Film Spotlight: The Searchers

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When I read Martin Scorsese’s review of John Ford’s The Searchers(1956) starring John Wayne, I admit it helped me understand the film in a way only a filmmaker could explain.  I’m a movie buff that has a hard time appreciating the genre of the western. I expect clichés, cardboard characters, and predictable plots. That’s not what I got from watching The Searchers. The cinematography was  easy to love. The storyline was unique and the characters complicated.  After reading Scorsese’s review, I have a thirst to read the book from which the film derives, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel.  Here is  Martin Scorsese’s article from March 2013, The Hollywood Reporter:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/review-martin-scorsese-searchers-426059

The captivity story is a fascinating subject in American history and literature. Native Americans raiding homesteaders, killing families on the prairie and abducting females as slaves are true stories. However, many tribes like the Hopi, were peaceful tribes and not interested in warring.  In the Western film, all too often the Indian is attributed with the degrading stereotype of an imbecile savage.  It rarely occurred to the government or its citizens who traveled west to settle that they invaded a territory already inhabited and worth defending.

This is where The Searchers becomes interesting for me.

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The film is based upon the 1954 novel by Alan Le May. The screenplay written by Frank Nugent, incorporated the historical account of Texan, Cynthia Ann Parker, a nine-year old girl abducted and  assimilated into the Comanche culture, married a Comanche chief, had  3 children, and was ”found” 24 years later by Texas Rangers who returned to her white relatives. That Cynthia Ann Parker grieved after her return to white culture is ironic and a truth ignored—sometimes, the abducted preferred the culture of the Native American. However, this part her story is not told in the screenplay. Honestly, I find the historical story more interesting than the film.

Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, son of Cynthia Anne Parker or Naduah.

In the film, John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran who has a hatred for Indians. During the Texas-Indian Wars, Ethan Edwards and his adoptive nephew Marty, played by Jeffrey Hunter, go on a search for years to find his abducted niece played by teenager Natalie Wood. John Wayne tried his best to act and there were moments when you see his pain or feel his anger. There’s a strong scene when an Indian buried under a rock was found dead and Ethan Edwards shoots out the eyes so the Indian will walk the after world blind.  Martin Scorsese said, “No one in his posse understands the meaning of the gesture: He hates the Comanche so much that he actually has bothered to learn their beliefs to violate them.”

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The Searchers is a mystery story of a loner who spends years of his life searching for someone. Abruptly, his job done, the famous ending shot of Ethan standing in doorway alone is arresting.

While the story is supposed to be set in the panhandle of Texas, John Ford filmed The Searchers in Monument Valley, AZ/Utah (other parts in Colorado). The endless landscape and the western sky and his ability to capture the light makes the setting breathtaking. The subplots and ending shot of Ethan Edwards holding his niece in his arms all the way home is tender.

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The Searchers is a masterpiece and treasured as well as ranked 12th on AFI’s top 100 films. Even if you don’t care much for Westerns, this one you should see. If you love Westerns, you already knew that The Searchers is great. What do you like best about the film?

46 thoughts on “Film Spotlight: The Searchers

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  1. Don’t hate me Cindy but for some reason I haven’t seen any John Wayne movies but I don’t know if I’d really like him as an actor to be honest. I’m also not a big Westerns fan, though there are a few I like, i.e The Big Country, the 3:10 to Yuma remake. I might give this one a shot at some point though.

    1. I really recommend the original 3:10 to Yuma by Delmer Daves, Ruth. Just picked up the new Criterion Collection BD, but the older DVD will still do. See it for being closer to Elmore Leonard’s svelte story (though, truth be told the author hated Daves film adaptation less than the remake), and Glenn Ford’s wonderful turn as a villain. A type of role he rarely did, but he’s great in it.

      1. Thanks for the recommendation Michael. I will search for it, I haven’t seen Ford in anything but Superman: The Movie, it’d be interesting to see him as Ben Wade!

  2. Yeah, this John Ford opus is worthy of its acclaim. No question. I’d also recommend reading, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne. It puts stories like this into a bright historical context.

    1. Thanks, Josh! Yeah, I’m pretty biased with Westerns. They are guilty until proven innocent before I indulge. I’m trying not to be so biased. There are some that I quite like, such as Rio Bravo or Two Mules for Sister Sarah. Hilarious!

    1. Hi Mikey! Thanks for coming by. I had heard about it, but never watched it. I grew up around males who adored John Wayne. This one was entertaining–I really liked Scorsese’s review. It boosted my respect for the film.

  3. I got to see this for the first time over the summer and I was blown away. I’ve always liked John Ford but I’ve never been very big on Wayne, but he really impressed me here.

    1. HI 🙂 So glad you’re back! Yes, I was impressed, too. John Wayne was the man for a few generation of men. A character icon. This was the 12th Ford/Wayne film together, and it was awesome.

