somehow thoroughly satisfies as it stirs up many questions, providing few answers if any. It is a film that stays with you. It has been hailed as a masterpiece, and has become one of the most influential films in history. Ranked by AFI as the #1 western of all-time, the #12th greatest film of all-time, it has been noted as having influenced film directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg, David Lean, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wim Wenders, Peter Bogdanovich, Jean-Luc Godard, and George Lucas. Directed by the father of westerns, John Ford, and starring cinema’s top western star, John Wayne, “The Searchers” is electrifying in every way.
The story is simple: In 1868 during the Texas-Indian wars, two men begin a search for two girls (one's nieces and the other's sisters) who were abducted by Indians. Where “The Searchers” gets complicated is in the details. The two on the quest are opposites. At the center is “Ethan Edwards” played by John Wayne, a white, hot-headed, exceedingly racist, tough guy. Joining him is his adopted nephew, “Martin Pawley” played by Jeffrey Hunter, who is sensitive, caring, and part native Indian. Sometime after their search begins, “Ethan’s” goal changes, and questions of how far one is willing to take their hatred arise. We never really get inside “Ethan’s” head, but his actions present a very complicated portrait of what seems like a man subconsciously grappling with his racism. This film is not a psychological study, yet it seduces the viewer into pondering many topics. “The Searchers” is based on a 1954 Alan Le May book by the same name, which was in turn loosely based on real events. Be forewarned: as with many westerns, "The Searchers" is racist. The film depicts Indians as ruthless savages, and white men as victims, and is highly disrespectful towards American Indians and their culture - particularly in the scene where “Ethan” disrupts the grave of a dead Indian. My take on that scene is that it is meant to show how uncontrolled prejudice can turn evil. One must keep in mind that like all films, this was a product of its time. I wrote more on that topic in my “Gone With the Wind” post. In its offensiveness, I do believe “The Searchers” forces the viewer to examine the boundaries of one’s own prejudices.
A key element separating "The Searchers" from other films is its visual magnificence, in particular its use of framing, composition, and the majestic landscape on which it was filmed. “The Searchers” was shot on location in Monument Valley, a Navajo Nation’s Park on the Arizona-Utah border, which director Ford made famous with his 1939 classic western, “Stagecoach”. Ford shot ten films in this unusual landscape, and largely because of him, its towering red sandstone buttes and otherworldly formations are recognized worldwide as the picture of the American West. Monument Valley has never looked more majestic than in “The Searchers”. True to Ford’s style, the gloriousness of the landscape, shown this time in Technicolor, acts like a peaceful watchdog, objectively observing the horrific human tribulations taking place upon it. His trademark long shots capture his characters against imposing terrains and vast skies. Temporary houses and sets were built in the Navajo park for the film, and many local American Indians were used as extras.
This film was masterfully orchestrated by John Ford, one of cinemas most respected and influential directors. His vision of the American frontier (with gunslingers, heroes on horseback, saloons, wide open spaces, murderous Indians, fearless cowboys, and so on) has almost singlehandedly become our vision of that era (for better and for worse). Ford made the western a formidable film genre, and elevated the American West to romantic, even mythic proportions. As with “The Searchers”, his films appear deceptively simple. He has directed more classic westerns than any other director, including "Stagecoach", "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", "My Darling Clementine","Drums Along the Mohawk", "Fort Apache", "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", “How the West Was Won", and many more, earning him the title, “The Great American Director”. “The Searchers” is regarded as his crowning achievement. A versatile director at the top of his game, Ford won four Best Director Academy Awards - more than any other director to date. Funny enough, his wins were all for non-westerns ("The Informer", "The Grapes of Wrath", "How Green Was My Valley", and "The Quiet Man”). Perhaps this was a result of the industry tending to look at westerns as a minor genre. From his 147 directing credits, he has directed countless other non-western classics, including "Mister Roberts", "They Were Expendable", “Mogambo", "The Last Hurrah", "Young Cassidy", "The Hurricane”, and more. Working often with the same actors, they became known as part of ”Ford’s stock company”. They included John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, John Carradine, Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, and others. John Ford began his film career working in front and behind the camera for his brother, actor/writer/director Francis Ford. He began directing silent films in 1917, including many successful westerns starring silent film star, Harry Carey, Sr., whose son appears in “The Searchers”. Along with his four above mentioned Oscar wins, Ford received an additional Best Director nomination for “Stagecoach”, and a Best Picture nomination (as producer) for “The Quiet Man”. During WWII, he served in the war as a photographer, and was present at the attack on Midway, and on Omaha Beach on D-Day. While serving, he made documentaries for the Navy, two of which, “The Battle of Midway”, and “December 7th”, won Best Documentary Academy Awards. In 1973, he became the first person to receive the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon. He was married once, for over fifty years until his death. John Ford died in 1973 at the age of 79.
