The Searchers (1956) - Illustrated Reference
The Searchers was directed by John Ford and premiered on March 13, 1956. Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood and Henry Brandon. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent. Music by Max Steiner. 119mins.
After finding his family massacred by Comanche Indians and his two nieces kidnapped, ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards vows to get them back and kill the Indians responsible.
Warning - This article contains spoilers, if you have yet to see the film skip past the plot descriptions.
The Searchers is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Alan Le May (1899-1964) first published in 1954. Le May had also written The Unforgiven which was filmed in 1960 by John Huston and starred Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn.
John Ford (1894-1973) was one of the greatest American film directors and famous for his westerns, he had worked with John Wayne several times. Wayne called him “Pappy”.
It was Ford who turned Wayne into a superstar by casting him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). Wayne was already a veteran of dozens of B-westerns throughout the 1930’s by the time Stagecoach came around.
In June 1955 Ford and Wayne started work on the film that would eventually come to be regarded as the greatest western ever made.
Reverend Clayton: You wanna quit, Ethan?
Ethan: That'll be the day.
John Wayne (1907-1979) / Ethan Edwards
Born in Winterset, Iowa, John Wayne was one of Hollywood's greatest and most popular movie stars and has played the leading role in more films than any other actor. Wayne won an Oscar for Best Actor for True Grit (1969) and was Oscar nominated for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).
John Wayne films directed by John Ford - Stagecoach (1939), The Long Voyage Home (1940), They Were Expendable (1945), 3 Godfathers (1948), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Wings of Eagles (1957), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962) and Donovan's Reef (1963).
Martin: Debbie, Debbie, don't you remember? I'm Martin, your brother. Oh don't you remember me Debbie?
Debbie: I remember, from always. At first I prayed to you: "Come and get me, take me home." You didn't come.
Martin: But I've come now, Debbie.
Debbie: These are my people. Go, Martin, go, please!
Jeffrey Hunter (1926-1969) / Martin Pawley
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Jeffrey Hunter’s films include – White Feather (1955), Seven Cities of Gold (1955), The Proud Ones (1956), A Kiss Before Dying (1956), The True Story of Jesse James (1957), Hell to Eternity (1960), King of Kings (1961 as Jesus), The Longest Day (1962) and Custer of the West (1967). Jeffery Hunter played Captain Christopher Pike in the Star Trek pilot episode “The Cage” (1966).
Vera Miles (1930-) / Laurie Jergenson
Born in Boise City, Oklahoma, Vera Miles films include – Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955), Wichita (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), The FBI Story (1959), Psycho (1960 as Lila Crane), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Hellfighters (1968) and Psycho II (1983 as Lila Loomis).
Ward Bond (1903-1960) / Reverend Samuel Clayton
Born in Benkelman, Nebraska, Ward Bond, a familiar face in many westerns, has appeared in over 250 movies including – It Happened One Night (1934), Dodge City (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Gone With the Wind (1939), Sergeant York (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942 as John L. Sullivan), They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946 as Morgan Earp), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), Hondo (1953), Mister Roberts (1955), The Wings of Eagles (1957) and Rio Bravo (1959).
Natalie Wood (1938-1981) / Debbie Edwards
Born in San Francisco, California, Natalie Wood was Oscar nominated Best Supporting Actress for Rebel Without a Cause (1955), nominated Best Actress for Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love With the Proper Stranger (1963).
Natalie Wood has also appeared in – Miracle on 34th Street (1947), All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), West Side Story (1961 as Maria), Gypsy (1962), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), The Great Race (1965), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Meteor (1979) and Brainstorm (1983).
Henry Brandon (1912-1990) / Chief Cicatriz (Scar)
Born in Berlin, Germany, Henry Brandon’s films include – The Garden of Allah (1936), Jungle Jim (1937), Buck Rogers (1939), Drums of Fu Manchu (1940 as Fu Manchu), Joan of Arc (1948), War of the Worlds (1953), Vera Cruz (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), Captain Sinbad (1963), When the North Wind Blows (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).
Ethan: What you saw wasn't Lucy.
Brad: But it was, I tell you!
Ethan: What you saw was a buck wearing Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands. I thought it best to keep it from ya.
Brad: Did they...? Was she...?
Ethan: What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more.
The novel The Searchers by Alan Le May was serialised as The Avenging Texans in The Saturday Evening Post (1954).
The novel may have been inspired by the real life kidnapping of 9 year old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche Indians in 1836. She was rescued 24 years later against her will, they discovered that she had three children and was married to a war chieftan.
