The Searchers - Film (Movie) Plot and Review





USA, 1956


Director: John Ford

Production: C. V. Whitney Pictures; Technicolor, 35mm, Vistavision; running time: 119 minutes. Released 1956. Filmed from February through the Summer of 1955 in Monument Valley, Utah and Colorado.


Producers: Merian C. Cooper and C. V. Whitney; associate producer: Patrick Ford; screenplay: Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan LeMay; photography: Winton C. Hoch and Alfred Gilks; editor: Jack Murray; sound: Hugh McDowell and Howard Wilson; art directors: Frank Hotaling and James Basevi; music: Max Steiner; special effects: George Brown; costume designers: Frank Beetson and Ann Peck.


Cast: John Wayne ( Ethan Edwards ); Jeffrey Hunter ( Martin Pawley ); Vera Miles ( Laurie Jorgensen ); Ward Bond ( Capt. Rev. Samuel Clayton ); Natalie Wood ( Debbie Edwards ); John Qualen ( Lars Jorgensen ); Olive Carey ( Mrs. Jorgensen ); Henry Brandon ( Chief Scar ); Ken Curtis ( Charlie McCorry ); Harry Carey, Jr. ( Brad Jorgensen ); Antonio Moreno ( Emilio Figueroa ); Hank Worden ( Mose Harper ); Lana Wood ( Debbie as a child ); Walter Coy ( Aaron Edwards ); Dorothy Jordan ( Martha Edwards ); Pippa Scott ( Lucy

The Searchers
The Searchers
Edwards ); Pat Wayne ( Lt. Greenhill ); Beulah Archuletta ( Look ); Jack Pennick ( Private ); Peter Mamakos ( Futterman ); Away Luna, Billy Yellow, Bob Many Mules, Exactly Sonnie Betsuie, Feather Hat, Jr., Harry Black Horse, Jack Tin Horn, Many Mules Son, Percy Shooting Star, Pete Grey Eyes, Pipe Line Begishe, Smile White Sheep ( Comanches ); Mae Marsh; Dan Borzage.


Publications


Books:

Fenin, George, and William K. Everson, The Western from Silents to Cinerama , New York, 1962.

Haudiquet, Philippe, John Ford , Paris, 1964.

Bogdanovich, Peter, John Ford , Berkeley, 1968; revised edition, 1978.

Ricci, Mark, and Boris and Steve Zmijewsky, The Films of John Wayne , New York, 1970; revised edition, as The Complete Films of John Wayne , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1983.

Baxter, John, The Cinema of John Ford , New York, 1971.

Cawelti, John, The Six-Gun Mystique , Bowling Green, Ohio, 1971.

Place, J. A., The Western Films of John Ford , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1973.

Barbour, Alan, John Wayne , New York, 1974.

Kaminsky, Stuart, American Film Genres , Dayton, Ohio, 1974.

Maynard, Richard A., The American West on Film: Myth and Reality , Rochelle Park, New Jersey, 1974.

Nachbar, Jack, editor, The Western , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1974.

McBride, Joseph, and Michael Wilmington, John Ford , New York and London, 1975.

Sarris, Andrew, The John Ford Movie Mystery , London, 1976.

Eyles, Allen, John Wayne , South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1979.

Ford, Dan, Pappy: The Life of John Ford , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1979.

Sinclair, Andrew, John Ford , New York and London, 1979.

Anderson, Lindsay, About John Ford , London, 1981; New York, 1983.

Turvey, Sarah, Barthes' S/Z and the Analysis of Film Narrative: The Searchers , London, 1982.

Kieskalt, Charles John, The Official John Wayne Reference Book , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1985.

Shepherd, Donald, and others, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne , London, 1985.

Gallagher, Tag, John Ford: The Man and His Films , Berkeley, 1986.

Stowell, Peter, John Ford , Boston, 1986.

Lepper, David, John Wayne , London, 1987.

Buscombe, Ed, editor, BFI Companion to the Western , London, 1988.

Levy, Emanuel, John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1988.

Lourdeaux, Lee, Italian & Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola and Scorsese , Springfield, 1990; 1993.

Darby, William, John Ford's Westerns: A Thematic Analysis, with a Filmography , Jefferson, 1996.

Davis, Ronald L., John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master , Norman, 1997.

Davis, Ronald L., Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne , Norman, 1998.

Girus, Sam B., Hollywood Renaissance: The Cinema of Democracy in the Era of Ford, Capra, and Kazan , New York, 1998.

Levy, Bill, John Ford: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, 1998.

Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford , New York, 1999.


Articles:

Cutts, John, "Press Conference," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1956.

Reed, Allen C., in Arizona Highways , April 1956.

Phipps, Courtland, in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1956.

Anderson, Lindsay, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1956.

Baker, Peter, in Films and Filming (London), September 1956.

American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), November 1956.

Barkun, Michael, "Poet in an Iron Mask," in Films and Filming (London), February 1958.

