Today’s movie is one of the greatest westerns ever filmed. But the driven nature of the main character Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is somewhat troubling to viewers and his overt hatred for the Indians is hard for a modern audience.
Rotten Tomatoes states “If John Ford is the greatest Western director, The Searchers (1956) is arguably his greatest film, at once a grand outdoor spectacle like such Ford classics as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), and a film about one man’s troubling moral codes, a big-screen adventure of the 1950s that anticipated the complex themes and characters that would dominate the 1970s.”
The great Roger Ebert says “John Ford‘s “The Searchers” contains scenes of magnificence, and one of John Wayne‘s best performances. There are shots that are astonishingly beautiful. A cover story in New York magazine called it the most influential movie in American history. And yet at its center is a difficult question, because the Wayne character is racist without apology–and so, in a less outspoken way, are the other white characters. Is the film intended to endorse their attitudes, or to dramatize and regret them?”
Ford shot this and other films in Monument Valley, Utah. It is covered with remnant volcano cones and the relief is stark. Ford used this area effectively and showed the smallness of humans when they are set against this staggering backdrop. He also used doorways to frame people arriving and leaving.
The thing that impresses me most about this movie is it is heavily based on actual historical events. I mentioned Cynthia Park briefly in King Kong (1933). Cynthia Parker’s family lived on the western frontier of Texas in 1834 or 1835. Cynthia was around 10 years old at the time the family moved. Her extended family built a stockade to defend against Comanche raids. The Comanche were a fierce west Texas tribe that had soundly defeated the Spanish and the Mexicans. Did you ever wonder why the Mexican government was inviting American settlers to come to Texas? Well, one of the reasons was the Comanches. The Mexican government wanted the Anglos as a buffer.
In 1836, a mostly Comanche raiding party attacked Fort Parker. Cynthia was taken as a captive around the age of 11. Five other people were captured with Cynthia and all of them escaped or were ransomed back to their family. In all, Cynthia spent 24 or 25 years with the Comanche, and married a tribal leader, and had three children. Her eldest son, Quannah Parker became the last free chief of the Comanche.
The entire time she was gone, Cynthia’s father kept lobbying and paying for search parties. In 1860, a group of Texas Ranger’s found Cynthia and freed her after a battle with the band. She was around 34 years old and had a two-year-old daughter with her. Oddly her father did not take her in and she went to live with her uncle, hanging Judge Isaac Parker. Her cousins became her legal guardians, then she went to live with her brother until he left for the Civil War, and then finally to her sister and brother-in-law’s house.
Cynthia was never happy back in Anglo society and didn’t understand why she was of such interest to other people. In 1864, her daughter became ill and died. Cynthia went into a grief spiral and eventually died herself in 1871.
So why were the Texans able to fight off the Comanche when others couldn’t? Well, thank Samuel Colt. The Texas Rangers were armed with Colt Paterson revolvers during the Mexican War for independence. Around the time of the Mexican-American War Texas Ranger Samuel Walker worked with Samuel Colt to design the Walker Colt. This multi-shot power weapon was used to great effect against the Comanche that had a fighting style of riding rings until the single-shot rifle fired and then charging in before they could reload. This didn’t work well against the six-shot Colt, and eventually, the power of the Comanche was broken. For my first book recommendation ever, you should read all about the above in Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S C Gwynne.
This movie also has a big Star Wars connection that I will mention at the end of the review.
So on to the actors and there are a lot.
Jeffrey Hunter played a 1/8 Cherokee adoptee, found by Ethan and raised by the Edward’s, and was named Martin Pawley. Hunter was covered in The Great Locomotive Chase (1956).
Vera Miles was Laurie Jorgensen, the love interest of Martin Pawley and some others. Miles was in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962).
Ward Bond played a reverend and Captain of the Texas Rangers, Reverend Captain Samuel Johnston Clayton. Bond was first covered in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).
John Qualen was in the role of Lars Jorgensen, father to Laurie. Qualen was first covered in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962).
Laurie’s mother was masterfully played by Olive Carey as Mrs. Jorgensen. Carey was first introduced in Billy the Kidd Versus Dracula (1966)
Harry Carey Jr. plays the role of Brad Jorgensen, who is in love with Lucy Edwards. Carey Jr. was introduced in Billy the Kidd Versus Dracula. (1966).
Hank Worden played crazy Indian fighter, Mose Harper. We first talked about Worden in The Alamo (1960).
Ken Curtis played Charlie McCorry, a love interest of Laurie. Curtis was first introduced in The Alamo. (1960).
