Film: The Searchers

"Injun will chase a thing until he thinks he's chased it enough, then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that will just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth."
Ethan Edwards

The Searchers is a 1956 Western film directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, and Monument Valley, Utah. It's widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever.

Three years after the end of The American Civil War, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) rides back to his brother's family homestead in Texas. Ethan is wearing the jacket of a Confederate, and he's reticent about what he did after war, or where he obtained the money he's carrying. He intends to settle down, and to exchange long glances with his sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan), but fate has other plans in store for him.

When Ethan rides out with the Texas Rangers to apprehend some cattle rustlers, a Comanche war party attacks the homestead, kidnapping young Debbie (Natalie Wood) and murdering the rest of the family. Ethan sets off in pursuit, accompanied by his nephew-by-adoption Martin Pawley (Hunter).

The search drags on for years. Martin decides that he wants to start going steady with his childhood friend Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles); naturally, the fact that he won't give up the search for his sister complicates the relationship. Meanwhile, Ethan and Martin find that they don't quite see eye-to-eye on the nature of their real mission: Martin wants to rescue his sister; Ethan wants to kill some Comanche. And as far as Ethan's concerned, if Debbie's been married to one of those "bucks", she's no better than a Comanche...

The Searchers is proof that the Revisionist Western didn't begin with Sergio Leone: This was one of the first films to examine the racism underpinning the frontier Indian conflicts.

This film is also a subversion of John Wayne's usual persona: rather than a gruff but ultimately kind-hearted cowboy, Ethan Edwards is a conflicted Anti-Hero with a genuine nasty streak, a man who desecrates Comanche corpses on the off-chance that it will hurt them in the afterlife, and who enjoys firing on retreating enemies a little too much. Between unfulfilled love and fighting on the losing side of the Civil War, he's become so jaded that he seeks solace in abandoning his humanity — but finds in the end that he can't do it. Wayne's performance as this character is widely considered the best of his career.

