Friday, September 18, 2020

What's the Score? The Searchers by Max Steiner

A post on the web asks the all-too typical question: Is the Searchers the greatest film score Max Steiner ever composed?

Like any employment of the logical fallacy of false choices, the query is too broad…and too limited. Max Steiner wrote a great many GREAT scores, including Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and A Summer Place. He wrote fantastic music for other westerns too: Dodge City, The Oklahoma Kid, They Died With the Boots On, and the list goes on. All told, the Austrian born composer put together more than 300 scores fro RKO and Warner Brothers and was nominated for 24 Oscars.

The question ought to be rephrased.

Is the Searchers one of the GREATEST of film cores? And to that, the answer is an emphatic yes. For me, it’s right at the pinnacle of the mountain, duking it out with the Magnificent Seven.

The Searchers is a 1956 film directed by John fore, based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May and starring John Wayne. Wayne plays a grizzled old Civil War vet named Ethan Edwards looking for his niece (Natalie Wood) who’s been abducted by Native Americans.

Like the music that frames, uplifts, and weaves the action together, The Searchers tops nearly all its peers.

James Leonard at says “The monumental themes, evocative harmonies, rousing rhythms, gripping developments, screaming climaxes, and the unforgettable main title are wonderful accompaniments for what's on the screen.”

I agree. Few other films manage to tie the emotional impact of individual scenes together with just the right progression of chords. Few manage to add so substantially to the narrative that without the music, the story might be entirely different. But Steiner accomplishes much in collaboration with Ford’s vision.

Nowhere is this seen as succinctly as the famous “doorway scene” at the end of the movie where Edwards, having accomplished his mission, stands outside looking in, the perennial loner, as the Sons of the Pioneers offer the mournful, lonely “End Title”

“A man will search his heart and soul
Go searching’ way out there
His peace of mind he knows he’ll find
But where, oh Lord, Lord where?
Ride away, ride away, ride away”


  1. Rich, I'm a huge John Wayne fan, and I know I'm in the minority when I say The Searchers is one of my least favorite of his movies, but I will watch it just for the score. And the "moments" it has--like this scene at the end. That is so haunting, thanks to the music that accompanies the scene--and there are many in this movie. I'm really enjoying this series you're doing on the scores of westerns!

    1. I'm with Cheryl, this one is a great movie but hard to watch. Thanks though for a good story, Richard!

    2. Rich, Cheryl, and Vicky -
      I'm in the group of not being a fan of the movie. I do, however, appreciate the music. It is right up there among the best for film scores.

      While I don't recall where I read this, it did give me a different perspective of the story: The reason Ethan was so determined in his quest to find his niece is that she was actually his daughter. Interesting take on Ethan's motivation.

    3. Ohhhh, my....yes, that does put a whole new light on things, doesn't it? Now I will need to watch that movie again for the subtle nuances. Back then, it might have been way to risque to be too forthright with those clues...I'm so glad you told us this, Kaye.

  2. Very interesting article, Rich. Twenty-four Academy nominations is phenomenal. Three Oscars, brilliant. And what a range of movies. Casablanca and King Kong.

  3. Very interesting article, Rich. Twenty-four Academy nominations is phenomenal. Three Oscars, brilliant. And what a range of movies. Casablanca and King Kong.

  4. I love these posts and this one is no exception. Thank you. Doris

  5. I’m new to the blog, and I’m loving the posts, so thanks for the fun and informative efforts.
    Since you rephrased the question, shouldn’t Dimitri Tiompkin get a at least a nod for High Noon? It might not have the Steiner flourishes, but the film called for the restraint he gave it. And the guy won four Oscars... Just a thought.
    And I love Steiner. His work on Casablanca helped make it my favorite film of all time. My boys still quote lines at me. Haha. Thanks again, Jim