Patrick Wayne had a very small role as Lt. Greenhill. This Wayne was first introduced during The Green Berets (1968).
Natalie Wood played the kidnapped Debbie Edwards at around age 15. Natalie Wood was born in San Francisco in 1938. The child of Russian immigrants, Wood got her first acting role at the age of four in Happy Land (1943). The family moved to Los Angles hoping to get more work for their beautiful daughter. After flunking her first screen test, on her second try, the seven-year-old Wood finally was cast in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). American audiences were in love with the little girl and she made 18 more movies as a child actress.
At the age of 16, Wood was cast in a generationally important film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), playing the bad girl hanging with the wrong crowd. She stood out among this young cast of James Dean, Dennis Hopper, and Sal Mineo and earned her first Oscar nomination.
Great roles came pouring in and include Splendor in the Grass (1961), West Side Story (1961) playing a Puerto Rican, Gypsy (1962) where her mother got her a job stripping, and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). She was nominated for an Oscar for Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963).
Following This Property Is Condemned (1966) Wood took three years off. When she returned, it was to the hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). She slowed her pace and did more television. Wood made The Last Married Couple in America (1980) and started production on Brainstorm (1983) with Christopher Walken. On November 29, 1981, Wood was sailing with her husband, Robert Wagner and friend Christopher Walken. At some point, she fell into the water and drowned. There have been persistent rumors about foul play, but nothing has proven to be true.
German-born, blue -eyed, Henry Brandon played the role of Indian kidnapper Scar. His family moved to America shortly after his birth in 1912. He eventually studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and began mostly playing the heavy in films. He worked with Laurel and Hardy in Babes in Toyland (1934), played Fu Manchu in Drums of Fu Manchu (1943), played a good guy in Black Legion (1937) with Humphrey Bogart, played Acacius Page in Auntie Mame (1958) and a British Major in The Buccaneer (1958). He played an Indian chief two times in Director John Ford films, The Searchers (1956) and Two Rode Together (1961).
When he died in 1990, Brandon had 175 film and television credits.
Beulah Archuletta played an accidentally married Indian woman named Look. She was born in 1913. Archuletta had a total of 31 film and television credits in mostly small roles, and many as an Indian. However, she was in some important movies such as The Searchers (1956), Key Largo (1948) and How the West Was Won (1962). She died in 1969 at the age of 57.
Pippa Scott played the other kidnapped girl Lucy Edwards. Pippa was born in 1935 in New York City. Her mother was an actress and writer while her father had something to do with Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire movies. Her uncle was also a writer/producer. Pippa was educated at Radcliffe, the Southern California Institute of Architecture in California, and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London.
Pippa went right into Broadway work. Her first film was The Searchers (1956). Pippa was outstanding as the secretary in Auntie Mame (1958). Pippa made films, produced, and worked in theater. She was a founding partner of Lorimar Productions, a television company responsible for “The Waltons” 1971, “Dallas” 1978-1991, “Falcon Crest” 1981-1990, “Knots Landing” 1979-1993, “Eight Is Enough” 1977-1981, and “The Blue Knight” 1975-1976, just to name a few.
Later she worked with films to aid the War Crimes Tribunal of the United Nations.
Lana Wood, the real sister of Natalie Wood played the Younger Debbie Edwards. The primary requirement for getting the job was that John Wayne could lift her up. Following on the heels of her older sister, Lana made her debut with her sister in Driftwood (1947) but her scenes were cut. Her first real credit came for The Searchers (1956).
Lana worked more in television than her sibling. She eventually made it on to “Peyton Place” 1964-1968. She played the bad girl to her sister’s good girl image and made movies like For Singles Only (1968) and Scream Free! (1969), a drug story, that featured Russ Tamblyn. She was on also all the early 1960s television shows.
In 1971, Lana posed for Playboy and reignited her career. She got the role of a Bond femme “Plenty O’Toole” in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) with super hunk Sean Connery. Somehow, after all this, she landed a Disney role in Justin Morgan Had a Horse (1972).
Through the 1970s she was in a lot of television movies but her career was really trailing off. Lana spent almost two decades away from movies and television but has now returned and has been making films.
