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The Searchers
John Ford’s Conflicted Masterpiece

John Ford’s iconic Western The Searchers is one of the most influential and debated films ever produced. The impression it made on the generation of film writers and directors who would come of age in the '60s, '70s, and '80s is immeasurable. Though not an acclaimed picture when first released in 1956, its stature has grown over the decades more than practically any other movie. It now occupies the same rarified space in the annals of cinema history as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Bicycle Thief, The Seven Samurai, and Grand Illusion. Its profound and lasting impact on world culture ranges from Buddy Holly, whose classic tune “That’ll Be the Day” was inspired by John Wayne’s catchphrase in the movie, to Jean-Luc Godard, who compared the picture with Homer's The Odyssey in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, to Vince Gilligan, who paid homage to the film’s conclusion in the final moments of his iconic television series Breaking Bad. Akira Kurosawa claimed to have learned everything he knew about filmmaking by watching John Ford films like The Searchers. Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman have made similar statements. David Lean professed to have copied entire images from the movie in Lawrence of Arabia. Sam Peckinpah borrowed lines of its dialogue for some of his iconic films. Steven Spielberg maintains that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is his version of The Searchers, and Paul Shrader contends that he wrote Taxi Driver and Hardcore as modern takes on it. Wim Wenders, John Milius, Peter Bogdanovich, and George Lucas all count The Searchers among their favorite pictures and a major influence on their respective works. It's a film that can be viewed and interpreted in a myriad of ways. I was somewhat resistant to it on my first screening, but I have come to embrace all of its eclectic and divergent aspects. There was a two-year period in the mid-'90s when my best friend and I must have watched The Searchers six or eight times in theaters and on Laserdisc, so enamored were we with the film and the different reactions to it we witnessed from various audiences. It's this rich variety of responses and interpretations, many conflicting but all of equal merit, and the sheer enjoyment of re-living them, that earn The Searchers a prominent place on my 100 Favorite Films list.

As a simple entertainment, The Searchers is an exciting adventure story full of action, humor, suspense, and memorable characters—the kind of Saturday matinee movie the whole family can enjoy. On a subtextual level, it explores uncomfortable themes that challenge many of the heroic perceptions we Americans have about ourselves and the settling of our country. From a strictly visual perspective, the picture is a master class in composition, both of landscapes and interiors, shot in one of the sharpest and most colorful large-format processes ever devised for the cinema. As a screenplay, it’s an exquisitely structured epic with a decade-spanning narrative that floats along effortlessly, ferrying viewers to its unknown conclusion. From the standpoint of film history, The Searchers heralds the beginning of the end of the Motion Picture Production Code and the censorship it imposed on filmmakers who wanted to present more complex and challenging cinematic stories than the code’s arbitrary dictates allowed. The Searchers is also one of the first films to depict the ethnic diversity of the American West; while at first, it's a typical Western story of conflict between Whites and Native Americans, it widens its scope to encompass a landscape that also includes European and Hispanic immigrants. While the film does portray the usual Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans as bloodthirsty murders, noble savages, and comical buffoons, it also turns these conventions inside out by presenting parallels of each type in the white community of homesteaders. Further, the film provides clear motivations to make the often contemptible actions of each group understandable and even sympathetic. Viewed through a feminist eye, it’s a movie that explores the sexual threat that miscegenation represented for men of the 1800s, when the story takes place, as well as the men of Hollywood’s “golden age” who banned depictions of interracial sexual relationships up until movies like this one broke that taboo. For many who come to the film without any context, The Searchers is impossible to take seriously because a good deal of the casting decisions are so ridiculously inappropriate, and plenty of the characters' attitudes are comically dated. 

