The Searchers (film): Wikis


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The Searchers

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Ford
Produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney
Written by Screenplay
Frank S. Nugent
Alan Le May
Starring John Wayne
Jeffrey Hunter
Vera Miles
Ward Bond
Natalie Wood
Music by Max Steiner (score)
Stan Jones (title song)
Cinematography Winton C. Hoch
Editing by Jack Murray
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) March 13, 1956 (1956-03-13)
Running time 119 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Searchers is a 1956 American Western film directed by John Ford, based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May. It is the story of Ethan Edwards, a middle-aged Civil War veteran portrayed by John Wayne, who spends years looking for his abducted niece with Martin Pawley, his adoptive nephew, portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter.

While a commercial success upon its 1956 release, The Searchers received no Academy Award nominations. It was named the Greatest American Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008. It also placed 12th on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of the Top 100 greatest movies of all time.[1]



In 1868, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns from the American Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron (Coy) in the wilderness of northern Texas. Some sort of wrongdoing or legal trouble in Ethan's past is suggested by his absence over the last three years, a large quantity of gold coins that he brings with him, a Mexican war medal that he gives to his young niece Deborah (Lana Wood), and his refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers.

Shortly after Ethan's arrival, cattle belonging to his neighbor Lars Jorgensen (Qualen) are stolen, and when Captain Samuel Clayton (Bond) leads Ethan and a group of Rangers to follow the trail, they discover that the theft was a ploy by Comanche Indians to draw the men away from their families. When they return home, they find the Edwards homestead in flames; Aaron, his wife Martha (Jordan), and their son Ben (Lyden) dead; and Debbie and her older sister Lucy (Scott) abducted.

After a brief funeral, the men return to pursuing the Comanches. When they find their camp, Ethan recommends an open attack, in which the girls would be killed, but Clayton insists on sneaking in quietly. When the Rangers enter the camp, the Comanches have gone, and when the men continue their pursuit, the Indians almost catch them in a trap. With too few men to ensure victory, Clayton returns home, leaving Ethan to continue with Lucy's fiancé Brad Jorgensen (Carey) and Debbie's adopted brother Martin Pawley (Hunter). However, after Ethan finds Lucy brutally murdered near the Comanche camp, Brad becomes enraged, rides wildly into the camp, and is killed.

When winter arrives, Ethan and Martin lose the trail and return to the Jorgensen ranch, where Martin is enthusiastically welcomed by the Jorgensens' daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), and Ethan finds a letter waiting for him from a man named Futterman, who has information about Debbie. Ethan leaves without Martin the next morning, but Laurie provides Martin with a horse to catch up with him. At Futterman's trading post, Ethan and Martin learn that Debbie has been taken by Scar (Brandon), the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanches. A year or more later, Laurie receives a letter from Martin describing the ongoing search. By reading the letter, Laurie narrates the next few scenes, in which Ethan kills Futterman for trying to steal his money, Martin accidentally buys a Comanche wife, and the two men find part of Scar's tribe killed by soldiers.

After looking for Debbie at the military fort, Ethan and Martin go to New Mexico, where a Mexican man leads them to Scar. They find Debbie, now an adolescent (Natalie Wood), living as one of Scar's wives. When she meets with the men outside the camp, she says she has become a Comanche and asks them to leave without her. However, Ethan would rather see her dead than living as an Indian. He tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her with his body and an Indian shoots Ethan with an arrow. Ethan and Martin escape and return home.

Meanwhile, Charlie McCorry (Curtis) has been courting Laurie in Martin's absence. Ethan and Martin arrive just as Charlie and Laurie's wedding is about to begin. After a fistfight between Martin and Charlie, a soldier arrives with news that Ethan's half-crazy friend Mose Harper (Worden) knows where Scar is. Clayton leads his men to the Comanche camp, this time for a direct attack, but Martin is allowed to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. During the attack, Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps him. When Ethan sees Debbie, Martin is unable to stop him from chasing her, but, instead of killing her, Ethan carries her home. Once Debbie is safely with her family, Ethan walks away into the wilderness.



