Saturday, August 31, 2013



When first asked to write a blog about my favorite Western film, the Lays Potato Chips slogan, "betcha can't eat just one," flashed into my mind. 

Westerns fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good ones deliver maximum impact to the storytelling experience. It's difficult to choose from Shane . . . The Magnificent Seven . . . Unforgiven . . . The Good, the Bad and the Ugly . . . The Shootists . . . Tombstone . . . The Wild Bunch . . . High Noon. And, of course, all those Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy films.

At the top of my list is John Ford's The Searchers, a 1956 film ahead of its time. 

The film confronted uncomfortable moral issues - racism and sexism - that American society wouldn't start to address until a couple of decades later. I suppose there's a danger in trying to read too much into a screenplay, but this wasn't just another run-of-the-mill John Ford Cowboys and Indians movie. Of course, I wouldn't appreciate the themes until years later. 

The sometimes-ambiguous story - adapted from a novel by Alan LeMay - centers on an ex-Confederate soldier's long quest to find his nieces, Debbie (Natalie Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott), who were kidnapped by renegade Comanches after they attack and slaughter his brother, beloved sister-in-law, and a young nephew. 

John Wayne, in his most demanding emotional role of all the Westerns he starred in, plays Ethan Edwards, a middle-aged Civil War veteran who returns to the home of his brother three years after the war ends. No explanation is provided about where Ethan has been. He brought with him a quantity of Yankee gold coins that his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) agrees to hide. 

When I first saw the film, I felt a little off-balance watching Wayne's Ethan Edwards.

His role took me by surprise because the kind of man he portrayed was so unexpected --the antithesis of his previous roles as the running', gunnin' mythic Western hero I was so used to seeing and rooting for. From the outset, it's clear that Ethan is a man with demons.

When Ethan finds Lucy's defiled body in a canyon near the Comanche camp, her finance, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr) becomes enraged and recklessly rides into the camp on his own and gets killed. For the next five years, Ethan and his adoptive nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) conduct a relentless search for 16-year old Debbie and for Scar (Henry Brandon), the Comanche chief who abducted her.

Majestic Monument Valley, situated in Northern Arizona and southwestern Utah, serves as Ford's storytelling canvas, and filmed on land belonging to the Navajos.

The valley is a stand-in for a story that takes place in west Texas in 1868. The landscape plays as integral a role in the film as the actors. Its rugged beauty, utter vastness, and emptiness befits Wayne's vengeful character. 

In The Searchers, Wayne delivers Ethan Edwards as an imperfect protagonist--a dark, brooding, mysterious loner whose eyes and words reflect his undisguised hatred of Indians.  

Ironically, Ethan  seems quite familiar with their language and culture. The character, part psychopath and part racist, is layered with complexity. He's a man who hates beyond the grave. When in one scene, for example, the grave of a dead Indian is discovered, Wayne pulls his gun and fires twice, shooting out the dead man's eyes, telling his nephew that if the Indian has no eyes, he'll be doomed to wander in the winds for eternity.

The nephew, by the way, is one-eighth Cherokee. In yet another plot twist, we learn that Ethan was never comfortable with Martin being a part of the brother's family even though Ethan is the one who found Martin when he was abandoned as an infant. 

Ethan and Martin's journey take them to New Mexico Territory where they are lead to Scar. Debbie, they discover, is now an adolescent and one of the chief's wives.

She meets her uncle and half-brother outside the camp and tells them to leave without her because she has become Comanche. Blinded by rage, Ethan tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her from harm.

Ethan is wounded by an Indian arrow, but the two manage to escape, Martin saves his uncle by tending to the wound, but is furious at Ethan's attempt to kill Debbie, and wishes his uncle dead. "That'll be the day," Ethan responds.

We realize Ethan's commitment to rescue Debbie isn't for any humanitarian reason. He feels compelled to kill her because she has become "the leaven's of a Comanche buck."

The two men return home empty-handed, but later learn of Scar's location and resume the search. Under the command of the Revered Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), a makeshift band of Texas Rangers, accompanied by Ethan and Martin, locate the camp.

Clayton plans a direct attack, but allows Martin to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. Martin ends up killing Scar.

Ethan provides the finishing touch by scalping the Comanche leader. 

When Debbie sees Ethan, she tries to escape, and he gives chase. Martin is unable to intervene. 

But, instead of killing her, he takes her in his hands, lifts her to the sky, lowers her to his arms, and says, "Let's go home, Debbie."

A promotional synopsis by Warner Brothers stated that "…in his obsessive five-year quest, Ethan encounters something he didn't expect to find: his own humanity."

This sounds too tidy. Too simplistic.  Ethan Edwards, as far as I'm concerned, is far too conflicted for such a neat one-sentence conclusion. Emotions - pain, loneliness, revenge and hate - don't change or vanish with a snap of a finger.

Debbie's rescue provides no evidence Ethan's racist views toward Indians changed in any way. 

Ford, in several scenes, reveals that atrocities committed by the Indians fueled Ethan's hatred and thirst for revenge. Sixteen years earlier, Ethan's own mother was massacred by Comanches.

At the same time, Scar's viciousness stems from his own appetite for revenge: "Two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many . . .  scalps."

