#639) The Searchers (1956)
OR “Duke the Right Thing”
Directed by John Ford
Written by Frank S. Nugent. Based on the novel by Alan Le May.
Class of 1989
The Plot: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a veteran of the Civil War and the Second Franco-Mexican War who returns to West Texas to live with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family. While Ethan is out trying to rescue a neighbor’s cattle, a nearby tribe of Comanches led by Chief Cicatriz aka “Scar” (Henry Brandon) kill Aaron and his family and kidnap Ethan’s niece Debbie (Lana Wood [younger], Natalie Wood [older]). Joined by Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan begins a five-year journey across Texas to find Debbie and bring her home. Throughout the mission, Ethan’s open racism towards the Comanche and his need for vengeance starts to overtake his desire to save his niece. It’s as reflective a character study as you can get from a John Ford western.
Why It Matters: The NFR has a lot of feelings about “The Searchers”, calling it “John Ford’s best film” and “equal parts majestic spectacle and soul-searching moral examination”. They also take the time to acknowledge the film’s seemingly ambivalent stance on the main character’s racism. An essay by film historian Scott Allen Nollen is a well-rounded account of “The Searchers” and its production.
But Does It Really?: There’s a passage in the NFR’s “Citizen Kane” essay by Godfrey Cheshire that has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Cheshire theorizes that “Kane” isn’t necessarily the greatest film ever made, but rather the greatest critic’s film. I have reached a similar conclusion with “The Searchers”: its standing as the greatest western is a matter of taste, but it is definitely the greatest western for people who love studying and analyzing film. While most westerns on this list play within the strict good vs. evil morality of the genre, “The Searchers” has some shades of gray to it that have attracted generations of critics and filmmakers. Add to that some iconic cinematography and John Wayne’s best film performance, and you’ve got a movie with an undeniable legacy. I wouldn’t call “The Searchers” an untouchable of film history, but its ongoing inspiration on filmmakers over the decades makes it a natural for the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Jeffrey Hunter had been a contract player with 20th Century Fox for five years when he successfully lobbied to be loaned out to Warner Bros. for “The Searchers”. Hunter would go on to play Jesus in “King of Kings”, as well as Captain Christopher Pike in the first pilot for “Star Trek” (when Hunter didn’t return for the second pilot, the character was replaced with Captain James T. Kirk/William Shatner). This is also the only NFR appearance for future Bond Girl Lana Wood, cast here as the younger version of her sister Natalie’s character.
Wow, That’s Dated: Because it’s a John Ford western, REDFACE WARNING! Chief Cicatriz is played by Henry Brandon, a German man in full-on Redface. It’s uncomfortable from the get-go. And while John Ford does cast actual Indigenous people as the other Comanches, they are all from the Navajo tribe, complete with Navajo clothing and customs (which makes sense once you learn the film was shot in Utah and Arizona).
Title Track: “The Searchers” is yet another movie I was not expecting to have a title song. Composed by Max Steiner, lyrics by Stan Jones, and performed by Sons of the Pioneer, “The Searchers (Main Theme)” is pretty forgettable. I assume someone at Warner Bros. was itching for a “High Noon” style breakout hit.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite its critical and commercial success at the time, “The Searchers” received zero Oscar nominations (Warner Bros.’ big Oscar contenders that year were “Giant” and “Baby Doll”). The only accolades “The Searchers” got that awards season were a DGA nomination for John Ford and a Golden Globe to Patrick Wayne for Most Promising Newcomer.
- This is the first of three films produced by businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt (C.V.) Whitney. C.V. had been one of the first major investors in Technicolor in the 1930s (good call), and was a financier on “Gone with the Wind” (even better call). Whitney’s subsequent films were the less-successful “The Missouri Traveler” and “The Young Land”.
- You have my attention with that opening shot: Total blackness until a door is opened overlooking the expansive Monument Valley. Shoutout to cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, no stranger to filming beautiful landscapes thanks to his work shooting the “Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks” series throughout the ’30s and ’40s. This cinematography is definitely putting the “Vista” in VistaVision (on loan from Paramount), to the point that it’s quite jarring when the film switches to filming outdoor scenes on a set.
- Speaking of the cinematography, there’s an interesting shot near the beginning when the Texas Rangers come to visit the Edwards house. Instead of a series of close-ups and mediums, the first minute of the scene is covered in a single wide shot, with 10 different characters and their various stories interacting and intertwining . It’s an interesting composition, but the overlapping dialogue is a bit cacophonous. You can imagine Robert Altman watching this scene and thinking “what if I made a whole movie of just this?”
- Uh-oh, one of the characters just called Debbie “Little Debbie” and now I’m hungry. I’ve been watching my diet lately, but I would kill for a Swiss Roll right about now.
- I wasn’t expecting this movie to have so much comic relief. Apparently many of these were created for the film to help offset the story’s darker elements. You get Ward Bond as a blustery Texas Ranger, Hank Worden as the eccentric Mose, and several comic interludes with the Jorgensen neighbors (because somebody thought Swedes were hilarious). Ultimately, I found these detours unnecessary and tiring, always wondering when we would get back to the main story.