The film stressed the incredible vastness of the fabled Comancheria, including the Staked Plains, Llano Estacado

The Searchers was originally produced by C.V. Whitney, directed by John Ford, and distributed by Warner Brothers. While the film was primarily set in the staked plains (Llano Estacado) of Northwest Texas, it was actually filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah. Additional scenes were filmed in Mexican Hat, Utah, in Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, Los Angeles and in Alberta, Canada.[2] The film was shot in the VistaVision widescreen process. Ford originally wanted to cast Fess Parker, whose performance as Davy Crockett on television had helped spark a national craze, in the Jeffrey Hunter role but Walt Disney, to whom Parker was under contract, refused to allow it, according to Parker's videotaped interview for the Archive of American Television. Parker notes that this was by far his single worst career reversal.[3]


Several film critics have suggested that The Searchers was inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche warriors who raided her family's home at Fort Parker, Texas.[4] She spent twenty-four years with the Comanches, married a war chief, and had three children, only to be rescued against her will by the Texas Rangers. James W. Parker, Cynthia Ann's uncle, spent much of his life and fortune in what became an obsessive search for his niece, like Ethan Edwards in the film. In addition, the rescue of Cynthia Ann, during a Texas Ranger attack known as the Battle of Pease River, resembles the rescue of Debbie Edwards when the Texas Rangers attack Scar's village. Parker's story was only one of 64 real-life cases of 19th-century child abductions in Texas that author Alan Le May studied while researching the novel on which the film was based. Moreover, his surviving research notes indicate that the two characters who go in search of a missing girl were inspired by Brit Johnson, an African-American teamster who ransomed his captured wife and children from the Comanches in 1865.[5] Afterward, he made at least three trips to Indian Territory and Kansas relentlessly searching for another kidnapped girl, Millie Durgan (or Durkin), until Kiowa raiders killed him in 1871.[6]

In the 1868 report of the Indian Peace Commission an attack in 1866 on a rancher "James Box" in Texas is noted:

The testimony satisfies us that since October 1865, the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches have substantially complied with their treaty stipulations entered into at that time at the mouth of the Little Arkansas. The only flagrant violation we were able to discover consisted in the killing of James Box and the capture of his family in western Texas about the 15th of August 1866. The alleged excuse for this act is, that they supposed an attack on Texas people would be no violation of a treaty with the United States; that as we ourselves had been at war with the people of Texas, an act of hostility on their part would not be disagreeable to us.[7]

Near the end of the film's story, Debbie's apparent willingness to leave Scar's household with Marty represents a significant departure from most historical models. In real life, abducted children who spent more than a year with the Comanches typically became highly assimilated and did not want to leave their adoptive people. This phenomenon was somewhat similar to the Stockholm syndrome, except that the former captives' affection for their Native American friends and affinity for their culture lasted long after they had been taken from their adopted families and restored to their biological families[citation needed]. The ending of Le May's novel contrasts to the film's, with Debbie, called Dry-Grass-Hair by the Comanches, running from the white men and from the Indians. Marty, in one final leg of his search, finds her days later, only after she has fainted from exhaustion.

In the film, Scar's Comanche group is referred to as the Nawyecka. The more common names for this Comanche division (with whom Cynthia Ann Parker lived) are Nokoni or Nocona. Some film critics have speculated that the historical model for the cavalry attack on a Comanche village, resulting in Look's death and the taking of Comanche prisoners to a military post, was the well-known Battle of Washita River, November 27, 1868, when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked Black Kettle's Cheyenne camp on the Washita River (near present day Cheyenne, Oklahoma). The sequence also resembles the 1872 Battle of the North Fork of the Red River, in which the 4th Cavalry captured 124 Comanche women and children and imprisoned them at Fort Concho.

Critical interpretations


The unspoken love between Wayne's Ethan and his brother's wife Martha and his obsession with avenging her drives the film.

Many critics maintain that Ethan Edwards is in love with his brother's wife Martha. In terms of the dramatic action of the film, it is by far the strongest initiator of behavior on the lead character's part. The most startling part of this plot undercurrent is that there is not one word of dialog alluding to the relationship and feelings between Ethan and Martha, despite the importance of those factors to the plot. Every reference to this relationship is visual.[8][9][10]


Ford made an effort in this film to examine the issues of racism and genocide towards Native Americans. Ford's was not the first film to attempt this, but it was startling (particularly for later generations) in the harshness of its approach toward that racism. Ford's examination of racism starts with the racism of his hero, and it is this openly virulent hatred of Native Americans by the lead character which opens the door for the film to examine racism as an excuse for the genocide of the Indians. Roger Ebert says: "In The Searchers I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide."[11] However, Ford shows in several scenes that Ethan's racist hatred for the Indians is primarily motivated by the atrocities committed by them. Thus he is driven far more by an obsessive need for vengeance than pure unmotivated racism. When Ethan finally encounters Scar, Ford indicates that Scar's cruelty too is motivated by revenge ("Two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many... scalps.").[12]

