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Film Review: The Searchers
In 1956, John Ford released The Searchers, based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Alan Le May. Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood, it grossed $4.9 million at the box office.
Ethan Edwards returns to his brother’s family homestead three years after the American Civil War, intending to settle down. When he rides out with some Texas Rangers to apprehend some cattle rustlers, a Comanche war part attacks the homestead. His nieces Lucy and Debbie are kidnapped and the rest of the family is murdered, causing Ethan to search for her for five years.
The Searchers is quite an interesting film and what makes it so is in how it depicts its main character. Despite Ethan being the film’s protagonist, he's also a flat out racist towards Native Americans, especially the Comanche. Ford did well in creating a character the audience had to be challenged to cheer for, being one of the best examples of an effective anti-hero in the 1950s.
He’s also quite mysterious as only a few things about his past are established. A brief shot shows his mother was murdered by Comanche, which explains the hatred towards them, and he was in the Civil War. Yet, what he was doing for the three years following the war remains unknown, which serves to make him all the more mysterious.
Still, Ethan's racism knows no bounds. On the off chance that the Comanche religion just might be right, whenever he comes across one who is deceased, he removes their eyes so they are unable to reach paradise. It’s even stated he goes too far even for the other characters as he almost slides completely off the slippery slope because he’s all too willing to kill Debbie due to her being forced to marry the Comanche chief, Scar.
At the same time, the film still shows the tenacity, drive and determination of the human spirit in chasing after a goal. Ethan and Martin spend five years looking for Debbie, never truly giving up. Further, while Ethan’s vengeful racism comes out in his preference to kill the Comanche than actually find her, he does want to find her.
All of this, from the beginning of the quest, to finding Debbie and bringing her back is good character development. He goes from gleeful racist to realizing what he’s become, which explains the end of the film. He brings her back to the Jorgensen ranch, but doesn’t follow them in. Instead he watches them before heading out. This isn’t because he sees the western wilderness as more of a home than a homestead. Rather, he understands the racism which fuels him has isolated him from everyone else. He realizes he has no place with anyone civilized and doesn’t want to burden them. So he just wanders off into the wild, presumably to die.
On the other hand, Martin exists as a perfect foil for Ethan in his determination to find Debbie as opposed to killing Comanche. When they do encounter her, he tries to get her to remember him and tries to stop Ethan from killing her. It would appear everything Martin does within the film is what helps Ethan to see his actions and demeanor as unwelcome.
Nevertheless, with the heavy subject matter, the film isn't devoid of any humor. At one point, Martin thinks he's buying a blanket full of things from an Indian woman only to find out he accidentally married her. Ethan actually sees more humor in it than Martin does and, in a twist of his character, treats her nicer than Ethan.
The acting within the film is fascinating, too. Ethan as a character seems to be a complete shift from Wayne’s usual characters who are usually gruff though kind and understanding cowboys. His transformation into an inti-hero with conflicted inner turmoil who hates himself almost as much as he hates Comanche is done quite well and is entirely believable.
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Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA - Saturn Awards
- Best DVD Classic Film Release
Directors Guild of America, USA Awards
- Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures
Golden Globe Awards
- Most Promising Newcomer - Male (Patrick Wayne)
National Film Preservation Board, USA
- National Film Registry
Village Voice Film Poll Awards
- Best Film of the Century
Online Film & Television Association Awards
- OFTA Film Hall of Fame - Motion Picture