A woman opens a door and looks out onto the vast frontier. It has been three years since the end of the Civil War. The rest of the family of Texans comes outside as a lone ride approaches. Finally, the father, Aaron (Walter Coy) says Ethan? The man on the horse is Aaron’s brother Ethan (John Wayne). He is still wearing his Confederate coat with a red sergeant’s rank, so it can be presumed that he was in artillery. We are never told where Ethan has been, but since Maximillian, the French Emperor of Mexico fell the year before, it can be assumed he was there working as a mercenary. Well thanks for Cinco de Mayo, anyway.
Ethan meets the three children, Lucy, Ben, and Debbie. He also seems to look at his sister-in-law Martha, (Dorothy Jordan), a little too longingly. Martin (Jeffery Hunter) comes home and receives a cool reception from Ethan. Ethan is unhappy that Martin is there even though he is the one that found him as a baby after his family was killed.
After supper, Ethan gives little Debbie a Mexican medal. In reality, the medal is an Order of St. Sava, from the Kingdom of Serbia. After the kids go to bed, Ethan throws gold coins and Union cash to his brother when Aaron asked him about leaving.
The next morning the Texas Rangers arrived and among the members are Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) who has had his cattle stolen, Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis), and crazy Indian fighter Mose Harper (Hank Worden) who was based on a real half-crazy Indian fighter that loved rocking chairs.
Clayton wants to deputize Aaron and Martin into the Rangers. When Ethan comes out the men are all impressed. Ethan says he will go in Aaron’s place so he can protect the farm if the raid is a Comanche trick. Lucy goes outside to kiss her boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.).
The men follow the trail and soon Martin begins to suspect that the trail they are following has been made easy for them to follow. Ethan dismisses Martin because of his Indian heritage. Sometime later in the day, the group finds the stolen cattle. They have been slaughtered and not eaten. All of the men realize they have been lured away from the homesteads.
Most of the men head for the Jorgensen farm because it is the closest. Ethan knows that the horses have to be rested and fed or they will never make the trip. Mose stays with Ethan but he is nutty as a marsh hare.
Back at the farm Aaron hears Indian calls and sees game moving. He knows the Indians are out in the distance. They send the littlest girl, Debbie, out to hide in the family cemetery. No sooner has she made it to the grave when Scar (Henry Brandon) arrives and gives the signal to attack.
Ethan and Mose, with rested horses, pass Martin on the way to Aaron’s farm. His horse has died and he is on foot. They pass him by and stay focused on the mission. Early in the morning, Mose and Ethan make it to the farm and find it burning. This same shot set-up was used in Star Wars (1977) when Luke’s aunt and uncle were killed. There will be more about this movies influence on Star Wars later.
Ethan rides down, with blood in his eyes. It’s too late Aaron, Martha, and Ben. Martha has been brutalized and killed. Lucy and Debby are missing. Martin makes it in and wants to look at his dead aunt. However, Ethan slugs him and keeps him out. The dog begins barking in the family cemetery and Ethan goes to investigate. He finds Debbie’s doll.
They have a funeral but when it goes too long, Ethan shouts Amen and starts gathering up the men to begin searching. Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey) begs Ethan not to let the young men become obsessed with revenge if the girls can’t be saved. Apparently, Martin was seeing Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) not having a very deep pool to swim in.
The men head out and begin trailing the Indians. Before long they find a buried Indian. They say they found another when they come upon the body; so apparently, it is not the first they have found. Brad Jorgensen, in a fit of rage, hits the dead body with a rock. Ethan then shoots out the corpse’s eyes so he can never enter the spirit world and will have to wander for eternity. The rest of the gang is kind of shocked by his hate for their enemy.
Ethan rides ahead and finds the Indian camp about 20-miles away. Ethan wants to storm into the camp, which will probably get the girls killed. Rev. Clayton decides to stampede the Indian’s ponies. The men slowly sneak towards the camp and when they arrive, the Comanche have gone. Ethan feels that there is an ambush ahead but they go on.
The next day a large Indian raiding party begins to trail the Rangers. The Rangers sprint for the river as the Indians give chase. The Rangers manage to make a stand on the opposite shore. The Navaho Indians that were used for the filming are a little long in the tooth. During the crossing, one of the Rangers gets hit. The Ranger that gets wounded sure seems to be Will Geer, Grandpa Walton, but I can’t find a reference.
Ethan keeps on shooting even after the defeated Indians are fleeing. Rev. Clayton knocks his gun away and the two men are done with each other forever. Since the Rangers have to take the wounded man back, Ethan says he is heading on alone. Martin and Brad, says they are going along but Ethan makes it clear that he is giving all of the orders.
