The Searchers: A Savage Nature


searchersThe Searchers was a box office hit in its day, but received no Academy Award nominations. Much like several Alfred Hitchcock movies, it’s a typical example of a film that was well-liked but didn’t turn into an American classic until a few decades later. It is now regarded as perhaps the best Western ever made (at least according to the American Film Institute), one that inspired filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and George Lucas (there’s more than a little bit of The Searchers in both Taxi Driver and Star Wars). Like fine wines, some movies need a few years to mature into something lasting.

Texas, 1868. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family after fighting for the South in the Civil War. The family consists of his brother and his wife and children, who welcome Uncle Ethan even though they can’t help wonder about his mysterious stash of gold coins. One day the family is visited by a group of Texas Rangers looking into a theft of cattle and Ethan joins their party. However, the theft turns out to be a trap; as soon as Ethan is out of the picture, Comanche Indians attack his brother’s home. The sole survivors, Ethan’s nieces Debbie (Natalie Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott), are abducted.

Along with neighbors and Texas Rangers, Ethan tries to track down the Indians but the mission is unsuccessful and in the end Ethan is left on his own together with Lucy’s fiancé Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Debbie’s adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). The search turns into a bitter, frenzied experience for them that stretches out over years…

Beautiful but forbidding locations
The story was allegedly based on a real-life event, that of the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche Indians. She stayed with them for 24 years and was subsequently rescued against her will by Texas Rangers; her uncle had spent years trying to find her. John Ford was obviously intrigued by the psychology of the story and the characters of this film are unusually well written.

Ethan is a troubled soul who enjoys the company of family but is utterly unable to make a one hundred per cent commitment; he’s too busy getting involved in adventures that keep eroding his good qualities, such as fighting on the losing side of the Civil War. His experiences with Indians have made him an expert on their ways but also a racist. Ford was interested in making a movie about the historic treatment of American Natives, which is why he paired Ethan with Martin who is part Indian. The war veteran actually learns a thing or two over the years, although perhaps not the ultimate truth about himself – he may hate the “savage”, but he is one himself, a brute whose behavior has no place in the civilized world. Wayne is brilliant in the lead and he’s well matched by Hunter as the young buck who shows Ethan that few things are black and white.

Once again, Ford has returned to Monument Valley, which has never looked more breathtaking in Winton C. Hoch’s color cinematography. The beautiful but forbidding locations are perfect for a story that’s filled with darkness and dread… but there are also lighter moments, especially between Hunter and Vera Miles who plays Martin’s girlfriend (even though she has to inform him of that fact…).

The movie ends with a now classic shot of a door closing on Ethan. He doesn’t belong out in the wilderness, but neither is there a place for him in the comfort of a family home. It’s an astonishingly clever (and very cinematic) end to a film that shows both Ford and Wayne maturing with age. Their older movies are excellent adventures, but The Searchers gave their mastery of the genre an additional level that showed insight into the minds of the iconic characters.

The Searchers 1956-U.S. 119 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent. Novel: Alan LeMay. Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch. Cast: John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr… Lana Wood, Pat Wayne.

Trivia: Remade to some degree as Winterhawk (1976), Caravans (1978) and Grayeagle (1978). Wayne’s catchphrase reportedly inspired Buddy Holly to write the song “That’ll Be the Day”.

Quote: “That’ll be the day.” (Wayne’s sarcastic catchphrase)

Last word: “John Ford tolerated me. I don’t think he was overly fond of children in particular. He gave me a couple of terse bits of direction, but other than that he sort of just left me alone. John Wayne was lovely to me. He would ply me with candy, which were fruit lozenges. He used to keep them in a tin and say to me ‘Take some more! I’ve got them in my pocket if you want them later.’ Jeffrey Hunter was fabulous. Ken Curtis used to whittle beautiful little animal figurines and give them to me. It was a lovely set. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” (Lana Wood, Money Into Light)

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