No single reading of this movie feels like the “correct” analysis to me because The Searchers is a film of contradictions. It’s a grand, sweeping, outdoor epic that captures the unique splendor of the American West more strikingly than any other movie, yet it’s tainted with the same unmistakable artificiality of all 1950s studio productions. It’s a masterpiece of understated behavioral observation, performed by some of the least subtle actors ever assembled into one movie. It's one of the first Hollywood films to overtly examine the racism that was intrinsic to the "taming" of the Wild West, yet its principal Native American character is played by a Caucasian actor in unabashed "red face." And while it is the darkest and bleakest of all classic Westerns, it is also one of the funniest. In fact, there are more laughs in this picture (most of them intentional) than in any of the official comedies of the entire decade. The film is awash in quotable dialogue, jocular characters, and exaggerated performances, with one-liners, sight gags, and humorous banter injected into even the most tense, terrifying, and emotionally moving moments.

The film’s biggest contradictions are embodied in its main character, Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne. On one hand, Edwards is every bit the typical mythical American hero Wayne always plays and was instrumental in creating. He is big, strong, brave, loyal, honest, stoic, and devoted to his cause. On the other hand, he is also a brutal, racist, disrespectful social outcast, single-mindedly preoccupied with revenge and irrational, near-psychotic violence. Questions about the man begin to swirl in our heads from the very beginning of the film when he arrives at the home of his brother’s family, still wearing his Confederate army uniform three years after the end of the Civil War. Is he wanted for a crime? Is there something going on between him and his brother’s wife?  And why is he so contemptuous of the part-Cherokee young man whose life he once saved and whom his brother has adopted? When the massacre that incites the film’s story occurs, and Edward’s niece Debby is kidnapped by Comanche Indians, we’re not entirely sure if the quest our hero embarks upon is to rescue young Debbie or confirm that her captors have sullied her so that he can perform some terrible kind of “honor killing.” As the search stretches on for over five years, and Edwards grows madder and more desperate, we become more and more fearful of what the final outcome will be. 

Edwards is a fascinating character, unlike any other in cinema, because he is simultaneously a representation of the archetype created by the actor who plays him, as well as a deconstruction and examination of that archetype. It is not clear to me how self-aware Wayne was about this performance—if he was intentionally exploring the complexities and layers of this particular man or simply embodying them because they are part of his own persona. Many claim Wayne knew exactly how to bring out the various shades of Ethan Edwards, while others believe Ford kept him in the dark about the larger implications of the character. Still others think neither the star nor the director ever discussed or even thought about these highfalutin’ thematic matters and that they were following the dictates of Frank S. Nugent’s script. Ford possessed an odd kind of reverse bravado and enjoyed characterizing himself as a Hollywood hack whose films were not meant for intellectual scrutiny. But it’s clear from studying the differences between the source novel by Alan Le May, the adaptation by Nugent (which Ford supervised), and the final movie that Ford carefully shaped this picture and its lead character in ways that would invite serious investigation. On one lucid occasion during an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the usually dismissive and deflecting Ford referred to the film as a psychological epic, explaining that the true search in the movie is of Ethan Edwards’ soul. As for Wayne, I don’t think it ultimately matters how intentional or conscious his depiction of Edwards’ darkness was. The fact remains no other actor could play this part the way Wayne could because, in him, the lines between actor and character and between myth and archetype are so blurred. 

Movie stars don’t get much bigger than John Wayne, who personified rough-hewn American masculinity for over five decades. He epitomized the typical American for many who only knew the country through Hollywood movies. Wayne, whose real name was Marion Morrison, got his start in show business working as a day laborer on silent pictures, many of them directed by John Ford and starring Harry Carey. He learned his craft by talking with and observing Carey, one of the first major stars of the Western genre. Wayne claims that several of his physical mannerisms, as well as his distinctively slow and halting yet clear and direct way of speaking, were copied from Carey. Legend has it that Wayne became an actor after director Raoul Walsh saw him moving equipment around the Fox studio one day. Walsh loved the beautiful, lumbering cadence of the tall young man’s walk and decided it belonged in front of the camera. An alternative origin story tells of Ford discovering Wayne when the director was shooting a scene when the young prop man responsible for raking up leaves after each take accidentally walked into the shot before Ford had called for a cut. When the director saw Wayne walk into the frame, the big man’s physical presence caught his eye; believing he could mold him into a movie star, Ford began to use Wayen in small parts in his pictures. 

