The Searchers (film)

The Searchers (film)

Infobox Film
name = The Searchers

caption =
director = John Ford
producer = C.V. Whitney
writer = Alan Le May (novel)
Frank S. Nugent
narrator =
starring = John Wayne
Jeffrey Hunter
Natalie Wood
music = Stan Jones (title song)
Max Steiner
cinematography = Winton C. Hoch, ASC
editing = Jack Murray
distributor = Warner Bros.
released = March 13, 1956
runtime = 119 min.
country = USA
language = English
budget =
gross =
preceded_by =
followed_by =
website =
amg_id =
imdb_id = 0049730

"The Searchers" is a 1956 epic Western film directed by John Ford, based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, which tells the story of Ethan Edwards, a bitter, middle-aged loner and Civil War veteran played by John Wayne, who spends years looking for his abducted niece.

While a modest commercial success upon its 1956 release, "The Searchers" received no Academy Award nominations and was certainly not regarded by then-contemporary reviewers as a potential classic. In recent years, however, the film's prestige has risen and it is now widely acknowledged as one of the best Westerns ever made, being named the Greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008. It also placed 12th on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the top 100 greatest movies of all time. [ [ AFI's website listing Top 100 films] ]

In 1989, the United States National Film Registry's first year of selecting films for preservation, "The Searchers" was one of the twenty-five films to be deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Now a highly influential film, it has inspired other Westerns as well as dramas, science fiction, and even Bollywood films.


The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns from the American Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in rural northern Texas. No one knows what he's been doing for the past three years since the war ended in 1865. But despite hints and supposition that Ethan has been up to no good, the movie's early scenes never explicitly frame Ethan for wrongdoing. However, Ranger Captain Clayton (Ward Bond), who is also the local preacher, dourly observes, after Ethan refuses to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers ("no need to, wouldn't be legal anyway") "you fit a lot of [wanted poster] descriptions." Moreover, Ethan has a medal that he gives to his niece Debbie (Lana Wood), which suggests he has been in Mexico during the period of the Emperor Maximilian. He also gives Aaron 180 freshly minted Double Eagle $20 dollar gold pieces to help with the ranch. Martha and Aaron wonder, but do not ask, where they came from. Shortly after his arrival, a Comanche raid leaves his brother and sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan), his nephew, Ben (Robert Lyden), all dead, and his two nieces, Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie, abducted, and the family homestead burned down.

After the funeral, a group led by Captain Clayton goes in search of the raiding party. When they discover the location of the encampment, Ethan wants to attack immediately, before daylight. Clayton points out to Ethan that Comanche generally kill their hostages at the first notice of a raid, something that Ethan already knows. This is the first sign that Ethan is willing not to bring the girls back alive. Captain Clayton gives the order that they'll sneak in easy and scare off the band's horses. By the time they get to the encampment the Indians are gone.

The Rangers are then caught in pincer movement trap and have to make a run for the river. As they cross the river one of the group, Nesby (William Steele), is wounded. The Rangers take up a defensive position using the river as a buffer, and they manage to repel the attack. The Indians retreat. When Ethan attempts to kill one more Comanche, Clayton stops him by knocking his rifle barrel down. This enrages Ethan who says that from now on he will do the job by himself. Captain Clayton decides that they are too few to continue and must get Nesby back home for treatments to his wound.

One of the group, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.), also Lucy's fiancé, says that someone will have to kill him to make him stop looking for Lucy. Aaron's adopted son, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who is frac|1|8 Cherokee, feels the same way, and with the two of them, Ethan continues to pursue the Comanche.

The three of them find where the main trail goes one way and four horses take off to the right, into a tight canyon pass. Ethan tells them that he will follow the small trail and that the two of them should stay on the main trail. When Ethan returns he is distracted and seemingly upset, but doesn't say anything. He also seems to have lost his Confederate Army long coat.

Later Brad is out on scout duty on foot and returns to Ethan and Martin saying that he has found the Comanche camp, and has seen Lucy. At this point Ethan tell Brad and Martin that it wasn't Lucy, that he had already found the murdered body of Lucy in the canyon. He had wrapped her body in his coat, and buried her with his bare hands. Brad, enraged, mounts his horse and charges into the encampment alone, dying in a fruitless, suicidal attempt to avenge Lucy.