The trio follows the trail until four horses split off into a side canyon. Ethan follows the side trail and says he will meet the other two at the other end. When Ethan makes it back, he is very upset and his old Confederate coat is missing. He will not tell the two what was in the canyon.
Some time later, Brad finds the Indian camp. He says he saw Lucy in the blue dress she was wearing. This forces Ethan, to tell him, that an Indian is wearing the dress, because he found Debbie in the side canyon, murdered and brutalized. He buried her in his Confederate coat. This truth is too much for Brad, he jumps onto a horse and rides wildly into the camp. We hear the firing of guns and know that Brad is dead.
Ethan and Martin continue to track the band until a blizzard hides the trail. They head back to the Jorgenson Ranch knowing they will continue in the spring. They have already let the Jorgenson’s know by mail that Brad is dead. Laurie is so happy to see Martin she keeps kissing him and making her intentions known.
The Jorgenson’s have been running Aaron’s, now Ethan’s cattle. Ethan makes arrangement for Martin to say and work. Lars Jorgensen finally remembers a letter he received earlier for Ethan. A trader by the name of Futterman sends a piece cloth that was believed to be from Debbie’s clothes and says he has knowledge of the tribe that took her.
In the morning, Ethan leaves without Martin. Martin believes that Ethan will kill Debbie if he finds her. Laurie gives Martin the letter. He decides to follow Ethan but Laurie is very upset but she gets him a horse and a gun. She says she will not be waiting when he comes back.
Ethan and Martin make to Futterman’s trading post. Futterman wants a $1,000 but Ethan gives him $5. He says the band is led by Scar and is of the Nawyecka tribe. Ethan says Futterman will get the reward when they find Debbie.
That night, Martin thinks they are being followed. Ethan explains that Nawyecka means something like tricky or sly. After Martin goes to sleep, Ethan hides away from the fire. Before long Futterman and two other men come sneaking toward camp to kill and rob the searchers. Ethan shoots the three men in the back. Martin is upset when he finds out that Ethan used him as bait for the trap.
The search goes on and it has been over a year. Laurie gets a letter from Martin, delivered by her would-be suitor, Charlie McCorry. Charlie starts courting Laurie. She reads the letter and narrates the next section of the story.
Martin is trading blankets with a chief and accidently buys an Indian wife named Look (Beulah Archuletta). I don’t know but it seems like they are trying to juxtapose the treatment of each races women. While one group trades their woman folk for blankets, the other travels for years trying to recover one of their women.
Look follows the two men out of the village. When Martin finds out what he has done he is pretty mean to her and tries to run her off. When Laurie gets to the part about the wife she throws the letter into the fire. Lars pulls it out and she keeps on reading.
Ethan keeps on ribbing Martin about his wife and finally, Martin says why don’t you ask her about Scar. Martin has been warned not to talk about what they are doing in front of the Indians and Look overhears. She denies knowing anything and runs away. The snow sets in and they cannot track her.
Later the men find a herd of buffalo and start hunting. Suddenly, Ethan is trying to kill the entire herd so that no Comanche can feed off them during the winter. Martin tries to stop him but they are both halted by the sound of bugles.
An Army cavalry troop has attacked a Comanche village and killed most of the people there. They find the dead body of Look in one of the tepees. This is most reminiscent of the Sand Creek massacre where Colorado US Volunteer Cavalry, consisting of almost 700-men, attacked a village, killing between 70-163 Native Americans, of whom about 2/3 were women and children. The soldiers also scalped and mutilated the bodies. In the non-movie timeline, this would have taken place about four years before Ethan and Martin started their trip.
They decide that it is Scar’s tribe and they head out to find the soldiers. Of course, the troops are playing “Gary Owens” so they will be associated with George Armstrong Custer and the US 7th Cavalry. But the Little Big Horn battle was not until 1876.
The two men go to a fort where some women that have been rescued from the Comanche are being held. The women have all been driven insane by their experience. They figure that Debbie is 14. They see the girls her age and one of them snatches Debbie’s doll from Martin and rocks back and forth holding it. Ethan has a look of horror thinking what they might find when they get to Debbie.
Meanwhile, Laurie finishes the letter and is disgusted with Martin for not being romantic. Charlie begins singing to her.
The men have had almost a five-year journey by the time they head into the New Mexico territory. They run into Mose in a little cantina. Mose has run into a trader that sometimes barters with Scar’s group. Figueroa takes the men to meet Scar. Ethan and Scar know who each other is and the hate is palpable. The men trade barbs inside of the tepee until they see that Debbie, now played by older sister Natalie Wood, is one of Scar’s wives when she is called to show the scalps Scar has collected. Honor prevents Scar from killing Ethan and Martin as they are guests. Ethan says that he and Martin will camp on the other side of the creek and trade the next day.
