The Searchers has been named the greatest Western film of all time by the American Film Institute and is often described as director John Ford’s finest masterpiece.
Ford won four Oscars during his career. The first for The Informer (1935), followed by The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). But, despite being well received, The Searchers failed to receive any Oscar nominations on its release in 1956.
The Searchers begins in Texas, 1868. Ethan (John Wayne) returns home to his brother’s family, three years after the end of the Civil War. Shortly after, the family home is burned down by Comanches, who murder Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew and kidnap his two nieces. Ethan and the family’s adopted son, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), set out on an epic pursuit to rescue the girls and bring them home.
But this simple story is not all there is to The Searchers. Instead, the screenplay is filled with subtext and complex characterisation. The Searchers explores themes of racism unlike any other Western of its time. John Wayne’s character, Ethan is evidently prejudiced towards the Comanches. On seeing Martin for the first time in many years he declares, ‘a fella could mistake you for a half-breed’ – Martin is one eighth Comanche. Ethan’s motivations for pursuing the kidnapped girls are also unclear and the mission ebbs and flows from one of rescue to revenge. When Ethan believes the kidnapped Debbie has turned to the Comanches’ ‘side’, it becomes clear that he would rather kill her than let her live a Comanche life. Yet Scar – leader of the Comanches – also appears to be acting out of revenge for the death of his two sons by ‘white men’, prompting us to consider the impact of the treatment of Native Americans. There are some scenes in The Searchers that are likely to leave modern audiences feeling uncomfortable – one scene shows ‘white women’ who have been kept in a Comanche tribe behaving as if insane. Yet this scene is used to demonstrate Ethan’s own prejudice and there is no sense that the filmmakers share his view – Ethan is not a clear hero and is presented with his flaws laid bare.
“The screenplay is filled with subtext and complex characterisation… exploring themes of racism unlike any other Western of its time”
Wayne is a convincing and interesting lead. Ethan is troubled and erratic – from the very beginning his volatility causes Martin concern, ‘he’s a man that can go crazy and I intend to stop him when he does’. As the audience, we know little of Ethan’s background – we never find out what he did in the three years he was missing after the Civil War and a criminal past is alluded to early in the film. His relationship with Martin is complex and intriguing. Although Ethan loathes Martin’s Comanche roots, he protects him from suffering on many occasions. Critics have also speculated that Ethan is in love with his sister-in-law, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), suggesting that his niece, Debbie, may even be his daughter – Ethan recognises Martha’s hair from one swift glance. This ambiguity about Ethan’s character is what makes The Searchers so gripping and makes a re-watch irresistible.
The Searchers’ plot has a number of climaxes with Ethan’s journey being spread over five years. Ford cleverly shows us time passing through the changing seasons – the snow blizzards of winter, contrasted with the hot desert summers – while maintaing a steady pace and building unfaltering drama. Frank S. Nugent’s script also uses letters from Martin to his love, Laurie (Vera Miles), to show how family life develops in the years that pass and to illustrate the impact of the fanatical task Ethan and Martin have embarked upon.
The Searchers is visually powerful and Ford captures the harsh landscape in extreme long shots. Ford constantly positions his actors in interesting locations – as the searchers meet the Comanches for the first time, we see them riding single file on a ledge above the searchers, showing the Comanches’ advantage and knowledge of the landscape. Richard Franklin sums up Ford’s style perfectly when he says, ‘his [Ford’s] images of the individual dwarfed by this landscape, of family and community huddled against the brutality (and primal beauty) of Monument Valley in The Searchers is unsurpassable’. Ford boldly frames some of his scenes – from inside buildings looking out, or from between rocks – to convey powerful messages. The famous closing scene is shot from inside a house looking through the front door, with the hero cast almost in silhouette, raising questions about his future and whether his ending is entirely positive.
The Searches is a great Western that shines a light on racial prejudices and bravely lets its characters remain ambiguous. The Searchers is visually compelling and cleverly directed by John Ford, with a great performance from John Wayne.