Barkun, Michael, "Notes on the Art of John Ford," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1962.

McVay, Douglas, "The Five Worlds of John Ford," in Films and Filming (London), June 1962.

Mitchell, George, "The Films of John Ford," in Films in Review (New York), March 1963.

Bogdanovich, Peter, "Autumn of John Ford," in Esquire (New York), April 1964.

"Ford on Ford," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), July 1964.

"John Ford Issue" of Présence du Cinéma (Paris), March 1965.

"John Ford Issue" of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1966.

Mitry, Jean, in Interviews with Film Directors , edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

Kennedy, Burt, "Our Way West," in Films and Filming (London), October 1969.

Pechter, William, "A Persistence of Vision," in 24 Times a Second: Films and Filmmakers , New York, 1971.

"John Ford Issue" of Focus on Film (London), Spring 1971.

Anderson, Lindsay, "John Ford," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Spring 1971.

Sarris, Andrew, in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1971.

"John Ford Issue" of Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), August 1971.

McBride, Joseph, and Michael Wilmington, "Prisoner of the Desert," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1971.

Ford, D., "The West of John Ford and How It Was Made," in Action (Los Angeles), September-October 1971.

Wollen, Peter, "The Auteur Theory," in Signs and Meanings in the Cinema , London, 1972.

"John Ford's Stock Company Issue" of Filmkritik (Munich), January 1972.

McInery, Joe, "John Wayne Talks Tough," in Film Comment (New York), September 1972.

Jorgensen, U., in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), June 1974.

Dempsey, Michael, "John Ford: A Reassessment," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1975.

"The Searchers Issue" of Screen Education (London), Winter 1975–76.

Steinman, Clay, "The Method of The Searchers, " in Journal of the University Film Association , Summer 1976.

Boyd, D., "Prisoner of the Night," in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Winter 1976–77.

"John Ford Issue" of Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 2, no. 4, 1978.

Lowry, Ed, in Cinema Texas Program Notes (Austin), 2 November 1978.

Byron, S., " The Searchers : Cult Movie of the New Hollywood," in New York , 5 March 1979.

Henderson, B., "The Searchers: An American Dilemma," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1980–81.

Peary, Danny, in Cult Movies , New York, 1981.

Lehman, Peter, "Added Attraction: Looking at Look's Missing Reverse Shot: Style in John Ford's The Searchers, " in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 4, no. 4, 1981.

Sineux, M., in Positif (Paris), May 1982.

Combs, Richard, in Listener (London), 3 July 1986.

Yoshimoto, M., "Myth of Demystification in Structural Film Criticism," in Quarterly Review of Film and Video (New York), no. 4, 1990.

Russell, D., "The American Trauma," in Movie (London), Winter 1990.

Skerry, P. J., "What Makes a Man to Wander?: Ethan Edwards of John Ford's The Searchers ," in New Orleans Review , vol. 18, no. 4, 1991.

Roth, M., "'Yes, My Darling Daughter': Gender, Miscegenation, and Generation in John Ford's The Searchers ," in New Orleans Review , vol. 18, no. 4, 1991.

Winkler, M. M., "Tragic Features in John Ford's The Searchers ," in Bucknell Review , vol. 35, no. 1, 1991.

Walker, M., "Melodramatic Narrative," in Cineaction (Toronto), Spring-Summer 1993.

Shively, J., "Indianer gillar John Wayne," in Filmhaftet (Uppsala, Sweden), May 1993.

Brown, G., "Ride Away," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 38, 18 May 1993.

Travers, P., " The Searchers Ride Again," in Rolling Stone , no. 658, 10 June 1993.

Wall, J. M., "Of Lawyers and Dinosaurs," in Christian Century , vol. 110, 28 July/4 August 1993.

Gallagher, T., "John Ford's Indians," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1993.

Legrand, Gérard, and others, "John Ford," in Positif (Paris), no. 427, September 1996.

Humbert, M., "Doorways," in Vertigo (Paris), no. 18, 1996.

Reid's Film Index , no. 20, 1996.

Whissel, K., "Racialized Spectacle, Exchange Relations, and the Western in Johanna d'Arc of Magnolia ," in Screen (Oxford), vol. 37, no. 1, 1996.

Oldmeadow, H., "Tracking The Searchers : A Survey of the Film's Critical Reception," in Continuum , vol. 11, no. 1, 1997.

Thomson, David, "Open and Shut: A Fresh Look at The Searchers ," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 33, no. 4, July-August 1997.

O'Brien, Geoffrey, "The Movie of the Century: It Looks Both Backward to Everything Hollywood Had Learned About Westerns and Forward to Things Films Hadn't Dared to Do," in American Heritage , vol. 49, no. 7, November 1998.