John Wayne stars as “Ethan Edwards”, in arguably the best performance of his career. It is no small accomplishment that Wayne makes the relentless and unsettling “Ethan” interesting, palatable, and at times moving. I believe Wayne’s finest acting moment ever is in “The Searchers”. It’s the scene where “Brad Jorgensen” returns to tell “Ethan” and “Martin” he just spotted "Lucy". I get chills every time I watch it. Wayne, also known as “The Duke”, was an enormous movie star, icon and legend, and became the face of the American West. As Ford elevated the West to mythic, Wayne was its Zeus. With his swagger and unique verbal drawl, he perfected a tough yet wounded image of a loner. He protected and fueled his larger-than-life persona, and became the quintessential American hero and archetype of masculinity in his day. He is rated #13 of the men on AFI’s list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”, and holds the record for making the list of top ten box office stars more than any other actor or actress - 25 years (between 1949 and 1974, every year but one), ranking at #1 four times. He was nominated twice for a Best Actor Academy Award, winning once for the classic 1969 western, “True Grit” (and nominated for the 1949 war film “Sands of Iwo Jima”). As a producer, he was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, for the 1960 film, “The Alamo”, in which he also starred and directed. In 1979 he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and the next year the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter (posthumously). There is also a John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, just outside Los Angeles.
John Wayne began his film career in 1926, as a prop boy and extra in films with silent western star Tom Mix and director John Ford. Director Raoul Walsh noticed him, and cast Wayne in his first lead, in the 1930 film, “The Big Trail”. The film was a failure, and Wayne went back to smaller roles, becoming an official B-movie actor. At this time he honed his stunts and horseback riding skills, while appearing in many westerns. After appearing in well over fifty films, in 1939 John Ford fought to have Wayne star in “Stagecoach”, which became a huge success and catapulted Wayne to stardom. Wayne would amass 179 acting credits, mostly in westerns, war, and adventure films, including twelve directed by Ford. Wayne was paired with fiery actress Maureen O’Hara in five films, and the two became a popular screen duo. He appeared occasionally on television, often playing himself in a cameo, including appearances on “I Love Lucy”, and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In”. He directed two films, “The Alamo”, and "The Green Berets”. Some of his other classics include “Red River”, "Rio Bravo", "El Dorado", "The Quiet Man", "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", “The Longest Day", "How the West Was Won", “They Were Expendable”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, and his last, the 1976 film, “The Shootist”. Vocally political, he was a staunch conservative Republican, and was asked countless times to run for office by his party. He was a supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the McCarty Era, and served four terms as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group committed to protecting the US from communist infiltration, who supplied HUAC with many of their "friendly witnesses". In 1971 Wayne gave an infamous interview to Playboy Magazine, in which he supported the war in Vietnam, said he understood the Black’s resentment towards whites, but “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility”, and called the characters in the film “Midnight Cowboy” “fags”. To show how times have changed, all of this only slightly dampened his iconic status. He was married three times. He loved his role in “The Searchers” to the extent that he named one of his seven children Ethan. John Wayne died in 1979 at the age of 72.
