When his brother Aaron (Walter Coy), sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and nephew Ben (Robert Lyden) are massacred by Comanche Indians and his nieces Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood) are abducted by Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), a racist Confederate veteran (John Wayne) begins a years-long search for now-grown Debbie (Natalie Wood), accompanied by his adopted nephew Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) who worries Wayne will harm Debbie given her association with Indians. Meanwhile, Marty’s girlfriend Laurie (Vera Miles) waits for him back on the home front with her parents (John Qualen and Olive Carey), but eventually allows another suitor (Ken Curtis) to woo her.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- John Ford Films
- John Qualen Films
- John Wayne Films
- Natalie Wood Films
- Native Americans
- Racism and Race Relations
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “John Ford’s epic western is a great film, one that has enormous scope, breathtaking physical beauty, and a fascinating, complex lead character, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards.” He explains that Chief Scar is racist Ethan’s “alter ego,” with his name signifying he has put “a blemish (a ‘scar’) on the name of the pure-blooded Edwards family,” and thus, “by killing Debbie, Ethan feels he can end his family’s, and particularly Martha’s, disgrace.” Ethan’s “knightly quest for revenge is marred by impure motives,” with “his fears about the mixing of the bloods symbolically conveyed when he almost dies from a poison arrow.” Ultimately, Peary argues, “the cleansing of Ethan’s soul is central to this picture,” and “Ethan’s search is not for Debbie…: it is for himself, his attempt to find internal tranquility and purge himself of racism and of the savagery that is embodied by Scar.”
In Alternate Oscars, where he names The Searchers Best Movie of the Year, Peary adds that this is a “splendidly directed film full of action, humor, intriguing relationships, and, to build tension, interrupted rituals (funerals, weddings, dinners, and so on).”
He notes that “images of settlers, Indians, and the landscape evoke emotional responses,” thanks in large part to beautiful cinematography by Winston C. Hoch.
Although The Searchers isn’t a personal see-again classic for me as it is for Peary (who shares it was his favorite movie as a kid), I agree it’s a masterfully filmed saga which boldly addresses challenging topics, never shying away from presenting Wayne’s character as a monstrously bigoted anti-hero who can’t be trusted. Hunter quickly becomes endearing as the 1/8th-Cherokee adoptee who accepts that Wayne refuses to fully acknowledge his humanity, yet is willing to spend years — and risk his life — rescuing his kidnapped sister. While I’m not a fan of Ford’s characteristic humor — here primarily embodied by Miles’ oafish suitor (Ken Curtis) but also somewhat in the addle-brained character “Mose” (Hank Worden), who helps bring The Search to a close:
… I can understand the desire for a bit of levity in the midst of such darkness. Thank goodness Ford — via Frank Nugent’s adaptation of Alan Le May’s novel — allows us a relatively happy (if inevitably bittersweet) ending.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- John Wayne as Ethan Edwards
- Jeffrey Hunter as Marty
- Incredible location footage in Monument Valley
- Fine VistaVision cinematography
- Numerous memorable moments
Yes, as a classic western.
- Genuine Classic
- Important Director
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)