Ethan and Martin lose the trail when the winter blizzards come. They go to Fort Richardson, Fort Wingate (near Gallup, New Mexico), Fort Cobb and the Anadarko Agency both in Indian Territory, among other places trying to pick up the trail. After a year, they return to the Jorgensen ranch. When they arrive, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) has been pining and waiting for Martin, and Ethan has a letter waiting for him from a man who runs a trading post on the Salt Fork of the Brazos River, Jerem Futterman, saying that Futterman has information about Debbie. The next morning Martin learns that Ethan has left without him, but Laurie has stolen the letter to give to Martin. She also lets Martin take her horse. Laurie doesn't want Martin to go, but knows that he must.

Ethan and Martin continue to search for Debbie, a search that goes on for five years. During that time, she grows into adolescence and is taken as mate by Scar (Henry Brandon), the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanche. Scar is presented as the cultural mirror image of Ethan. He hates whites every bit as much as Ethan hates Indians. Once Ethan realizes that Debbie (now played by Natalie Wood) has been mated to Scar, he undergoes a change. He no longer wants to rescue Debbie; he wants her dead, believing that a white woman being a Comanche's "squaw" is worse than death. Martin follows in hopes of stopping Ethan from killing the girl.

Eventually Ethan, Martin, and the Texas Rangers find Debbie. Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps the dead chief. Martin tries to prevent Ethan from killing Debbie, but it is Ethan himself who realizes how close he has come to destroying the last link to his family. Instead of killing Debbie, he lifts her in his arms just as he did when she was a child. Ethan brings Debbie to the safety of friends and then walks away. The film, which opened with a near-identical shot of another doorway, slowly revealing the film's landscape, finishes with a reversal: the film's players enter the darkness within the doorway, and the door closes, just before the end title, leaving Ethan isolated outside where he turns and wanders away into the wilderness.


"The Searchers" was originally produced by C.V. Whitney, directed by John Ford, and distributed by Warner Brothers. The film starred John Wayne, who was the only actor Ford ever considered for the lead in the movie.

Ford from the onset strove to make a movie unlike any made before it in Hollywood. Wayne had played outlaw characters before (the Ringo Kid in "Stagecoach"), but never one as driven and borderline psychotic as Ethan Edwards - indeed, Edwards is played as hovering on the verge of a complete breakdown. Jonathan Lethem said of Wayne’s portrayal of Edwards that he was “tormented and tormenting ... his fury is righteous and ugly, at once, resentment branded as a fetish.” [ Jonathan Lethem, "Defending "The Searchers" " on] ] His racism and hatred are blatant and open, and Ford's comments suggest that he intended it so. His remarks make clear he is seeking to portray the racism of white America that led to the genocide practiced against Native Americans. [ Brenton Priestly, "Race, Racism and the Fear of Miscegenation" on] ] Lethem also writes of his first look at "The Searchers", “Weren't Westerns meant to be simple? The film on the screen is lush, portentous.”.

While the movie was primarily set in the staked plains ("Llano Estacado") of Northwest Texas, it was actually filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah. Additional scenes were filmed in Mexican Hat, Utah, and in Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. [DGA Magazine, November, 2003,]

The film was shot in the VistaVision widescreen process.

Ford originally wanted to cast Fess Parker, whose performance as Davy Crockett on television had helped spark a national craze, in the Jeffrey Hunter role but Walt Disney, to whom Parker was under contract, refused to allow it, according to Parker's videotaped interview for the Archive of American Television. Parker notes that this was by far his single worst career reversal. [Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Archive, July 24, 2000,]

Real-life inspiration

The capture of enemy people was a fairly common practice among the Southern Plains Indians. Children taken during a successful raid could be sold to the government for ransom, traded to another tribe, kept as household servants, or even retrained and adopted into a native family to build up tribal numbers. During the 1860s, the era of "The Searchers," Comanche raiders took most of their captives from the frontier regions north and west of Fort Worth and the northwestern edge of the central Texas hill country. The federal Indian agents had limited ability to locate a captured child, so a number of relatives or friends of missing children made extensive searches for them.

Several film commentators have suggested that "The Searchers" was inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche warriors who raided her family's home at Fort Parker, Texas. [ [ Dan Schneider, "DVD review: "The Searchers" " on is one example] . John Milius also makes this point in a documentary about the production, although film historian Edward Buscombe observes in "The Searchers" (London: British Film Institute, 2000), p. 71, that Milius “gives no evidence for this assertion.”] She spent twenty-four years with the Comanches, married a war chief, and had three children, only to be rescued against her will by the Texas Rangers. James W. Parker, Cynthia Ann's uncle, spent much of his life and fortune in what became an obsessive search for his niece, like Ethan Edwards in the film. In addition, the rescue of Cynthia Ann, during a Texas Ranger attack known as the Battle of Pease River, resembles the rescue of Debbie Edwards when the Texas Rangers attack Scar's village.

