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Vintage Sundays Review: The Searchers

Ciaran Brass reviews and examines the 1956 western classic and its portrayal of one of the finest characters in the American canon.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.


Director: John Ford

Starring:John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood

Length: 1hr59min

Rating: PG


The resurfacing of an old John Wayne interview in recent weeks would seem to further complicate the already rich legacy of The Searchers, a film many believe to be the pinnacle of Wayne and director John Ford’s career, and one of the crown jewels of American cinema. The interview, conducted with Playboy in 1971, contains some of Wayne’s more unsavoury and downright tasteless personal views, including the belief that black people in America should be educated “to the point of responsibility” and until that juncture, he “believed in white supremacy.” Seemingly discontent with half-measures, Wayne also espoused the view that European settlers were justified in taking the frontier from Native American peoples because “the Indians were selfishly keeping it for themselves.”

With these comments in mind, it’s no great stretch to imagine Wayne playing the character of Ethan Edwards, the racist, embittered ex-Confederate soldier who spends seven years searching fruitlessly for his niece and the Comanche warriors who captured her and murdered his brother and sister-in-law. It may come as some surprise, however, that The Searchers lives up to its lofty reputation, and Wayne’s performance as antihero Ethan Edwards contributes to one of the finest, most complex characters in the American canon.

The Searchers begins and ends with several paired images, the most obvious of which is a door opening in the first shot countering a door closing in the final sequence. In the opening scene, Ethan Edwards returns to his brother’s ranch in the year 1868 after fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Although Ethan brings gifts for his family, questions remain about his actions during and after the Civil War, brought up by his brother Aaron and the local Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond), who fought alongside him.

It’s in these opening scenes where we first spot Ethan’s racist attitudes—when greeted by “half-breed” Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the adoptive son of Aaron who is one-eighth Cherokee, he regards him with suspicion. Even when Aaron reveals that it was Ethan who found Martin as a child, he’s dismissive. “It just happened to be me. No need to make anything more of it,” Ethan sneers. All hell breaks loose when a group of Comanche warriors raid the Edwards ranch, slaughtering Aaron, his wife Martha, and their son, and kidnapping the two daughters Lucy and Debbie. Ethan and Martin return to the blazing remnants of the Edwards ranch (a familiar scene to those who have watched the original Star Wars—remember when Luke returns to his aunt and uncle’s farm?) and swear to track down Lucy and Debbie, no matter the cost.

Director John Ford packs an incredible amount of subtext and visual storytelling into the opening 20 to 30 minutes of the film. The first few scenes on the Edwards ranch contain a sort of coded romance—observe the interactions between Ethan and Martha. Martha is the first person Ethan greets rather than his own brother, and their reunion is shot and acted almost like a romance scene. After their reunion dinner, Aaron questions why Ethan stayed in Texas, a place he deeply disliked, for so long prior to the Civil War. Ford cuts immediately to a reaction shot of Martha, who looks shocked and uncomfortable, while Ethan goes on the defensive, asking his brother if this is an invitation to leave. Later, when Martha fetches Ethan’s coat and gives it to him before he goes after the Comanche war party, she strokes it lovingly, and he kisses her forehead as the Reverend Clayton pointedly looks elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Is Ford suggesting that Debbie, who Ethan clearly favours as his favourite niece (another image coupled at the beginning and end of the film is Ethan lifting Debbie up off the ground) could actually be Ethan’s daughter? There is also one key, operable piece of information that even keen viewers may miss—when Debbie is sent to hide from the Comanche warriors during the raid, she sits in front of Ethan and Aaron’s mother’s gravestone, where it’s revealed that the mother was also killed by Comanche. Viewed through this lens, Ethan sees the three key female figures in his life torn from him brutally, all in the same manner. 

It’s hard to believe this sort of implicit visual storytelling is a coincidence. The only person to win four Oscars for Best Director, John Ford’s contemporary reputation is as an accessible director of westerns (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine) and social commentaries (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley). Possessing an outward bluster and irascible personality, Ford was also more artistically inclined than he led people to believe—quotations of Shakespeare and Marlowe appear in his films, and he was reportedly a great admirer of the painters Frederic Remington and Alfred Bierstadt. Their portrayals of the American West and frontiersmen were instrumental in the cultivation of Ford’s Western aesthetic.

Like many of his films, Ford shot The Searchers on location in Monument Valley, Utah, which is notable for its desert setting and distinct rock formations. As Ethan and Martin travel for seven long years searching for Debbie and Lucy, several of the location shots reappear throughout the film. This adds to Ford’s efforts to create what he termed a “psychological epic”—in spite of their best efforts to track the Comanche, even the audience feels that Ethan and Martin are going in circles. The French title of the film translates to the much more evocative The Prisoner of the Desert—a more apt description, perhaps, for Ethan and Martin’s besieged characters.

Modern day moviegoers often charge Wayne with being a lukewarm actor, playing essentially the same persona with small variations. Initially, even John Ford believed Wayne to be an actor of moderate talent until he saw his performance in his friend Howard Hawks’ 1948 western Red River. Reportedly, Ford marvelled openly at Wayne’s performance, saying “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” With the character of Ethan Edwards, what Wayne achieves is nothing short of astonishing, and one of the finest performances of the Old Hollywood time period.

In one scene, after he stumbles upon the corpse of a woman the Comanche warriors have raped and brutalised, Wayne is reticent and cagey to describe what he saw, until Martin and another character press him. “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture?! Spell it out?!” he roars, confirming the audience’s worst fears. Even for modern-day viewers, it’s a shocking scene. Later, as Ethan and Martin fall in with a division of frontier soldiers, they encounter a group of pioneer women who have lost their minds after being captured and forced to live with Native Americans (again, sexual violence is implied). “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” remarks one of the soldiers. “They ain’t white… not anymore,” Ethan sneers, and as he leaves the cabin, he turns to face the women as the camera pushes into a close-up, revealing a plethora of emotions—anger over the women’s predicament, disgust at their behaviour, and pity over their fate. Such a complex expression, communicating so much in the span of five or six seconds, could only be accomplished by a truly remarkable actor.

Pivotally, Ford ties the death of Ethan’s female family members and his anxiety over the loss of white women to the Native Americans into the complex cycle of violence between white settlers and Native Americans. The first full scene of the film’s villain, Comanche chief Scar, doesn’t occur until three quarters of the way through the film, where it’s revealed that his family was wiped out by white settlers. “For each son, I take many scalps,” he snarls at Ethan. Masterfully, Ford illustrates Scar as the flip side of Ethan—totally consumed by revenge, considered a monster even to his own people.

In a scene towards the beginning of the film, Ethan vindictively shoots out the eyes of a Comanche corpse. When the others question his actions, he responds that by Comanche custom, a warrior without eyes cannot enter the spirit land, and “is destined to wander forever between the winds.” It’s a uniquely cruel and savage act of revenge, but also one that requires deeply specific knowledge of the Comanche people. By the end of the film, as the other characters pair off, Ford makes it explicit that there’s no longer room for Ethan in frontier society. Framed against the door, Ethan stands apart from the other characters, who take little notice of him. After observing the other characters and never looking truly comfortable, before turning heel and walking into the desert. In his obsessive quest for revenge and violence, Ethan has cursed himself to wander forever between the winds.

The film was screened at City Screen York as part of their weekly Vintage Sundays strand. 

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