The role of “Martin Pawley” is played in great contrast to “Ethan” by Jeffrey Hunter. Hunter makes him brave and compassionate in the fervent search for his sisters, and more than holds his own opposite the imposing Wayne. Discovered by “Ethan” as a boy, “Martin” was adopted by “Ethan’s” brother and sister-in-law, and raised as one of their own. “Martin” is ⅛ Indian, and because of that, “Ethan” refuses to accept him as family. Once again, “The Searchers” expresses story and ideas through conflict and contrast, as there is no fine line about family or race in the film. Jeffrey Hunter was an actor and heartthrob who started his career in summer stock and on radio. He began appearing in films in 1950, often with actor Robert Wagner. After lead and supporting roles, “The Searchers” became his biggest success to date. In 1961, he would play his most remembered and controversial role - as “Jesus Christ” in “King of Kings”. He continued to work steadily in films and television until 1968, including the first pilot of the original “Star Trek” TV series in 1964. Parts of that pilot (with Hunter) were later used as flashbacks in a 1986 episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series”. Some of his other notable films include "Hell to Eternity", "Sailor of the King", “Brainstorm", and two more John Ford films, “The Last Hurrah” and “Sergeant Rutledge”. He was married three times, including his first marriage to actress Barbara Rush. Jeffrey Hunter died in 1969 at the young age of 42.
Vera Miles is the female lead, playing “Laurie Jorgensen”, the girl in love with “Martin”. She adds romance, levity, and a likable strength which Miles often displayed in her films. A 1948 “Miss Wichita” beauty pageant winner and third runner up in the “Miss America” contest, Vera Miles began appearing in films in 1950, and television in 1951. She worked steadily in both mediums through 1995, sometimes a lead, often the second lead. John Ford previously directed her on television in an episode of "Screen Directors Playhouse” in 1955, a year before “The Searchers”. He would cast her again in his classic film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in 1962. She is perhaps best remembered for her work under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, in both “The Wrong Man”, and “Psycho”. She made half a dozen films in the 1960s and 70s for Walt Disney Studios, including “Those Calloways" and "The Castaway Cowboy”. With over 150 film and television appearances, some of her other notable films include "The FBI Story", "Autumn Leaves", "Sergeant Ryker", "The Green Berets", "Psycho II", and her final film "Separate Lives" in 1995. She was married and divorced four times, including her second marriage to actor Gordon Scott (best known for playing “Tarzan”). As of the writing of this entry, Vera Miles is 91 years old.
This film is filled with supporting actors you will see often in other films (many who were from “Ford’s stock company”). I’ll only mention several. Ward Bond, who plays “Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton”, is an actor I wrote about in the “It’s a Wonderful Life” post. Please check out that entry for more about him and his career. In “The Searchers”, he adds some of the film’s sparsely sprinkled humor. Out of his close to 300 film and TV credits, twenty seven were directed by Ford (twenty four films and two TV episodes). Bond also appeared in twenty three films alongside his real life friend, John Wayne, and in six films directed by Frank Capra (“Lady for a Day”, “It Happened One Night”, “Broadway Bill”, “You Can’t Take It with You”, “Riding High” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”).
Natalie Wood is credited in “The Searchers” as well. She is an actress whose life and career I wrote about in the “Rebel Without a Cause” entry, where you can learn more about her. I’ll talk more about her role in “The Searchers” in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section.
I want to briefly point out John Qualen who plays “Lars Jorgensen”. He is a character actor you will see often in classic films. If you are watching the films on this site, you previously saw him as “Berger” in “Casablanca”. A Canadian actor of Norwegian decent, he often employs different accents in different films (including “The Searchers”). He appeared in over 200 films and TV shows in a career spanning from 1931 until 1974, including nine directed by Ford. Just some of his films include "The Fugitive", "The Devil and Daniel Webster", "Arabian Nights”, “The Sea Chase", "Anatomy of a Murder", "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and his standout performances in the classics, "The Grapes of Wrath" and "His Girl Friday”. He was married once until his death. John Qualen died in 1987 at the age of 87.