- Speaking of the supporting cast, shoutout to Ward Bond, longtime John Ford staple who appears in FOUR films in the inaugural NFR class: “Gone with the Wind“, “The Grapes of Wrath“, “The Maltese Falcon“, and “The Searchers”.
- Wow, Ethan’s really an asshole in this. The guy is racist to the core, even shooting the corpse of a Comanche in the eyes so that (according to their beliefs) it can’t enter the spirit world. John Wayne’s natural screen prescence is the only thing keeping Ethan from being totally repulsive. Side note: That corpse is clearly still breathing when it’s unearthed.
- For whatever reason, it’s the Warner Bros. movies on this list that make abundant use of stock sound effects. Today’s example is all the classic ricochet bullet sound effects found in this film’s gunfights.
- Part of the appeal of John Wayne’s performance is that his character is more complex than his usual roster of morally just cowboys. In addition to these subtleties, Wayne also has moments that call for more emoting (His reading of “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture!?” is especially stirring). It helps that Wayne looks even more understated in this film thanks to Jeffrey Hunter’s overacting. No offense to Mr. Hunter, but I wonder what first choice Fess Parker would have done with Marty.
- Oh right, Vera Miles is in this. The Laurie scenes are part of the distracting Jorgensen family subplot, though it’s nice to see Vera Miles play a character so different than Lila Crane, the role she will forever be associated with.
- Obviously, it’s hard to listen to everyone talk about a bad guy named Scar and not think of “The Lion King“. Side note: Henry Brandon is also the bad guy in one of my favorite Christmas movies: the Laurel & Hardy “Babes in Toyland”.
- I love when Ethan calls Martin a “chunkhead”. Ethan is also fond of the put-down “blankethead”, which sounds like an insult aimed at Linus from “Peanuts”.
- The brief but pivotal role of Emilio Figueroa is played by Antonio Moreno, a Spanish actor and “Latin Lover” from the silent era. Longtime readers may recall him as Clara Bow’s leading man from “It“.
- Oh hi Natalie. I never realized how little Natalie Wood is actually in this movie, first appearing about three quarters of the way through and only having about 10 minutes of screentime. I suspect if Warner Bros. knew how big a hit “Rebel Without a Cause” was going to be they would have given Natalie a better part.
- The Wood sisters weren’t the only family affair in “The Searchers”: John Wayne’s son Patrick plays Lt. Greenhill. Patrick was 16 when they filmed “The Searchers”, which explains why he looks and sounds like the Squeaky Voiced Teen from “The Simpsons”. I also appreciated the little moment where Ethan jokingly calls Lt. Greenhill “son”, apparently an ad-lib from John Wayne.
- There is so much day for night in this movie! I know that was common practice in the day (especially filming in harsh locations like Monument Valley), but man is it distracting.
- I’m always a proponent of any classic movie that’s under two hours, but “The Searchers” feels so much longer. Maybe it’s the episodic nature of the story or all the subplots, but boy howdy does this movie drag towards the end. Even film critics at the time complained about how long the movie was (Brother, give it about 60 years and you’ll be begging for movies this short again).
- One more shoutout to the cinematography as we reach the film’s iconic final shot of Ethan standing on the Jorgensens’ front porch, framed by the open doorway with the extensive plains behind him. It’s very much the kind of visual storytelling that only the movies can do so well. Without a single line of dialogue, we understand that this character is destined to be a loner, incapable of conforming to any establishments from a west that’s becoming a little less wild.
- “The Searchers” premiered in May 1956, with critics at the time calling it the best western since “Shane“, though not necessarily Ford’s best work. The film’s transition from hit to classic was pretty seamless, with auteur/film critic Jean-Luc Godard naming it one of the greatest American movies of the sound era in 1963, earning it some street cred with the New Wave movement. Since then, “The Searchers” has appeared on practically every greatest films list, and saw the biggest increase between the two AFI 100 Films lists, ranking 96 in 1998 and 12 in 2007!
- Both John Ford and John Wayne considered “The Searchers” among their best films. Wayne enjoyed the experience so much he named his second son Ethan after his character.
- Pretty much every major filmmaker has cited “The Searchers” as an influence, from Steven Spielberg to Wim Wenders to Martin Scorsese, the latter who routinely ranks it among his favorite movies. Allusions to “The Searchers” (especially its cinematography) can be seen in such varied films as “Lawrence of Arabia“, “The Wild Bunch”, “Easy Rider“, “The Godfather“, and “Star Wars“. Even the “Breaking Bad” finale takes a thing or two from this movie!
- In addition to its cinematic influence, “The Searchers” has also inspired its share of music acts. For starters, the ’60s British band The Searchers get their name from this movie. Also, it is allegedly Ethan’s repeated utterance of “That’ll be the day” that prompted the Buddy Holly song of the same name. If only John Wayne had kept calling Martin “Peggy Sue”.
Bonus Clip: “The Searchers” was one of the first movies to receive a “Making Of” special in conjunction with its release. Commissioned by John Ford himself, this promotional film aired on the short-lived anthology series “Warner Bros. Presents”.
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