The film is widely influential and highly regarded: the American Film Institute ranked it #12 on their 2007 list of the 100 greatest movies; and #1 on their 2008 list of the ten greatest westerns. If you name any famous director born in 1940s (not that there aren't others), they almost certainly have an Homage to this film somewhere in one (if not more) of theirs.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: "Look", the plain, portly Comanche woman that Martin accidentally marries.
  • Accidental Marriage: Martin Pawley thinks he's buying a blanket from some Indians. Turns out he's married one of them instead, "Look". Ethan Edwards thinks its hilarious. He is also rather nicer to the unexpected bride than her 'husband' despite the fact she's a Comanche.
  • Adopt the Dog: Ethan Allen says that, when he finds his niece, he's going to do her a favor and put a bullet in her brain for having lived with the Comanches for so long. When he finally does catch up with her, he takes her up in his arms and says, "Let's go home."
  • Annoying Laugh: HAWH HAWH HAWH!
  • Anti-Hero: We'll give you one guess.
  • Arch-Enemy: Ethan Edwards and Scar. Subverted as the duel between them never materializes and Scar is killed in a random manner by Martin Pawley. Ethan on coming across the body does however scalp it.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The great state of Texas with its fairly distinct landscape is contained in the fairly small Monument Valley, Utah, where Ethan Edwards and Martin spend years circling the same valley over and over again.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Make that "as long as it sounds Indian." Except for Chief Scar, the Comanches are played by Navajo actors who wear Navajo clothing, dance Navajo dances, and speak the Navajo language (which is not even close to Comanche). Real Life Navajo viewers often laugh at the film because the dialogue often includes Bilingual Bonus making fun of the casting.
  • At Least I Admit It: Of all the white characters, Ethan Edwards is the most openly racist but as the movie goes on, it turns out that nearly all of them unquestioningly share his views even if they never voice it, even the sympathetic Laurie Jorgensen (who is in love with the part-Cherokee Martin).
  • Badass: Ethan Edwards is a piece of work but he's a Badass, as is Scar and Martin Pawley as well.
  • Badass Boast:
    Martin Pawley: I hope you die!
    Ethan Edwards: That'll be the day.
  • Barred from the Afterlife / Desecrating the Dead: A group chasing an Comanche war party finds the grave of a dead Comanche. One man angrily smashes him with a rock but Ethan pulls out his gun and shoots out the corpse's eyes. When asked by a Texas Ranger/Preacher what good that did, Ethan answers that by what the preacher believes, nothing, but the Indians believe that if he has no eyes he can't enter the afterlife and just has to wander "between the winds". Ironically the final shot, implies heavily that this is Ethan Edwards' fate as well.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Martin and Laurie.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Averted. Ethan knows the rangers can't make it in time to stop the raid on the homestead. He stops to water and rest his horse, visibly worried about what is going to happen to his family. The rest of the rangers ride off, hoping they can make it back in time to save everyone. They don't.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Quite a bit, with both Comanche and Spanish. For instance, Marty at first does not realize that Chief Cicatriz = Chief Scar.
    • Mocked in dialogue to hilarious effect.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Debbie is safe and Martin and Laurie are presumed to live Happily Ever After, but according to Wayne biographer Gary Wills, the reason Ethan stays outside the closing door at the end of the movie is not because he feels more at home in the wilderness, but because he knows the primal rage that has sustained him all his life and yet has driven him to madness and alienation will never leave. Realizing that he's reached a dead end psychologically, Ethan decides to go off into the desert to die.
  • Bookends: The film opens and closes with a door.
  • Brick Joke: Before the battle, Reverend Clayton has to keep telling Greenhill to be careful where he swings his sword. After it's over, Clayton is having a wound on his rear treated, and the doctor asks if it was an arrow or a bullet. Clayton just says "No" while glaring at Greenhill.
  • Brownface: Scar was played by Henry Brandon, a blue-eyed German. The Comanche extras are played by actual Navajo from Monument Valley, Utah (and they speak Navajo instead of Comanche, much to the confused amusement of Comanche moviegoers).
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: The raided homestead.
  • The Captivity Narrative: A modern subversion. The plot motor is whether John Wayne's bitter protagonist will rescue or shoot his Indian-kidnapped niece once he finally finds her, for the fear that she has been assimilated and tainted by evil savages.
  • Cavalry Officer: Pat Wayne as the green Lieutenant Greenhill.
  • Catch Phrase: Ethan's "That'll be the day."
    • With a dose of Memetic Mutation: it directly inspired Buddy Holly's song of the same name, for example. This also happens to be the first song John, Paul and George of some British rock band you might have heard of ever recorded.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Lieutenant Greenhill's sabre. See Brick Joke.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander/The Fool: Mose Harper. Though it's hinted he might not be quite as out there as he appears to be.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Whatever happened to Ethan during the war.
  • Darker and Edgier: Arguably this is Wayne's bleakest role: it's easy to forget Edwards is a bitter, angry racist and borderline sociopath.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Poor, poor Look.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Ethan. But then, this is John Wayne we're talking about.
    • Scar has his moment of snark, too. See Ironic Echo, below.
  • Defiled Forever: The Politically Incorrect Anti-Hero hates all Indians, whether violent or not (including his part-Cherokee adopted nephew) — and thinks that any white female who is raped by an Indian man (in this case, his younger niece) must die after being "defiled." There are even some Unfortunate Implications that the other family members of the niece — and possibly even the niece herself - would want it that way.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The racism endemic in white Texan society in the 1860s and 1870s, where someone being 1/8th Cherokee was still a big deal, is not airbrushed out - even Laurie, one of the most sympathetic characters of the movie, is affected by it.