Natalie Wood as Debbie

The theme of miscegenation also runs through this film. Early in the film Martin earns a sour look from Ethan when he admits to being part Cherokee. Ethan says repeatedly that he will kill his niece rather than have her live "with a buck." He says "living with the Comanche ain't living." Even one of the film's gentler characters, Vera Miles's Laurie, tells Martin when he explains he must protect his adoptive sister, that "Ethan will put a bullet in her brain. I tell you Martha would want him to." This outburst made clear that even the supposedly gentler characters were thoroughly tainted by racism and the fear of miscegenation.[12] In a 1964 interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, Ford said:

"There's some merit to the charge that the Indian hasn't been portrayed accurately or fairly in the Western, but again, this charge has been a broad generalization and often unfair. The Indian didn't welcome the white man... and he wasn't diplomatic... If he has been treated unfairly by whites in films, that, unfortunately, was often the case in real life. There was much racial prejudice in the West.[12]


Although the film was set in Texas it was filmed in Monument Valley, Utah.

In 1989, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry. The Searchers is often cited as a candidate for one of the greatest films of all time, such as the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films ever made. In 1972, The Searchers was voted in eighteenth place then fifth place in 1992 and in 2002 it was in eleventh place. The 2007 American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films list included The Searchers in twelfth place. In 2008, the American Film Institute named The Searchers as the greatest Western of all time.[13]

American Film Institute recognition


The Searchers has influenced many films. David Lean watched the film repeatedly while preparing for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to help him get a sense of how to shoot a landscape. The entrance of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, across a vast prairie, is echoed clearly in the across-the-desert entrance of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia. Sam Peckinpah referenced the aftermath of the massacre and the funeral scene in his cavalry Western Major Dundee (1965). Martin Scorsese's film Who's That Knocking At My Door features an extended sequence in which the two leading characters discuss The Searchers. Sergio Leone mentioned The Searchers as one of his favorite films and referenced it in a key scene of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It was also referenced in a similar scene in the Bollywood film Sholay.[citation needed] In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the burning of Luke Skywalker's home parallels visually and narratively the burning of the homestead in The Searchers; also the framing of the shots through the opening of the cave where R2-D2 is hiding, when Obi-Wan Kenobi first appears, directly matches the framing of the screen shots of Ethan Edwards' reunion with his niece, Debbie.[citation needed] Another direct quote comes in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones when Anakin Skywalker approaches the Tusken Raider settlement to rescue his mother, a scene which is framed in the exact same manner as Ethan Edwards surveying the Comanche camp before rescuing Debbie.[citation needed]

John Wayne's catchphrase in the film, "That'll be the day", inspired Buddy Holly to write his hit song of the same name. The film inspired the choice of name of the British Liverpool beat boom band, The Searchers.[14][15][16]

The soundtrack from Korean director Chan-wook Park's Oldboy contains tracks named after famous westerns and noirs. One of these tracks is titled "The Searchers" in honor of this film.[citation needed]


  • The Searchers: Screenplay, by Frank S Nugent, Alan Le May, John Ford. Published by Warner Bros, 1956. Online Version


  1. ^ "AFI's website listing Top 100 films". Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  2. ^ DGA Magazine, November 2003,
  3. ^ Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Archive, July 24, 2000,
  4. ^ Eckstein, Arthur M.; Peter Lehman (2004). The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford's Classic Western. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814330568. 
    -John Milius also makes this point in a documentary about the production, although film historian Edward Buscombe observes in The Searchers (London: British Film Institute, 2000), p.71., that Milius "gives no evidence for this assertion."
  5. ^ "Brit Johnson, The Real Searcher", American History magazine, June 2007, p. 64; "Search for The Searchers", Wild West magazine, April 2009, p. 53.
  6. ^ ""Negro Brit Johnson, Dennis Cureton & Paint Crawford" on". Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  8. ^ Studlar, Gaylyn. "What Would Martha Want? Captivity, Purity, and Feminine Values in The Searchers," in Eckstein & Lehman, pp. 179-182
  9. ^ Eckstein, Arthur M. "Incest and Miscegenation in The Searchers (1956) and The Unforgiven (1959)", in Eckstein & Lehman, p. 200
  10. ^ Lehman, Peter. "'You Couldn't Hit It on the Nose': The Limits of Knowledge in and of The Searchers," in Eckstein & Lehman, pp. 248, 263
  11. ^ Roger Ebert, "The Searchers (1956) ,Chicago Sun-Times, November 25, 2001 on
  12. ^ a b c [1], Race, Racism and the Fear of Miscegenation.
  13. ^ American Film Institute (2008-06-17). "AFI Crowns Top 10 Films in 10 Classic Genres". Retrieved 2008-06-18. 
  14. ^ "THE SEARCHERS' STORY - THE 60s AND 70s - PEAKS AND TROUGHS". Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  15. ^ "The Searchers Biography". Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  16. ^ Quoted in

External links

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