However, Parker's story was only one of 64 real-life cases of 19th-century child abductions in Texas that author Alan Le May studied while researching the novel on which the film was based. Moreover, his surviving research notes indicate that the two characters who go in search of a missing girl were inspired by Brit Johnson, an African-American teamster who ransomed his captured wife and children from the Comanches in 1865. ["Brit Johnson, The Real Searcher", "American History" magazine, June 2007, p. 64.] Afterward, he made at least three trips to Indian Territory and Kansas relentlessly searching for another kidnapped girl, Millie Durgan (or Durkin), until Kiowa raiders killed him in 1871. [ "Negro Brit Johnson, Dennis Cureton & Paint Crawford" on] ]

Near the end of the film's story, Debbie’s apparent willingness to leave Scar’s household with Marty represents a significant departure from most historical models. In real life, abducted children who spent more than a year with the Comanches typically became highly assimilated and did not want to leave their adoptive people. This phenomenon was somewhat similar to the Stockholm syndrome, except that the former captives’ affection for their Native American friends and affinity for their culture lasted long after they had been rescued and restored to their families. The ending of Le May's novel contrasts to the film's, with Debbie, called Dry-Grass-Hair by the Comanches, running from the white men and from the Indians. Marty, in one final leg of his search, finds her days later, only after she has fainted from exhaustion.

In the film, Scar’s Comanche group is referred to as the Nawyecka. The more common names for this Comanche division (with whom Cynthia Ann Parker lived) are Nokoni or Nocona.

Some film critics have speculated that the historical model for the cavalry attack on a Comanche village, resulting in Look’s death and the taking of Comanche prisoners to a military post, was the well-known Battle of Washita River, November 27, 1868, when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s Cheyenne camp on the Washita River (near present day Cheyenne, Oklahoma). The sequence also resembles the 1872 Battle of the North Fork of the Red River, in which the 4th Cavalry captured 124 Comanche women and children and imprisoned them at Fort Concho.

At one point in the story, Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley receive information about Debbie's whereabouts from a trader named Jeremiah Futterman, who is portrayed as venal. However, several real-life frontier traders, including Marcus Goldbaum and Jesse Chisholm, attempted to recover kidnapped children without expectation of reward.

Wayne's posture in the closing frame, with one arm folded over his chest and clutching the other arm, was a conscious tribute to his own favorite Western actor, Harry Carey, Sr., who was known for that gesture and whose widow, cast member Olive Carey, was watching from behind the camera. [Wayne interview in documentary "Directed by John Ford"]

Cast and character description

*John Wayne – "Ethan Edwards"; Wayne played his most difficult role as the racist Civil War veteran who hates practically everyone - but Indians in particular. After he discovers that his niece Debbie has mated with an Indian, he intends to kill her.
*Jeffrey Hunter – "Martin Pawley"; the adopted son of Ethan's brother, he is part Indian, and undertakes the search with Edwards to save his adoptive sister from the Comanche and, later, from Ethan.
*Vera Miles – "Laurie Jorgensen"; Pawley's sweetheart, she gets just one letter in five years from him.
*Ward Bond – "Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton"; preacher and Texas Ranger captain.
*Natalie Wood – "Debbie Edwards" (older); Ethan Edwards's niece, carried off by Comanches when she is a child, she married Chief Scar when she grows up. Natalie Wood's younger sister, Lana Wood, plays Debbie as a child.
*John Qualen – "Lars Jorgensen"; a Scandinavian immigrant, and father of Laurie.
*Olive Carey – "Mrs. Jorgensen"; American-born wife of Lars and mother of Laurie.
*Henry Brandon – "Chief Cicatrice (Scar)"; chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanche; the abductor of the girls.
*Ken Curtis – "Charlie McCorry"; a hayseed cowboy who intends to marry Laurie Jorgensen.
*Harry Carey, Jr. – "Brad Jorgensen"; engaged to the older Edwards sister.
*Antonio Moreno – "Emilio Figueroa"; a Comanchero, he leads Ethan Edwards at last to Scar.
*Hank Worden – "Mose Harper"; half-mad cowhand who helps locate Debbie.
*Beulah Archuletta – "Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky (Look)"; Indian woman married to Martin through his misunderstanding.