    • That and Laurie telling Martin that Debbie isn't worthy saving after so many years of being a Comanche prisoner (possibly even forced to have children), and that her own mother would want Ethan to kill the girl.
  • Determinator: Both Ethan and Martin. Ethan spends years searching for Debbie after everyone else has lost hope. Martin follows him faithfully through all of it.
    Ethan Edwards: We'll find her, as sure as the turning of the earth.
  • Determined Homesteader's Wife: Mrs. Jorgensen, especially in her rousing speech of how this country (which her husband just blamed for the death of his son) will become a good place to live, even if it may take their bones in the ground to achieve it.
    Mrs. Jorgensen: It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothin' but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Some day, this country's gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.
  • Don't Call Me Sir: Or Uncle Ethan. Or Methuselah.
  • Door Closes Ending: At the end a happy family reunion occurs inside a house, but Ethan realizes there is No Place for Me There and wanders off to the background desert. Ethan is left literally out of the picture as the door of the house closes and "The End" appears.
  • Due to the Dead: Ethan desecrates a Comanche corpse to drive home the point that he's not a nice guy.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: The fairly distinct landscape of Monument Valley is seen all over the South.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: Debbie's doll that Ethan finds in the backyard after the raid.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Look. Her real name is Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky.
  • Eye Scream: Ethan shoots out the eyes of a Comanche corpse, just on the off chance that the Comanche religion is correct about people being unable to enter paradise without eyes.
  • The Fool: Mose Harper. Indeed, some film critics describe him as a kind of archetypical "holy fool".
    Mose Harper (in the middle of a gunfight): For that which we are about to receive, I thank thee O lord!
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Blink and you'll miss it, but the tombstone (of Ethan's mother) that Debbie hides next to reveals the source of Ethan's glaring hatred for Comanches. The marker reads: "Here lies Mary Jane Edwards killed by Comanches May 12, 1852. A good wife and mother in her 41st year."
  • Freudian Excuse: Chief Scar, whose son was killed by whites.
  • Going Native: Debbie assimilates into Comanche life in order to survive. This is the thing Ethan fears most, and considers killing her.
  • Good Shepherd: Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
    • We don't see the bodies of the family. Ethan stops Martin from going inside. He hits the hysterical boy to keep him from going inside and tells Mose "Don't let him go in there, Mose. It won't do him any good."
    • Most notably when the film doesn't show Lucy's corpse. Ethan initially tried to lie and avoid telling her beau what happened:
    Ethan Edwards: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO—DRAW YOU A PICTURE? SPELL IT OUT?! Don't ever ask me! As long as you live, don't ever ask me more...!
  • Gray and Grey Morality: One of the grayest westerns of the "classic era" in terms of dealing with the psychology and cultural attitudes in the Frontier in a way that is highly accurate and free of sentiment.
  • The Gunslinger: Ethan demonstrates his gun slinging skills at one point.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Edwards shows quite a bit of this toward Martin Pawley, who is one-eighth Cherokee.
  • Happily Adopted: Martin has lived with the Edwards family since he was young. They have always treated him with love and accepted him as one of their own. He calls them Aunt and Uncle and considers Debbie to be his little sister.
  • Hollywood Darkness: Not very convincing at all, since they're supposed to be way out in the middle of nowhere in the American West, and yet the sky is dark-to-medium blue.
  • Hope Spot: Brad discovers a group holding what appears to be Lucy and urges both Ethan and Marty to launch a rescue. Ethan grimly reveals he discovered Lucy's corpse earlier, and it's likely an Indian wearing her dress. Brad doesn't take this news well.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: The roles of the hunter and the hunted switch several times throughout the film between Ethan Edwards and Scar. The first time this happens really dramatically is when the Rangers' posse pursuing the Comanches finds itself menaced from both sides and has to make a dash to the ford to avoid being annihilated.
  • Indirect Kiss: Martha's tender handling of Ethan's coat is an example of this trope that does not even need to involve her lips.
  • Ironic Echo: Early in the movie the dog barks a warning as the Comanche raiders sneak up on the Edwards family farm. Near the end, another dog barks out as the rangers close in on the Comanche camp, but Chief Scar does not heed the warning. There is also this:
    Ethan Edwards: You speak pretty good American. Someone teach you?
    Scar: You speak good Comanche. Someone teach you?
  • I Will Find You: Ethan and Marty, looking for Debbie.
  • I Will Wait for You: Laurie Jorgensen does this for Marty. At first you can even say that "absence makes the heart grow fonder" - contrast her subdued goodbye to Martin when he first sets out after the funeral (they just shake hands) to her exuberant and (by 1870s standards) almost indecent welcome when he and Ethan first return to the Jorgensen homestead a couple of years later.
  • Jerkass / Jerkass Façade: Ethan is genuinely a Jerkass, but he can't quite abandon his humanity like he wants to.
  • Kick the Dog: When Ethan fires wildly into a buffalo herd, howling, "They won't feed any Comanche this winter!" Try not to cringe.
    • Scar chucks a rock at a dog that won't shut up.
  • The Lancer: Marty.
  • Let's Fight Like Gentlemen: Subverted repeatedly in the fistfight between Marty and Charlie. Which begins with a cute ritual of laying down a piece of wood and spitting over it.
  • Living MacGuffin: Debbie. The whole plot involves finding her.
  • Longing Look: A couple of very long exchanged glances are the audience's only clue of Ethan and Martha's feelings for each other.