Regardless of how Marion Morison, the studio-lackey, became John Wayne, the movie star, his rise to fame and glory was slow. Wayne spent nearly twenty years in short, cheaply made, two-reel Westerns, many of them silent. He got his first big break in 1931 as the star of Walsh’s big-budget, 70mm, talking picture The Big Trail, playing a trapper who guides a wagon train of settlers through the mountains to California. The Big Trail is an impressive and important film, but it failed at the box office, and Wayne returned to appearing in Z-grade Westerns at "Poverty Row" studios like Monogram Pictures. It wasn’t until 1939 that Wayne became a major force in cinema, playing The Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach, widely considered the first Western aimed at a mature adult audience. Stagecoach made Wayne an international star. He would go on to make 12 more movies with John Ford and hone his iconic screen identity in dozens of other films directed by such markedly masculine filmmakers as William Wellman and Howard Hawks. By 1956, the John Wayne persona was as much a part of American culture as the automobile and the hamburger.

Though Wayne played many soldiers in many war pictures, he never fought in WW II—something Ford, who dropped out of Hollywood to make films for the Navy as soon as Pearl Harbor was attacked, never let him forget. After the War, Ford’s pictures became more somber, complex, and personal. Meanwhile, Wayne’s screen image progressed from a handsome young hero with a kind word for everyone to a crusty old codger with a nasty, angry sting just beneath his civilized surface. This edgier incarnation of Wayne’s persona began with Howard Hawk’s Red River in 1948, where he played a rancher much older than himself. With his work in that film, he garnered acclaim for his acting abilities for the first time in his career. When Ford and Wayne reteamed for The Searchers, they hadn’t made a Western together for more than seven years, and Ford was determined to capitalize not only on the legacy of their earlier pictures but on audiences’ ingrained perceptions and assumptions of the John Wayne character. As Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent worked on adapting Alan Le May’s novel, they knew they could push their protagonist's dark and unpleasant aspects to nearly unpalatable extremes because of how positively predisposed viewers were to any character Wayne played. They removed the layer of civility from Wayne’s mature screen persona and brought the edgier aspects front and center. 

It would be at least another fifteen years before movie audiences would see an anti-hero even remotely as morally ambiguous as Ethan Edwards. With the exception of the warmth he shows towards his brother’s wife and his kindness to her young children, nothing he does in the film endears him to us. Edwards is the only “hero” of a classic Hollywood Western who justifies shooting a man in the back and robbing him or savagely scalping an enemy he didn’t personally get to kill. Nonetheless, we get swept up in his adventure despite his brutality and reprehensible ethics, just as his adopted nephew, Martin Pawley, does. Martin wants to accompany Ethan for the entire search, just as we viewers do, because, like us, he wants to know what will happen if and when Ethan ever finds Debby. Though we are eager to see what occurs along the way, Ford prevents us, as Ethan prevents Martin, from directly experiencing the horrors depicted. Though The Searchers deals with unspeakably violent acts, each one happens off-screen. Instead, we see Ethan’s reactions: his horror, disgust, anger, and, importantly, his confusion. We see him ferociously prevent Martin and other characters from seeing what he’s seen, sparing them from knowing evils he understands all too well.

