#1 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Oh. My. God.
That was what was running through my head when John Ford’s The Searchers opened. From the first seconds of the film after the titles, Ford was in complete command of the images he presents to the audience, utilizing the scope of the image to its fullest extent across all three dimensions, vertically, horizontally, and in terms of depth. He was framing things with such purpose in a way that I haven’t felt since The Fugitive, that I was instantly floored. I own this movie and have seen it more than once, but this viewing hit me harder than any other viewing I’ve had of it. This is probably the pinnacle of Ford’s body of work, and if there’s one movie ahead I’d expect to be able to challenge it, it’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Holy cow, this movie is great.
I think there’s something to be said about knowing how Ford was removed from the production of Mister Roberts before this. Letting his notorious temper overcome his good judgment and then drinking so much that he needed surgery probably does something to how a man views the world and his work. I’ve enjoyed a lot of what Ford produced in the 50s, but I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that he’d been phoning it in, just delivering things he figured the audience wanted while disengaging from the work (this felt the most apparent in What Price Glory and Mogambo). Nearly dying after his alcoholism and inability to control his anger while getting fired from a job seems to have focused him somehow.
The Searchers has had an influence on American cinema the likes of which almost no single film has ever had. The story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a former Confederate soldier who spent three years after the end of the Civil War probably fighting in Mexico for the Mexican government before returning home to the homestead he shared with his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan). They have a small family including their adopted quarter-Cherokee son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). When a rogue band of Comanche warriors steals some prized cattle of the neighboring farm owned by Lars Jorgenson (John Qualen), the local reverend and captain of the Texas Rangers, Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), deputizes Ethan and Martin, taking them on the path towards the Comanche. It was a distraction, though, and the Comanche have gone straight to the Edwards farm, killing Aaron and Martha while stealing their two daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood).
There’s something a lot of people hinge on when talking about The Searchers, and I think it’s just a way to excuse something they don’t quite know how to process in the modern world. Ethan hates the Comanche. It’s deep within him and a source of bigotry, but he has really good reason for hating them. His wife and child, as you can tell from the tombstones on the Edwards property, were murdered by Comanche, and then they killed his brother, raped and murdered his sister-in-law (that Ethan may or may not have had an intimate relationship with before he left for the war eight years prior), murdered his nephew, and then taken his two nieces as prizes to be used as they saw fit. If he didn’t hate the Comanche after all that, Ethan wouldn’t be human.
That hatred is what drives him over the next few years as he first takes part in the band led by Clayton and then leads a trio of searchers comprised of Martin and Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey Jr.) in pursuit of a roving band of Comanche led by the warrior Scar (Henry Brandon). The search goes from Texas, up north, into Mexico, and back over years. Some are lost in the fight to despair at the turn of events, and the trail often runs cold, necessitating a lot of questions and even returns home to the Jorgenson household.
It’s the first return home where it feels like the laser-focus of the film begins to falter, but there’s a point to it that’s integral to the central point of the film. Martin has a long-term innocent romance with the Jorgenson daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), and we get some time as they flirt back and forth. The importance of this is the contrast between Martin having the potential of a family to go back to while Ethan has no one. Nothing gets settled in the visit, Ethan having received a letter from a trader that includes a swatch of Debbie’s apron along with a promise of more information that Martin chases after Ethan to help him discover. This subplot of a small love triangle between Martin, Laurie, and the boorish and oddly accented Charlie (Ken Curtis) is important because it gives Martin something to return to in civilization. He has reason to retain whatever civility he has left in his years-long search for Debbie against a vicious enemy. Ethan, in contrast, does not. He can afford to be as savage as his enemy. He has nothing to go back to. The Comanche have taken everything from him.
That dichotomy is a fantastic source of tension. Ethan is the driving force behind the search with Jeffrey tagging along, increasingly desperate to find a good ending to the trek as opposed to Ethan’s search for any ending, no matter how unpleasant. When they do find the now grown Debbie (played by Lana’s older, more famous, sister Natalie), she’s been one of Scar’s wives for at least a few years. She seems to have suppressed all knowledge of her life before the Comanche, and Ethan is ready to kill her. She’s no longer his blood, having become the thing he hates. His savageness leaves real questions for those who don’t know one of the single most famous endings in movie history, and yet, having seen the film more than once and knowing the ending, I still got wound up when Ethan chases Debbie down, picks her up, and cradles her in his arms.
The final, famous, shot of the film (Ethan delivering Debbie to the Jorgensons while everyone goes inside, leaving Ethan outside to give the Harry Carey stance and then walk off into the sunset) feeds into a common idea through some of the most famous westerns. Both Ford’s Stagecoach and Hawks’ Red River, of course starring Wayne, end with hard men of the West having to step aside in the face of civilization. They helped forge the world that they can no longer take any part in. They’re too hard for the soft world they helped create. The same goes for Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He’s a man driven by hatred and violence, and the only thing he can do for the burgeoning civilization out West is to protect it. He can’t be a part of it. He could never sit by the fire again and trade war stories. His stories are too blood-soaked. His place is out there. After all he did, he casts himself out. That shot also acts as a bookend to the opening shot that was the opening of a door to the West, as opposed to the final shot’s closing of the door to the West.
The movie isn’t a hard-boiled drama through and through. It is happy to break the tension from time to time with a good little amusement. Mose Harper (Hank Worden) actually gets a bit of flack these days for being over the top, but I think he’s used in quite appropriate amounts. His exaggerated way of talking, obsession with rocking chairs, and contributions to the story (including the information that leads to the final showdown) are interspersed comfortably throughout the film. There’s also a scene at the attempted wedding between Charlie and Laurie, broken up by Martin with a fistfight in the dirt outside, that has a lot of cheer to recommend. The very small subplot of Martin marrying an Indian squaw also makes a favorable impression. The movie never gets lost in these things, though. They last for a few minutes at most and then directly feed into the overall story. Martin’s wife leads them in the direction of Scar, and the wedding scene leads into Mose’s final appearance where he delivers the important information while also giving a thematic focus to Martin having something to return to, to fight for, that still exists, contrasted to Ethan.
John Wayne gives his most complex and heartfelt performance, all while playing a man filled with hatred. The supporting cast around him is uniformly good with special note to the always reliable Ward Bond and the youthful but vigorous Jeffrey Hunter who manages to stand toe to toe with Wayne across almost the entire film.
This movie is amazing. It’s one of the pinnacles of American cinema. It’s a great entertainment first and foremost with an incredible amount of depth while also bearing an amazing amount of aesthetic beauty. I adore this movie.