  4. I’ve seen The Searchers, but didn’t much care for it, maybe because I’ve never been much on westerns, although there are a couple here and there that are ok. The Outlaw Josey Wales, the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, or The Shootist are examples. What you say about westerns stereotyping Indians as “imbecile savages” is often the case for the older westerns, but more recent westerns stereotype them at the other extreme; uniformly noble, honest, well-spoken, at one with nature, etc., etc.; essentially, perfect human beings in every way. Of course, neither characterization reflects reality, and a flat, one-dimensional movie is the result. As for John Wayne, he portrayed himself in every movie he was in. If the movie was well-casted, it worked. If not, his iconic personality took over the movie and turned into something it otherwise wouldn’t have been. A great example of this is comparing True Grit 1969, with John Wayne, Glenn Campbell (eww!), and Kim Darby; to True Grit 2010, with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld. Although the script is almost word for word identical, the remake stands head and shoulders above the older version. The 2010 version was no longer overpowered by Rooster Cogburn, and the true grit of the other characters, especially Mattie Ross, was allowed to shine through.

    1. Wow! What an equally intellectual and heartfelt response. I couldn’t be more flattered. 🙂
      Yes, yes, yes, to all that you say. Westerns in general are more difficult for me to favor than other genres. I LOVE your opinion about how Indians are represented old and new style. Yes, the pendulum swings both ways toward interpretating Native Americans. Just as there were horrible white men raping the landscape and exhorting the Indian, there were countless others who were brethern and respectful of their heritage. I always shy away from black and white opinions. I really appreciate your thoughts! As far as the remake of True Grit, how awesome that version was! The acting, directing, and the light shining on Hailee Steinfeld was so refreshing. Darned if she weren’t as tough as the guys. Who’d of thought? 😉

  5. Regarded by some Western fans as the Greatest Western of all. I’d have to watch it again before I would make such a grandiose proclamation.

    Though the natives are portrayed as savage and brutal in the film – and Ford was indeed accused of racism by some – I don’t believe it was ever Ford’s intention – in any way – to make social or political statements – or to denigrate them. His intention was entertainment and Art based on the book – and the story. That portraying the natives in any ill light would be a problem or have any negative impact or implications, likely never have occurred to him. ??? It was standard story telling in Westerns at the time. Yet Native issues and Activism was just arising and he got caught in the cross hairs. (all this is speculation on my part) Ford did try to make amends in subsequent films.

    I haven’t gotten around to reviewing the Searchers yet. But I’m kind of scared to. Cuz that will open the John Wayne ‘can of worms’. And that’s a very LARGE can. Once I start on that it could get out of control. I dodged him already once – doing a bit on Ford’s Stagecoach a while back. Maybe I can cheat and just re-blog your review???

    Wayne’s rise to fame is interesting. He was a lousy actor in his early stuff and Ford basically took Wayne and created him. Yes Wayne’s persona in later films did become the bloated ‘John Wayne movies’. Some were OK … others … ??? But there are certainly times in his career when he proved he could be a capable actor.

    1. Hi! Be my guest and reblog my post. I was hoping you would check in with your thoughts since your passion lies with the genre of Westerns. John Wayne is in the same bucket as Marilyn Monroe. Their persona is larger than their actual talent as actors although I believe both loved their profession and sometimes their acting talent shown through the media hype of them. There are several John Wayne films that I do like and do not mind the icon at all. He’s charming and funny and represents all that what a man was supposed to be. Was he ever the bad guy? Maybe in The Searchers because he was so racist–an unusual film for him and I appreciated that.

      1. Wayne was quite nasty as Tom Dunston in Red River, watching that film at my Grandmother’s house is one of my earliest memories.
        I’ve seen most of the Ford/Wayne collaborations such as Stagecoach and the cavalry films (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon etc) but it’s a long time since I watched The Searchers. I do remember that the beautiful Technicolor and VistaVision made the impressive, haunting scenery look even more dazzling and enveloping.

        Great article and very interesting comments as always Cindy. Funny that John M mentioned the True Grit remake because I picked up the DVD for £2.99 a couple of weeks ago. I might watch it for the first time tonight and I’ll also re-visit The Searchers (with a different perspective) in the not too distant future.

        Have a nice weekend.

        1. John, always happy when you visit. I really LOVED the remake of True Grit. It’s a proper Western and the gritty hard story was expertly done by the Coen’s and I thought Bridges was a wonderfu Rooster Cogburn. I hope you get to it this weekend 🙂

  6. I’ll be quite honest, The Searchers is a movie that I initially didn’t care for when I saw it years ago. Since then I’ve never understood its high praise but planned on revisiting it because frankly I don’t remember anything about it. I bought the Blu-ray a long time ago so I really have no excuse. Maybe you’ll post will prod me along to finally revisit this film.

    1. Don’t feel bad, Keith. Jim and I sat and I saw it for the first time the other night. He loved the film, I was lukewarm. The cinematography is fine, but the acting by Wayne seemed weak in that, I didn’t get that he was hugely racist. I wondered why it was so highly regarded. I hate that–when I don’t get it 😉
      It’s worth a rewatch. I needed to hear others explain why it was great. Scorsese’s article I posted helped.

  7. Very good post! I agree with you that even if someone wouldn’t generally watch a western, this is the one film they should make an exception for.

