John Ford’s 1956 classic western staring John Wayne, The Searchers, is a film that completely altered my perception of both Wayne and the entire western genre. Like many Ford films, the cinematography (filmed largely in Monument Valley) is absolutely stunning… the subject matter brutal… and the main character, Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne) personal moral journey remarkable.
This film is often considered Ford’s, and the western genre’s, finest work… and is also mocked incessantly for it’s racist portrayals of Native Americans… and Ethan’s racism is a focal point of the film. Yet, I believe it is more a slam against racism and how even the most hardened prick can redeem himself in the end.
Opening with the return of Uncle Ethan to the family farm in Texas… a Confederate soldier who has been gone for three years after the end of the Civil War. Living in Mexico during this time, Ethan isn’t really interested in whether the North won or not… he never surrendered. A southern man through and through. Returning to the woman he obviously loves, yet is married to his brother (and there are a number of hints that young Debbie and Aaron are possibly his children), he hopes to find peace at last. The peace does not last long as the farm is attacked by Comanche warriors and his young niece Debbie is kidnapped. Together with the “adopted” 1/8 Cherokee son, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan sets off to track the tribe, led by the chief named… get ready for it… Scar! Seriously… his name is Scar. And he has the most dreamy blue eyes… and is surprisingly pale for a Comanche chief.
The search for Debbie (played later in the film by Natalie Woods) is the basic premise behind the plot. Along the way, Ethan picks of various clues as to Scar’s whereabouts, and the state Debbie may be in. They go through various states, through Mexico… occasionally getting close… through snow and heat… until they find them. Debbie still alive, but now assimilated into the tribe. What’s an asshole like Ethan supposed to do? By this point, you already realize he has a massive chip on his shoulder regarding Martin’s 1/8 Cherokee blood… and at no point does he ever come across as a good guy… yet, something about his character rings true. He is by no means a one dimensional character. The only answer to help Debbie, is to kill her.
There are some goofy bits in the film… Martin is in love with a woman back home, who is frustrated by his being gone (the movie spans 5 years of “searching”)… so she is preparing to marry another. He ends up accidentally marrying a Native woman… and that gives Ethan a few good laughs. But it’s the emotional journey that John Wayne exhibits as the search party changes from rescue to assassination that makes this movie the gorgeous morality play it is.
Beautifully filmed, surprisingly delicate acting performance by Wayne and an incredibly labyrinthine plot that moves at an remarkably good pace. If you are a fan of westerns… you have already seen this I’m sure. If you are not a fan… I would absolutely recommend this as essential viewing. I still don’t care for John Wayne… but I am a die hard Ethan Edwards fan… warts and all… because it wouldn’t be the same if the warts weren’t present. Also, you will notice many iconic images throughout this grand scale epic… many moments you’ve seen, yet may not have known the origins. Rent it, buy it, stream it… but you simply must see this movie.
Cornelius J. Blahg