Ford's symmetrical closing of The Searchers reflects the film's opening. 

The director utilized a framed rectangular doorway to introduce Wayne's character at the beginning. At the conclusion, Ford gives us a view of Ethan holding his arm, then walking away - alone - with the cabin door closing on his receding image. (Check out the video snippets).

Does the healing process begin for Ethan? Maybe or maybe not. I doubt it.

The Searchers enjoyed box-office success. The American Film Institute named it the Greatest American Western of all time, even though it received no major Academy Award nominations.

For some strange reason, the New York Times, in a June 12, 1979, obituary of John Wayne, never once mentioned his role in The Searchers. How it could be ignored is baffling.

This is merely a Cliff notes version of The Searchers. There is so much more to this story and the characters who star in its telling.

Last Stand At Bitter Creek
Finalist: Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award, Best Western First Novel


  1. Great movie but the Alan Lemay book was even better. Especially the ending with an unrepentant and unrelenting Ethan intent on killing Debbie, stopped by Martin. Film or book, though, it's all good stuff.

  2. Tom, what a great post. I need to give The Searchers another chance. It was never one I really wanted to watch again and again. Haven't seen it in a long long time. I have not read the book--so here I go to find it! I know it's a great story, and one that has stood the test of time. I love John Wayne in anything--I truly enjoyed your post! Thanks for telling us about your fave (or at least one of them) movie!

  3. I have watched this movie many times. It shows how a man fueled by hatred, but commanded by love of family will go to many lengths to find a family member. I remember when I see this for the first time, and that seen where JW was going to kill Debbie, I had such loathing for JW, but I had to remember that he was playing the part of a hate driven person. He knew his niece had been ruined for the white man and the thought that she was the wife of a Indian was more that he could bare. But in the end, he could not do it. He was after all his brothers daughter.. Great movie and one I think John Wayne should have been awarded an OSCAR for.

  4. Alan LeMay wrote some great stories of which this is one. I agree with you Tom, this is a classic and the film has qualities that have stood the test of time and seem to get better with reflection and re-watching. Thanks for bringing another film to put on the to be watched list. Doris

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  6. Thanks for the fine insights Tom. In my opinion, The Searchers is the greatest movie ever made. Period.

    Jim Meals

  7. Great post, Tom. I learned a lot here. I often just watch a Wayne movie and just get carried along with the story, without being too analytical.

    Your mention of the obituary made me check it out, which I also enjoyed doing.


  8. I have seen The SEARCHERS many times. 1.) Because I lived in my dad's house for 18 years and still visit and if a John Wayne movie is on then the John Wayne movie is what we're watching. :) 2.) Because it's one of my favorite of JW's movies.

    But I agree with you, Tom, I've never found the ending to be a cheerful everything worked out and the hero is magically transformed. That he walks away alone speaks volumes. Ethan still isn't a part of the family or the town. His rescue of Debbie wasn't any transformation regarding his feelings toward Indians, but a possible glimmer of loyalty to his brother and sister-in-law in sparing their child.

    But all in all a great film!


  9. Thanks, everyone, for all the comments. I think it's safe to say The Searchers was a compelling film for different reasons. I didn't believe the movie could be topped, but Frank says the book is better so it's time to read it. It's always interesting to learn how filmgoers react to the ending, especially when many expect some dramatic change in the protagonist, or anti-hero.

  10. Wonderful post! The Searchers is my favorite western, and I loved the complexities of Ethan's characte. In fact, the reluctant hero in my new work is named Ethan in tribute to this character and Wayne. John Wayne was so good in this role, I believe it was the first time I saw him as a character, not the John Wayne persona. I also remember a documentary on Ford where it was revealed Wayne holding his arm in the doorway during the final shot was an homage to Harry Carey, Sr., who alwaya did that pose. The senior Carey was a good friend to both John Ford and Wayne. Thanks for sharing so much about this great classic western.

  11. I agree- this is one of the best movies ever made, in any genre. It is on the short list of movies I offer as extra credit in my American History classes (they have to write a review and tie in class discussions about race.)

  12. I remember how puzzled I was when I saw this film because John Wayne had always played a hero. In this film, I didn't see him as a hero. Still, it was a good western. I guess my favorite is "How The West Was Won" with the Sackett movies a close second. I'm such a Louis L'Amour fan!

  13. Tom,
    What a fantastic post. I saw The Searchers the first time when I was thirteen and HATED it. But, as I grew older, I learned to appreciate it. It is a movie of such depth and layers. I actually used the movie, screen-play (which an original copy is in the care of the Lilly Library at Indiana University), and the novel for one of my first master's papers. I try to watch the movie at least once a year and every time, I see something else that I can appreciate about the movie, Wayne's performance, and Ford's mastery of the medium.

  14. I know The Searchers is a great film, one of Wayne's best, but my personal favorite is Red River. I love the relationship between Wayne's character and his adopted son played by Montgomery Clift. In my book, Dashing Irish, the cattle drive is a tribute to Red River, which depicts the fictional first drive up the Chisholm Trail. The movie cast also includes several favorite old-time character actors.

  15. There is no John Wayne movie I don't like. He was a cowboy through and through. I loved The Searchers. I also liked him in the role of Rooster Cogburn. John Wayne will be in our hearts forever.

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