*Argentina flagicon|Argentina July 19, 1956
*France flagicon|France August 8, 1956
*Japan flagicon|Japan August 22, 1956
*Sweden flagicon|Sweden August 22, 1956
*Italy flagicon|Italy September 16, 1956
*U.K. flagicon|United Kingdom September 23, 1956
*Finland flagicon|Finland October 5, 1956
*West Germany flagicon|West Germany October 5, 1956
*Australia flagicon|Australia November 15, 1956
*Austria flagicon|Austria January 25, 1957
*Hong Kong flagicon|Hong Kong February 14, 1957
*Denmark flagicon|Denmark July 24, 1957

Critical interpretations


Many reviewers see a powerful, albeit unspoken, factor in the plot. These reviewers maintain that Ethan Edwards is clearly in love with his brother's wife Martha. These same reviewers state it is this love (clearly mutual, as witness the scene in which Captain Clayton notices Martha stroking Ethan's coat) which drives Ethan initially both toward rescue and toward revenge. In terms of the dramatic action of the film, these reviewers maintain it is by far the strongest initiator of behavior on the lead character's part. Those espousing this theory allege that the most startling part of this plot undercurrent is that there is not one word of dialog alluding to the relationship and feelings between Ethan and Martha, despite the importance of those factors to the plot. Every reference to this relationship is visual. [Studlar, Gaylyn. "What Would Martha Want? Captivity, Purity, and Feminine Values in "The Searchers"," in Eckstein & Lehman, pp. 179-182] [Eckstein, Arthur M. "Incest and Miscegenation in "The Searchers" (1956) and "The Unforgiven" (1959)", in Eckstein & Lehman, p. 200] [Lehman, Peter. "'You Couldn't Hit It on the Nose': The Limits of Knowledge in and of "The Searchers"," in Eckstein & Lehman, pp. 248, 263]


Ford made an effort in this movie to examine the issues of racism and genocide towards Native Americans. Ford's was not the first film to attempt this, nor the most polished as regards the effort, but it was startling (particularly for later generations) in the harshness of its approach toward that racism. Ford's examination of racism starts with the racism of his hero. (That "hero" is hardly conventional.) Indeed, Wayne's Ethan Edwards hates practically everyone, but reserves a special bile for Indians. [ John Puccio, "The Searchers (Speecial Edition DVD)" review from] ] And it is this openly virulent hatred of Native Americans by the lead character which opens the door for the movie to examine racism as an excuse for the genocide of the Indians. Emanuel Levy says "It's a rare attempt to deal head-on with the problem and roots of racism in American life.". [ Emanuel Levy, "Film Review: The Searchers" from] ] Perception of the film has evolved steadily over the years as people more willingly examine as a society the horrific treatment of Native Americans by the white culture. Roger Ebert says in a somber analysis of this movie: "In "The Searchers" I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide." [ Roger Ebert, "The Searchers (1956) ,"Chicago Sun-Times", November 25, 2001 on] . ]

John Ford, as his interviews give evidence, unquestionably felt strongly about the plight of the Native Americans, and the way that white society had smashed their culture and thrown them aside. His landmark work "The Searchers" was an attempt to examine how this plight had come to pass, and how racism had turned into genocide. [] , Race, Racism and the Fear of Miscegenation.]

The theme of miscegenation also runs through this movie. Ethan says repeatedly that he will kill his niece rather than have her live “with a buck.” He says “living with the Comanche ain’t living.” Even one of the movie’s gentler characters, Vera Miles’s Laurie, tells Martin when he explains he must protect his adoptive sister, that “Ethan will put a bullet in her brain. I tell you Martha would want him to.” This outburst made clear that even the supposedly gentler characters were thoroughly tainted by racism and the fear of miscegenation. [ Race, Racism and the Fear of Miscegenation in The Searchers: ] ] It is instructive to note that Ford made an attempt in this movie to deal with subjects and themes which were quite controversial for that time in America. His own words express what he was attempting to do. In a 1964 interview with "Cosmopolitan" magazine he said::“There’s some merit to the charge that the Indian hasn’t been portrayed accurately or fairly in the Western, but again, this charge has been a broad generalization and often unfair. The Indian didn’t welcome the white man... and he wasn’t diplomatic... If he has been treated unfairly by whites in films, that, unfortunately, was often the case in real life. There was much racial prejudice in the West. [ Race, Racism and the Fear of Miscegenation] ]