Figueroa and his men leave so they will not get in the middle of a blood feud. Ethan and Martin are in their camp when Debbie comes running down the hill. Martin runs to her asking her to remember. She says she does but the Comanche are her people now. Ethan pulls his gun and is about to shoot Debbie thinking she would be better off dead than as a Comanche. Martin stands in the way. Suddenly, Ethan is hit in the shoulder with an arrow as Scar and his band attack. Ethan and Martin escape and a running battle takes place until the two men find shelter in a cave. They hold off Scar’s attack.
Later as Martin tries to treat Ethan’s infected wound, Ethan gives him a will leaving everything to Martin. Martin gets mad and says Debbie is Ethan’s kin. Ethan tells Martin that one of the scalps in the teepee was Martin’s mother.
Ethan and Martin make it back to the Jorgensen’s ranch and everyone is gathering for a wedding between Laurie and Charlie. When Lars sees Ethan, he warns him not to enter the house as there are warrants for the murder of the trader Futterman. Ethan walks into the house anyway. Everyone is dancing and one group of men are the famous stuntmen Chuck Hayward, Terry Wilson, John Hudkins, Fred Kennedy, Frank McGrath, and Chuck Roberson (iMDB.com). Ethan goes for a drink, and his two “stunt doubles” from the movie, Hayward, and Wilson, join him (iMDB.com).
Outside, Martin sees Laurie in her wedding dress. He is more upset when he finds out that she is marrying Charlie. The two men get into a fight but make-up at the end. Rev. Clayton is getting ready to arrest Ethan when young cavalry Lt. Greenhill (Patrick Wayne) arrives with Mose. Mose was captured by Scar’s band but managed to escape when they got near the Jorgensen ranch. The Ranger company plus Ethan and Martin plan to ride out after Scar in the morning.
Ethan and Clayton want to charge into the camp hoping Debbie will be killed. Martin forces them to let him go in and rescue her. He sneaks into the camp and finds her in the teepee. Scar comes in and Martin kills him. Martin’s gunshot starts the battle. When Ethan finds the dead Scar, he scalps him. Debbie runs away knowing her uncle wants to kill her. Martin tries to stop him but he rides her down. But instead of killing her, he picks her up and says let’s go home, Debbie.
Ethan and Martin take Debbie to the Jorgensen’s ranch, where Lars and his wife welcome her in. Laurie and Martin go in as well. Ethan turns away and is framed by the door, like when he is first seen. He grabs his elbow with the opposite hand in a tribute to Harry Carry Sr. Then the door closes on Ethan.
Some of Ethan’s hate is made clear by looking at the grave marker where little Debbie hides early in the film. The stone reads “Here lies Mary Jane Edwards killed by Comanches May 12, 1852. A good wife and mother in her 41st year.”
It has also been reported that Ethan’s constant use of the phrase “That’ll be the day” in the movie led to the Buddy Holly to write the hit song by the same name.
Star Wars (1977) and to a lesser degree The Wizard of Oz (1939) share many parallels with The Searchers (1956). Both Luke and Dorothy live on an isolated farm in an arid place. The farm kid becomes a hero. Of course, in TWOO, the wicked witch took the place of Darth Vader. Dorothy, the scarecrow (C3PO), the tin man (R2D2), and the cowardly lion (Wookie) only killed to further their goals and never went with revenge.
In the opinion of Tim Robey, several films follow the plot line of the main character becoming obsessed with the quest and loses his moral compass is at the heart of many movies such as The Yakuza (1974), Taxi Driver (1976) Hardcore (1979), and The Wind and the Lion (1975).
Jesse Percival ties the space film into the western genre. Percival says that Akira Kurosawa, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg were all heavily influenced by John Ford’s directing. Percival states that the filming style and the use of landscaped are the same in The Searchers (1956) as in the Tatooine scenes in Star Wars (1977). Both farms are destroyed by fire after a ruthless attack and are filmed in a similar manner.
The Searchers (1956) line picks up again in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). Anakin returns to where his mother has been killed by Tusken Raiders, he goes on a killing spree. Tim Robey states that while Ethan was somewhat justified, Anakin had no justification for his killing because he could not bring her back
World-Famous Short Summary – Two men with an over-developed sense of revenge
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Beware the moors