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.
Essay by Ed Lowry
Release Date: 1956
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood
Director: John Ford
Writer: Frank S. Nugent
Source Citation: Lowry, Ed. "The Searchers." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1078-1081.