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A popular though critically ignored Western at the time of its release, John Ford's The Searchers was canonized a decade later by auteur critics as the American masterpiece par excellence exerting its influence as a cinematic touchstone and "cult film" among such directors of the New Hollywood as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Representing Ford's most emotionally complex and generically sophisticated work, The Searchers manages to be both a rousing adventure movie and a melancholy film poem exploring the American values at the heart of the Western genre.

At the center of the film is Ethan Edwards, a bitter, ruthless and frustrated crusader engaged in a five-year quest to retrieve a niece kidnapped by the Comanches. Edwards is perhaps John Wayne's most accomplished characterization, bringing to bear the iconography which has made Wayne synonymous with the Western. Isolated by the violent individualism which defines his heroic status, Edwards is torn by the neurotic split inherent in the archetype: he belongs neither to the civilized community of settlers nor with the savages he fights on their behalf. A crusty, intolerant misanthrope, he occasionally betrays a wellspring of emotion which again and again is sublimated in violent action and an insane hatred of the Indian.

Returning to his brother's Texas home after many years' absence, Edwards arrives just in time to be lured away by a Comanche trick while the homestead is burned, his brother, sister-in-law and nephew are slaughtered, and his two nieces are taken captive by the brutal chief Scar. Embarking with a posse to recover the kidnapped girls, Edwards is eventually left to pursue his search with a single companion, young Martin Pawley, an eighth-blood Cherokee who was the adopted son of Ethan's brother. Though Edwards begins by despising Pawley as a "half-breed," their companionship eventually draws them together as father and son. Yet when they finally discover Debbie, the sole survivor of the raid, now grown and living as a Comanche squaw, Edwards is determined to kill her, and Pawley is forced to defy his wrath and his gun in order to save her.

For all his hatred of the Comanches, Edwards is clearly aligned with them psychologically. Not only can he speak their language, but on one occasion, he shoots the eyes of a dead warrior in tacit acknowledgement of an Indian belief that this will force the man's soul to "wander forever between the winds." Further, there is a strongly sexual undercurrent to Edwards's search, manifested on one hand by his obsession with revenge for the violation of his sister-in-law Martha, and on the other by his insistence on killing Debbie for "living with a Comanche buck." His ultimate decision to spare the girl and to temper his anger thus assumes the proportions of a kind of transcendental grace.

In one of the most poignant subtexts provided by any Western, The Searchers suggests a source for Edwards's anger by hinting at his unspoken and unfulfilled love for his brother's wife Martha. Ford subtly conveys this attachment through gesture and staging alone in the early scenes, yet extends its ramifications to inform Pawley's treatment of Laurie, the fiancée he leaves behind. After years of waiting, Laurie finally opts for a less attractive suitor, an action which threatens to cut Pawley off from the civilized community much like Edwards. Without stating it in so many words, the film suggests that the situation echoes a frustrated romance, prior to the beginning of the story, between Edwards and Martha, who finally chose to marry his brother instead of waiting indefinitely for the man she loved.

Within the auteurist context, The Searchers assumes an even greater significance. Never before in a Ford Western has the wilderness seemed so brutal or settlements so tenuous and threatened. There are no towns—only outposts and isolated homesteads, remote and exposed between the awesome buttes of Ford's mythic Monument Valley. And while the Comanches are depicted as utterly ruthless, Ford ascribes motivations for their actions, and lends them a dignity befitting a proud civilization. Never do we see the Indians commit atrocities more appalling than those perpetrated by the white man. Not only does Edwards perform the only scalping shown in the film, but Ford presents the bloody aftermath of a massacre of Indian women and children carried out by the same clean-cut cavalrymen he depicted so lovingly in films like Fort Apache .

The Searchers 's status as a masterpiece of the genre may finally lie in its abundant poetic imagery: a massacre presaged by a startled covey of quail, a cloud of dust and an artificially reddened sunset; the echoing voices reverberating from the towering stones surrounding men who, 40 miles from home, realize they have been drawn away so that the Comanches can attack their families; the image of Debbie running down a distant dune, unseen by the searchers whom she approaches; the repetitive tossing of objects between Edwards and the garrulous preacher/Texas Ranger Captain Clayton, conveying the delicate balance between their mutual respect and enmity; the way in which Martha strokes Edwards's coat before their unplanned final farewell.

But the most significant visual motif in The Searchers is surely the doorway open onto the wilderness. It is the image which begins and ends the film. Ford introduces Edwards through the frame of an opening doorway in the first shot of the film, and repeats the image on several occasions: once to frame (and parallel) the introduction of Pawley, and twice again with the mouth of a cave as the framing doorway. It is an image which expresses both the subject and the conflict of the film: inside the door are the values cherished by civilization; outside, in the glaring sun, is the savage land which threatens them. The Searchers ' final shot watches the reunited family walk in through the door, while Edwards remains behind, looking after them. He starts to enter, then hesitates. Realizing that he has served his purpose, that there is really no place for the western hero by the hearthside within, he turns and walks away, as the door closes behind him.

—Ed Lowry



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