The dichotomy between Edwards’ perception of himself and how he actually presents in the world couldn’t be more drastic. He seems to embody all the things he claims to despise. When he finally crosses paths with the war chief Scar, whom he’s been hunting, we see how much these two men have in common. They each speak the other’s language, know the other’s customs, and have a kind of grudging respect for the other. Ethan shows more deference to Scar and the various men of different ethnicities he meets along the trail than to any White male. Yet this regard does not diminish his hatred of the Indians. In addition to being able to speak their language, Edwards clearly knows much about Comanche beliefs and perhaps puts more stock in them than in the customs of his own tribe. On one telling occasion, he shoots the eyes out of the head of a dead Comanche warrior. When asked by his fellow rider, the Reverend Clayton, what good that does him, Edwards replies, “By what you preach nothing, but what that Comanche believes: got no eyes he can’t enter the spirit world, has to wander forever between the winds.” This is an example of where I’m not sure if Wayne, the actor, fully appreciates the irony that is clearly lost on Edwards, the character. By preventing the Comanche from “entering the spirit world,” he is basically condemning the dead man to the same sad, nomadic, isolated life Ethan has chosen for himself. Despite his heritage, Edwards is a man out of time, a disconnected part of a civilization he can never be an actual member of. Perhaps no scene more embodies Edwards’ conflicted racism and darkness than the scene where he and Martin come upon a group of White women recovered after the slaughter of an Indian camp by cavalry. Debbie is not among them, but the look of utter loathing and disgust on Edwards’ face is chilling as he gazes upon these women, driven crazy because of their time in captivity. Ford even dollies in on Wayne’s contempt-filled face to emphasize the point—an uncharacteristically dramatic camera move for the usually unflashy director. 

The scene with the traumatized women is key to understanding the film’s subtext. Many contemporary audiences can’t get past the exaggerated way these actresses play their madness or the almost comical racism of the cavalry officer’s line, “It’s hard to believe they’re White.” But I’m sure this scene didn’t engender a single snicker in 1956. The fear of racial contamination was still all too common in audiences of the time, who also didn’t have as much understanding of mental illness. The scene is intended to evoke great fear about Debbie’s fate, but, along with a series of other scenes, it also underscores the tremendous hypocrisy of White society’s attitude about miscegenation. The idea of a White woman being with an Indian is abhorrent, not just to Edwards but to most of the “good Christians back at the homestead. However, when Martin winds up “married” to a Comanche squaw, it is regarded as either a joke or a perfectly natural thing for a man on the trail to do, even one who may eventually come home and marry one of his own kind. The character of Look, the plump Indian woman who travels with Ethan and Martin for a time, is notable. At first, she seems little more than comic relief, another way for Ethan to tease and belittle Martin, but Ford and Nugent use this character to underscore again the idea that the White military is every bit as savage as the Indians they’re fighting. 

The nefarious aspects of Ethan Edwards and many of the film’s other traditionally heroic characters may also account for all the humor Ford and Nugent packed into The Searchers. No other Ford picture goes so out of its way to keep the audience laughing and entertained. From the comical catchphrase, “That’ll be the day,” to the supporting cast of colorful characters, the lightness of the movie directly contrasts its dark subject matter. That entwining of light and dark elements is one of the main reasons the film engenders so many repeat viewings. Most of the supporting actors are members of what was loosely known as the John Ford Stock Company, so-called because the director liked working with the same people over and over again. These familiar faces provide the film with most of its humor, yet each one is also integral to the plot and subtext.

Ward Bond plays the blustering blowhard Reverend Clayton, who himself comes across as somewhat of a broad caricature of the real-life Bond. Clayton is both the religious leader and military authority for the homesteaders. He is, therefore, the de facto “chief” of the White tribe and somewhat at odds with the renegade Edwards. The whimsical verbal sparring between these alpha males illuminates our understanding of how this community functions and why Edwards will always be an outsider. John Qualen plays the Swedish immigrant Lars Jorgensen. His accent and mannerisms are funny, but his elderly patriarchal presence represents the multiethnic civilization that will ultimately settle the West. Hank Worden plays Mose Harper, a mentally challenged individual who gets the most one-liners and, like the fool of Shakespearean or Renaissance narratives, is the one person who speaks truth to power. My favorite supporting performance comes from Ken Curtis as Charlie McCorry, Martin’s goofball rival for the affections of the young Laurie Jorgensen. Practically every line McCorry delivers in his thick-as-molasses, Colorado high-country accent gets a big laugh, but he also serves several narrative functions, first as a member of the initial search party, then as a bringer of news, and finally as an obstacle to the union of Martin and Laurie. Laurie, played by Vera Miles in her first picture with Ford, is also a humorous character, especially regarding her frustrations with her two potential suitors. Yet even she has a cruel and bigoted side when her back is against the wall.