    1. Hi Stranger. Glad you stopped by. Yes, well, The Searchers is a classic–it took time for me to appreciate it. There are others I liked more, other John Wayne films that appealed to me. True Grit, Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man (not a western, I know) The Cowboys….

  8. Hi, Cindy:

    Westerns are more of a “guy thing’, but you have chosen a superb specimen to dissect!

    Ford weaves a great, wide open tales with a John Wayne character who is not easy to like. But easier to understand once he’s found his niece, Natalie Wood. Very much like Hawk’s use of Wayne in ‘Red River’. Driven beyond obsession, but able to reel it in before the tale ends.

    Exquisite use of Monument Valley as a backdrop. Helping to build Ford’s trademark.

    A personal suggestion for those who may want to explore Wayne and the West more obliquely would be, ‘El Dorado’, For the unintended humor between Wayne, Robert Mitchum and a young James Caan. ‘Stagecoach’, which introduced Wayne and put him on the map. Or Ford’s cavalry trilogy. 😉

    1. 🙂 Appreciate your thoughts, Kevin. I liked ‘El Dorado’ and ‘Rio Bravo’. I am pretty sure I’ve seen ‘Stagecoach’ but don’t remember much. Maybe that’s the one with the quirky acting role by Lee Marvin?

      1. Hi, Cindy:

        Wayne and Lee Marvin were teamed in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’. Where Marvin played the bad guy who tries to intimidate a town. Then have his boys attempt to put him on the town’s mayor opposite James Stewart.

        Marvin went to extremes in handling his six shooter when threatening people. Extending the pinky of his shooting hand in “… Liberty Valance’. Though the “quirky” you mentioned sounds more like Marvin’s drunken gunman, Kid Sheleen in ‘Cat Ballou’ with Jane Fonda.

  9. Reblogged this on timneath and commented:
    Thanks for posting this Cindy. I love this film and was a big part in my love for the genre. I’m going to seek out the book now as my understanding of Native American’s grows.

  10. My favourite western till date. Nice analysis.
    What I like most about this film, is the plot. It’s not just a game of Cowboys & Indians fighting each other. It’s about a search for a missing child, and the hope of finding her alive.
    And another is the beautiful cinematography. The twilight sky, the reddish hues of the landscape and the sun burnt people. Everything fits in soooo well.
    And of course John Ford’s brilliant direction, along with his trade mark scenes around that famous rock in the desert, as seen in the poster above.
    I watched ‘The searchers’ twice. The first was as a kid somewhere in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Then again about five or six years ago. But I still recall it well from when I watched it as a child, that my recent viewing.

  11. Love your article! The Searchers is one of my favorite Westerns and I love it for it’s bleak and yet beautiful imagery and overall feel. I completely agree with the last comment about him getting the Oscar for this instead of True Grit.

    For whatever reason I have a thing for bleak films like this, No Country For Old Men etc. This one is so poignant in it’s cinematography and story. It’s probably tied with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for my favorite John Wayne film. Glad to see someone giving it some love on the digital movie-sphere!

    1. Hi there, jmartin! Thanks for following and your comments! Please come back; I look forward to checking out your blog soon 🙂
      I will admit that Westerns are a genre that takes some getting used to for me–I love science fiction, drama, thrillers, classics–but Westerns are a breed unto themselves. I enjoyed learning about The Searchers and will be watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance soon. 🙂

      1. No problem! Thanks, I appreciate that – hope you like it.

        Westerns are certainly different – I don’t love them all but even some of the cheesier Spaghetti Westerns are often saved because of their visionary cinematography or technical film making.

        I hope you enjoy ‘Liberty Valance’ – it’s not really a western, but it’s very good and thoughtful. One of my favorites. I think ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ probably took a lot of inspiration from it, if you’ve seen that.

        Enjoy!

  12. I just watched The Searchers for the first time the other day. I haven’t seen John Wayne in for example Red River but of his performances I have seen, this one struck me as full of raw anger. Like On The Waterfront, The Searchers straddles this line between old Hollywood and the New Wave. Dinner scenes are old fashioned with Ford’s love of family and community and Wayne’s natural delivery. He smiles at children, hollers at young men and tilts his head at unrequited love while big music swoons. Wayne isn’t angry, he’s playing angry and the set evokes the sense of a stage play. When Wayne marches off at the funeral far away from camera but his impatient yelling still audible everything feels stunningly real and unrehearsed. On first viewing those wide shots, the dark themes and violent incidents, Wayne’s uncharacteristic performance and the remaining mystery of his character made an impact. My appreciation does grow the more I read about the film and its themes. There’s a video on the DVD of Martin Scorcese and John Milius discussing how great the film is. There is so much you could discuss. It says something that with such a great write up Cindy you’ve only touched the surface. Thank you for adding info about the real life inspiration. I’m told such abductions were statistically rare which seems to me a small comfort. What? Usually everybody was just murdered?

    1. Gosh, Lloyd. I wrote the post a long time ago. I don’t remember what I wrote! Let me revisit what the heck I said and I’ll comment later this weekend. Thanks for reading it. I have to say, I love your long comments and am flattered you have so much to offer about any of my posts.

I ♥ comments.

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