The story of Cynthia Parker, which so many reviewers find as the real-life inspiration for this movie, is instructive. Ostensibly rescued in an attack on an Indian band virtually identical to the one shown in this movie, she starved herself to death when her white relatives refused to let her find her sole surviving child. Yet to this day, her rescue is considered a “victory” in the Indian Wars. Indeed, Sul Ross's report about the "Battle" in which he recaptured Cynthia Parker is instructive, after killing women and children indiscriminately, he reports::"So single a victory had never before been gained over the fierce and war like Comanches; and never since that fatal December day in 1860 have they made any military demonstrations at all commensurate with the fame of their proud campaigns in the past. The great Comanche confederacy was forever broken." [J. W. Wilbarger, "Indian Depredations"]

In summing up the social impact of this movie Arthus Eckstein says, :"The Searchers" has obsessed many filmmakers, critics, and scholars in a manner unusual even for those with a passionate love of cinema..."The Searchers" is one of those rare films that reveals something new with every viewing..."The Searchers" is so dense with meaning the only way to understand it is to slow the projection time to equal the five year diegetic time." [ [ Eckstein, Arthur M. and Lehman, Peter, (Eds.), " The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford's Classic Western] ", Wayne State University Press, 2004 ISBN-10 0814330568 ISBN-13 978-0814330562]


In 1989, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.

"The Searchers" is often cited as a candidate for the greatest film of all time, such as the "Sight and Sound" poll of the greatest films ever made. In 1972, "The Searchers" was voted in eighteenth place then fifth place in 1992 and in 2002 it was in eleventh place.

The 2007 American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films list included "The Searchers" in twelfth place. In 2008, the American Film Institute named "The Searchers" as the greatest Western of all time. [cite news | author = American Film Institute | title = AFI Crowns Top 10 Films in 10 Classic Genres | work = | date = 2008-06-17 | url = | accessdate=2008-06-18] "The Searchers" is a favorite of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ramesh Sippy, James Robert Baker, Brent Spiner, Quentin Tarantino and John Milius.Fact|date=June 2008

"Entertainment Weekly" ranked "The Searchers" as the thirteenth greatest movie of all time, as well as the greatest western of all time.Fact|date=June 2008 Popular film website, "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?" currently ranks it 7th. [ [ "The Top 100 films" on] ]

Influence, homage, and allusion

"The Searchers" has influenced films as diverse as "Taxi Driver", "Paris, Texas", "Star Wars", "Dances with Wolves", "Hardcore", "The Wind and the Lion", "Saving Private Ryan", and "Apocalypse Now".

David Lean watched the film repeatedly while preparing for "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) to help him get a sense of how to shoot a landscape. The entrance of Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers" across a vast prairie is echoed clearly in the across-the-desert entrance of Sherif Ali in "Lawrence of Arabia".

Martin Scorsese's film "Who's That Knocking At My Door" features an extended sequence in which the two leading characters discuss "The Searchers."

Sergio Leone, a noted Ford admirer, mentioned "The Searchers" as one of his favorite films and referenced it in a key scene of "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968). It was also referenced in a similar scene in the Bollywood film "Sholay".

George Lucas alludes to the film in his "Star Wars" movies. In ', the burning of Luke Skywalker's home parallels visually and narratively the burning of the homestead in "The Searchers"; also the framing of the shots through the opening of the cave where R2-D2 is hiding, when Obi-Wan Kenobi first appears, directly matches the framing of the screen shots of Ethan Edwards' reunion with his niece, Debbie. Another direct quote comes in ' when Anakin Skywalker approaches the Tusken Raider settlement to rescue his mother, a scene which is framed in the exact same manner as Ethan Edwards surveying the Comanche camp before rescuing Debbie.

The movie is referenced to by the character of Ed in the "Northern Exposure" episode "Soapy Sanderson" when conversing with a couple of film students on the topic of cinema technique.

Other films, such as "" (which references the final shot of "The Searchers"), and 10000 BC which shares not only similar direction but a similar story line, show direct influence as does work in other media, such as Jonathan Lethem's novel "Girl in Landscape" which cites the film as inspiration in its jacket copy.

John Wayne's catchphrase in the film, "That'll be the day", inspired Buddy Holly to write his hit song of the same name.


External links

*imdb title|id=0049730|title=The Searchers
* [ Tim Dirks, "The Searchers (1956)", review on]
* [ Bibliography]

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