The family atmosphere that always surrounded John Ford while he made his pictures is palpable in all his films, but never more so than in The Searchers. In addition to the familiar and almost expected supporting actors, Ford cast Harry Carry’s widow and son, Olive Carey and Harry Carey, Jr., in key, sympathetic roles, as well as John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne as the wet-behind-the-ears junior cavalry officer who becomes the butt of many insults from Edwards and Reverend Clayton. All these actors lived with Ford throughout the entire months-long location shoot in Monument Valley—the striking mountainous landscape straddling Arizona and Utah, where Ford shot many of his classic Westerns. Ford, the key production personnel, and the stars stayed together in the small trading post, the only building in the national park, while the rest of the cast and crew lived in a makeshift village of tents erected for the production.

Ford preferred to work this way, with everyone involved in the picture living on location together, whether they were in nearly every scene or only a few. He employed hundreds of technicians; many were required to operate the state-of-the-art Vista Vision equipment, and many were holdovers from his silent movie days. One such member of Ford’s stock company was the accordion player Danny Bozage, who worked on every Ford picture for more than 40 years. During the silent era, it was not uncommon to have a musician playing mood-setting tunes while the cameras were rolling to help the actors get into character. Ford continued this tradition long into his career in talking pictures, with Bozage playing in-between takes to maintain the mood and keep everyone’s spirits up. Every actor on a Ford film got his own theme song, drawn from a movie they had previously worked on together, and Bozage would play that theme when each actor arrived on the location for the day. Many who worked with Ford claimed that Bozage’s presence on set had a lot to do with the sincere emotional qualities of the director’s pictures, as did the fact that most of the grips, stuntmen, camera crew, prop men, and wardrobe people Ford used would follow him from production to production.

The weakest links in The Searchers’ cast are Henry Brandon, who plays Scar, and Jeffrey Hunter, who plays Martin. Brandon, a German actor who played many ethnic roles during his long career, including Fu Manchu, does not make a particularly convincing Indian. Though it was standard practice in Hollywood films of the time for Caucasian actors to play everything from Arabs to Asians, it’s disappointing here because Ford was one of the few directors who bucked this convention. He was one of the only filmmakers to make movies where Native Americans were main characters in pictures like Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Indeed, except for Scar, all the Indian characters in The Searchers are played by members of Monument Valley’s Navajo Nation, who also do many of the riding stunts as they were known for their expert horsemanship. I can only assume Brandon was cast as Scar because the large part required shooting both on location and back in Hollywood on interior sets. Brandon’s performance is not terrible, but his presence is one of the elements that dates the picture. I can chalk that casting choice up to the dictates of the era, and I don’t think it damages the movie too much because Scar isn’t really the film’s villain. Scar is Ethan Edwards’ antagonist, but Edwards is both the hero and villain of The Searchers.