John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne (1939-) appears in the film as Lt. Greenhill, Patrick has appeared in many of his old man’s movies.
Natalie Wood was still at school when making this film, John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter would pick her up from school and drive her to the film set.
Natalie Wood’s younger sister Lana Wood (1946-) appears in the film as the young Debbie, Lana played Plenty O’Toole in the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
Robert Wagner was considered for the role of Martin Pawley
The Searchers was filmed at John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Arizona / Utah, where he filmed many previous westerns including Stagecoach (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946).
It is thought that John Wayne’s repeated use of the phrase “That’ll Be the Day” was the inspiration for the hit song by Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
When Henry Brandon was cast as an old cop in John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) the director didn’t realise that this was ‘Scar’ from one of his favourite westerns until someone told him during the shooting of the film.
There are people I know who won’t watch this film because John Wayne’s character is an unlikeable Indian-hating racist, well sorry but people like that existed in the old west. In my opinion John Wayne was superb as Ethan Edwards, one of his best roles.
Ethan had good reason to hate Indians before the massacre of his brother's family, near the start of the film his mother’s tombstone reads “Here lies Mary Jane Edwards killed by Comanches May 12, 1852. A good wife and mother in her 41st year."
But it was the massacre that tipped him over the edge, at one point he shoots out the eyes of a dead Indian warrior out of pure spite, to stop him from entering the spirit world.
Ethan is further enraged when Lucy, one of his nieces, is found brutally murdered and possibly raped.
When Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) finally find Debbie at a Comanche camp she has already been assimilated into the tribe and barely recognises them. Ethan pulls his gun out to shoot her only to be stopped by Martin.
Martin Pawley is part Cherokee and was raised by Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law, Ethan resents the young man at the start of the film, telling him not to call him “Uncle Ethan” but he eventually softens up and respects Martin.
When the Cavalry arrive to destroy the Comanche camp, Debbie makes a run for it chased by Ethan. In the film’s most famous scene he picks her up looks at her and says “Let’s go home, Debbie”. A happy ending after all, though Lucy wasn't so lucky.
John Ford has hinted in interviews that Ethan may have had an affair with his brother’s wife and suspects Debbie might be his daughter.
The Searchers is #12 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films List and #1 on the AFI’s 10 Greatest Westerns list (High Noon is #2).
It was voted 'Greatest western ever made' by Entertainment Weekly.
John Wayne as Ethan Edwards was voted one of the 100 greatest movie performances of all time by Premiere magazine.
The Seachers was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1989.
It's now one of the most highly rated movies ever made, but at the time it was released The Searchers was seen as just another well-made western by the master, John Ford. It received no Academy Award nominations, not even for the outstanding cinematography by Winton Hoch.
The Searchers was beautifully remastered for DVD and Blu-ray. Eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot a car moving in the background during the scene where the Cavalry are crossing an icy creek.
The Critics Wrote –
"Mr. Ford hasn't lost his touch, The Searchers is a rip-snorting Western, as brashly entertaining as they come. John Wayne is uncommonly commanding as the Texan whose passion for revenge is magnificently uncontaminated by caution or sentiment. Jeffrey Hunter is wonderfully callow and courageous as the lad who goes with him, and Ward Bond makes a dandy fighting parson in an old plug hat and a long linen coat." (Bosley Crowther, New York Times)
"Nobody like Ford for suggesting the feeling of the settlement in the wilderness: the moments of gaiety, the terrible transience of mourning in a country where before the first soil falls on the grave men are already buckling on their guns to hunt the killers. Above all, nobody like Ford for suggesting the idea of what we call home... It may seem puzzling that Ford, whose feeling in the Western can be warmly sentimental, should allow himself passages of vulgar and brutal horseplay. " (Dilys Powell)
"A very good film, but with all its advantages of glorious colour it will not wear as Stagecoach has worn. Nevertheless, the horseriding is beautiful and thrilling and the final raid on the Indian encampment has you holding on to your seat. The Old Master has not lost all his magic." (R.D. Smith, Tribune)
"In modern terms, The Searchers is a racist film. Wayne's passionate hatred of the Comanches is portrayed as justifiable and heroic. No effort is made to explain the Indian point of view. Tut tut. Yet the brilliant images composed by the director John Ford may last longer than political westerns which set out to entertain us by siding with the Red Indian." (Peter McKay, Evening Standard, 1990)
"The best Western ever made. Wayne was never better than as the tormented, potentially murderous Ethan, and John Ford stages heartbreaking moments in the action-packed plot." (Empire, 1994)