Harry Carey, Jr. portrays “Brad Jorgensen”, who is in love with “Lucy”. Carey, Jr. was a prolific character actor with over 150 film and TV credits, who is best remembered for being a staple in westerns. Another of Ford’s “stock” actors, he appeared in nine films and one TV episode directed by Ford, including the classics “Wagon Master” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. He also appeared opposite Wayne in just under a dozen films. As mentioned above, his father was actor Harry Carey (Sr.). His mother was also an actress, Olive Carey, and she portrays “Mrs. Jorgensen”, his on-screen mother in “The Searchers”. Olive appeared in three films directed by Ford.
Antonio Moreno has a small but memorable part as “Emilio Gabriel Fernández y Figueroa”. I wanted to point him out because he was a big silent film star. Born in Spain, he came to the US as a teenager, and then to Hollywood in 1912 when he began appearing in films. Often cast as a “Latin Lover”, by 1915 he became a matinee idol, appearing opposite silent film’s biggest stars, including Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Dorothy Gish, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow (in her iconic film “It”). His Spanish accent somewhat derailed his career with the coming of sound, and he began working in Spanish-speaking Mexican films as well as Hollywood films. Moreno also directed four films, including the 1932 Mexican classic, “Santa”. From the late 1930s through the 1950s, he became a character actor, and today, is most remembered for his roles in “The Searchers”, and the 1954 classic, “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. “The Searchers” was his next to last film, and he retired from acting in 1959. He married once, to heiress Daisy Emma Canfield, until her tragic death in a car accident. The two were known for their Hollywood parties at their famous 22,000-square-foot mansion in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. Antonio Moreno died in 1967 at the age of 79. Their house, renamed The Paramour Estate, still stands, is now a hotel, and is listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
You may notice that the Executive Producer for “The Searchers” was Merian C. Cooper. For those reading this blog, that name may sound familiar. He was the force behind the 1933 classic, “King Kong”, (film #13 on this blog), and I briefly wrote about his life and career in that post. He and Ford were friends and worked on several films together, including “Wagon Master”, “Fort Apache”, and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. Also familiar to my readers should be the name Max Steiner, who wrote the film score for “The Searchers". One of Hollywood's greatest composers, I wrote about him in the “King Kong” and “Mildred Pierce” posts, and briefly in “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca”. Once again, his score is sensational, adding superb atmosphere and tone to this classic. As with many classics, “The Searchers” was not nominated for any Academy Awards.
This film visually dazzles from the first frame to the last, brimming with action, emotion and entertainment. Like many John Ford films, this film haunts you well after you watch it. Enjoy “The Searchers”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
I’m mentioning actress Natalie Wood’s character after you see “The Searchers”, so that I don’t spoil anything for first time viewers (since it is unknown if her character is dead or alive). Wood portrays the older “Debbie Edwards”. At the time of “The Searchers”, Natalie was at a turning point in her career, as she had just made “Rebel Without a Cause”, and was transitioning from child to teenage roles. Her character in “The Searchers” presents another of the film’s complexities. “Debbie” is now a woman, “spoiled” by an Indian, and as a result, “Ethan” doesn’t see her as white but as an Indian. Like several of the film’s elements, it presents questions about race and family, without offering definitive answers. The scene in which “Ethan” lifts her at the end of the film has become iconic.
Another family connection in the cast (like Harry Carey, Jr., and his mother, Olive) is Lana Wood, who plays the young “Debbie Edwards”. She is the real life sister of Natalie Wood, who plays “Debbie” grown-up. “The Searchers” was the first true film role for Lana (other than two bit parts). Acting since she was an infant, Lana followed in her sister’s footsteps. Not wanting to duplicate Natalie’s career, she focused on television, while appearing in scattered films. She had a breakthrough in 1966, appearing for two seasons on what is considered the original television soap opera, “Peyton Place”. Another important role for Lana was as a James Bond girl in the classic 1971 film, “Diamonds Are Forever”. She is still acting today. She has been married six times (divorced five, and one annulment). As of the writing of this post, Lana Wood is 74 years old.
The meaning of the final shot of “The Searchers” has long been debated. After “Ethan” restored what’s left of the family, all but "Ethan" enter the house united. Standing just outside the doorway, he debates entering, stares inside, turns and walks back into the wild. I’ll let you decide your interpretation on this bittersweet, and very famous ending.