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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. But when he rides out with some Teas Rangers to apprehend some cattle rustlers, a Comanche war part attacks the homestead. Debbie is 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. Though Ethan is the film’s protagonist, he's also a flat out racist towards Native Americans, especially the Comanche. Director Ford did well in creating a character that the audience had to be challenged to root for, being one of the best examples of an effective Anti-Hero in the Fifties.
He’s also quite mysterious as only a few things about his past are established. A brief shot shows that his mother was murdered by Comanche, which explains the racism, and he was in the Civil War. But what he was doing for those three years remains unknown, which serves to make him all the more mysterious.
But his racism also knows no bounds. On the off chance that the Comanche religion just might be right, he makes it so that any one he finds dead, he cuts out their eyes so they can’t reach paradise. It’s even stated that 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 because she was 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. And while Ethan’s vengeful racism comes out in that he would rather kill the Comanche than actually find her, he does want to find her.
All if 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 that the racism that 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 that he would rather find Debbie than kill Comanche. And when they do encounter her, he tries to get her to remember him and tries to stop Ethan from killing her. And it seems that everything Martin does is what helps Ethan to see that his actions and demeanor aren’t really welcome.
Even with the heavy subject matter, the film isn't devoid of any humor. At one point, Martinthinks 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.
Ethan as a character also seems to be a complete shift from Wayne’s usual characters. It’s interesting to see him not the gruff, but kind and understanding cowboy, but an anti-hero with conflicted inner turmoil who hates himself almost as much as he hates Comanche.
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Golden Globe Awards
- Most Promising Newcomer - Male (Patrick Wayne)
National Film Preservation Board, USA
- National Film Registry
Online Film & Television Association Awards
- OFTA Film Hall of Fame - Motion Picture
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
Village Voice Film Poll Awards
- Best Film of the Century