Hunter’s performance is less forgivable. Martin Pawley is the second largest role in the picture, and Hunter shares equal screen time with Wayne. While the character is supposed to be young, passionate, and naïve, Hunter’s acting renders Martin a clueless dolt who flies off the handle in absurdly unrealistic displays of emotion. Ford originally wanted Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett on the wildly successful Disney television show, but Walt Disney would not let Parker out of his contract to appear in the film. Like Natalie Wood, cast in the role of Debbie, Hunter was a rising juvenile star with a growing coterie of young fans. But while the budding star may have been good for the box office, he doesn’t serve the film very well. Wayne had such great chemistry with many of the outstanding young actors Hollywood paired him with throughout his career—Montgomery Clift in Red River, James Caan in El Dorado, Ron Howard in The Shootist, and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo—one can only imagine what The Searchers could have been with a real actor in this critical role. Hunter, who would go on to play Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961) and be the first captain of the Starship Enterprise in the original 1964 pilot for Star Trek, never gave a decent performance in his entire career. However, after so many viewings, I’ve begun to take pleasure in Hunter’s comically exaggerated performance as much as I do any aspect of The Searchers. The contrast between the film’s great strengths and crippling weaknesses is all part of its study in contradictions. 

Ford’s own contradictions enrich all interpretations of The Searchers. Throughout his legendary career, he remained enigmatic and resisted all attempts to pin down his beliefs. To this day, people argue as to whether he was, at heart, an Eastern liberal committed to his union and a champion of the underdog or a Western conservative who believed in authoritarian hierarchies and was eager to serve his country in glorious wars. In fact, I’m sure all these aspects of him were true. With his early pictures, he was one of the principal purveyors of the American myth that The West was settled by brave men and women who lived and died according to a strict code of morality. In his later pictures, he challenged and deconstructed that myth decades before the term “Revisionist Western” would be coined. The Searchers, made fairly late in his career, showcases Ford’s complexities and inconsistencies more than any other film he made. Though a deeply Catholic man with a reverence for the military (as demonstrated by his earlier trilogy of movies that celebrated the American Cavalry), he takes numerous cynical and hilarious potshots at organized religion and the incompetence and brutality of the American armed forces, specifically the cavalry that slaughtered the Native American population during the settling of the West.

The story of The Searchers is rooted in historical characters and incidents. On December 18, 1860, a band of Texas Rangers brutally attacked the Pease River camp of the Comanche leader Peta Nocona while he and all his warriors were away hunting. Thus, all the Indians massacred by the Rangers were women and children. The Rangers spared the life of one blue-eyed woman who, through an interpreter, they learned was Cynthia Ann Parker. Parker had been kidnapped as a nine-year-old when Comanche, Kiowas, and Caddeos warriors raided her family's home at Fort Parker, Texas. She lived with the Indians as one of them for 24 years, married Chief Nocona, and bore him three children. Cynthia Ann's uncle, James W. Parker, spent much of his life searching for his niece. But by the time of the attack on Pease River, she no longer considered herself a White woman and refused to leave her tribe. Unable to return to her adopted people and held under guard by the Rangers, she starved herself to death. One of her sons grew up to become the feared Comanche War Chief Quanah Parker, about whom John Ford wanted to make a film. Ford drafted some preliminary ideas with screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, but he dropped that project when WW II broke out. Though Ethan Edwards was not based directly on James W. Parker, the basic idea of a man searching obsessively for his kidnapped niece became the template for Alan Le May’s novel. Le May researched more than sixty documented cases of child abductions by various Indian tribes in the 19th century to create The Searchers

The Edwards character of the book is a traditional heroic Western character and not the brutal, psychotic man Ford transformed him into for the film. In adapting the novel, Ford worked with Frank S. Nugent, who had written the screenplays for his films Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, and The Quiet Man. The Searchers script is an exemplary work of the screenwriting craft, and Nugent’s contributions to the film’s enduring legacy should never be minimized. From adding the Cherokee blood to Martin Pawley, who is not of mixed race in the novel, to the hints of a romantic past between Edwards and his brother’s wife, the script starts off by alluding to the potential dangers Ethan Edwards represents to his brother’s family. Nugent and Ford transfer any positive passages of dialogue from the Edwards character in the novel to other people in the film. A key thematic speech from the book where Edwards claims that “Some day this country's gonna be a fine good place to be, maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come” is given to the homesteader Mrs. Jorgensen. The line plays much more appropriately coming from her, and Olive Carey delivers it with sincerity and dignity.