  • Mixed Ancestry: Martin Pawley is 1/8th Cherokee. Ethan mocks him for this, but ultimately comes to regard him as a son regardless.
  • Motif: That particular blocking (the sun-drenched desert framed by the shadows of rocks or a building's interior) appears in the first and final scenes, and many times in between.
    • Also the way Ethan lifts Debbie into the air in their first scene together, echoed when he lifts her in the climactic/cathartic scene near the end.
  • Mood Whiplash: Especially in the 1950s, it must have been quite jarring for the audience to transition from laughing at the apparent comic-relief character Look to seeing her fear when Ethan and Marty put her under harsh questioning where Scar might be to her discovery as one of the victims of the cavalry massacre.
  • Music of Note: The Max Steiner score.
  • Naked People Are Funny: The scene with Martin in the bath and Laurie.
  • Nice Hat: Reverend Clayton is very fond of his top hat. When getting ready to gallop the horses to escape the Comanche ambush, he makes sure to tie it down with a handkerchief. When he's yelling at Greenhill, he almost throws it down in the dirt, an stops himself at the last moment.
  • Nobody Here But Us Birds: Ethan does a bird whistle when observing the Comanche camp before the Final Battle.
  • No Place for Me There: Ethan at the end, as he realizes he is no longer welcome with the family he saved.
  • No Respect Guy: Martin, who is being kicked around or laughed at by Ethan most of the time. Though in the end Ethan warms over to him and leaves everything to him.
  • Noble Bigot: Ethan is bigoted toward both Comanches and Feds.
  • Not So Different: Ethan and Scar.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Okay, so Mose Harper is already kind of a little....not there. But he pretends to be even crazier in order to escape from his Comanche captors, even eating grass like Nebuchadnezzar.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: They stumble across some of this done by the Comanches early in the film as well as a random Indian woman killed by the cavalry later in the movie. The general point is that on both sides, some Humans Are Bastards.
    • The second scene foreshadows a similar one in Little Big Man, featuring the same unit, the 7th Cavalry, and their regimental tune, "Garry Owen".
  • Oh Crap!: Lucy Edwards screams her head off when she realizes the Comanche are about to attack.
  • Open Door Opening: The film opens with the camera moving through an opening doorway into a panoramic view of the desert. A matching scene of a closing door ends the film.
  • Police Are Useless: Inverted. When U. S. Cavalry Lieutenant Greenhill tells Texas Ranger Reverend Clayton that their company can't be ready to raid the Comanche camp tomorrow, Clayton just tells him to stay out of their way.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Ethan hates Indians, and he's not shy about expressing it.
  • Returning War Vet: Ethan is a Confederate vet who returns to west Texas in 1868.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Rather brutally averted with Brad. He goes charging off to avenge Lucy and promptly gets gunned down off screen.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Martin asks why Scar didn't kill them while they were in the camp. Ethan muses that it was probably hospitality.
  • Save the Day, Turn Away: After spending years searching for his niece and saving her from the Indian tribe that kidnapped her, protagonist Ethan Edwards lingers in the doorway of his family's house and then leaves, rather than join his family in the house to celebrate the girl's return. Even the shot composition illustrates that Ethan's dark Anti-Hero tendencies (not to mention the undercurrent of racism that drove his quest) won't allow him to live a normal, happy life.
  • Scenery Porn: Did we mention that this was filmed in Monument Valley?
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Twice.
    • Figueroa returning the money Ethan gave him after he realizes why Ethan wanted to speak to Scar, because he does not want blood money. Not that he didn't know from the get-go that they were planning to kill Scar, but because it appeared that he had unwittingly led the white men to their deaths.
    • A little later Martin refuses to become Ethan's heir because his new will cuts out Ethan's surviving blood-relative, Debbie.
  • Seeking the Missing, Finding the Dead: Ethan and Martin ride out to find Martin's two sisters, but they soon find the older sister's body.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Ethan Edwards fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War (and its implied he worked as a mercenary in Mexico after the war), its possible that one reason for his crustiness is that he hasn't entirely recovered from war and service.
  • Shout-Out: Ethan's gesture in the final scene, gripping his dangling arm, was an imitation of and a tribute to early Western star Harry Carey, whose son, Harry Carey, Jr., worked with Wayne on a number of films, including this one (he plays Brad, and his mother Olive Carey plays Brad and Laurie's mother).
  • Signature Item Clue: Ethan gives Debbie his medal at the beginning and years later sees it around the neck of the man believed to have kidnapped her. Debbie reappears soon afterward.
  • Sleeping Dummy: Ethan prepares one at his camp to fool Futterman.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Ethan dies in the book.
  • Spiritual Successor: Two Rode Together, which is basically The Searchers revisited as a black comedy. Henry Brandon even plays a Scar-like Indian chief.
  • Staking the Loved One: Debbie Edwards's own family expect her uncle to kill her after they learn she's been indoctrinated by the Comanches who kidnapped her into becoming their squaw - and they have hardly any regrets, because after all Debbie is now the enemy.
  • Standard Snippet: Some of the tunes that John Ford used in many of his films make a reappearance:
    • The ballad "Lorena", a favourite of the Confederate Army, for emotional scenes involving Ethan, his sister-in-law Martha, and Debbie.
    • "The Bonnie Blue Flag", a Confederate theme tune, is briefly heard at the beginning, as Ethan returns from the Civil War.
    • "Yes, We'll Gather by the River", John Ford's favourite hymn, is performed both at the funeral and at the wedding.
    • "The Yellow Rose of Texas" is played at the dance before the wedding ceremony.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Ethan and Martha. It's purely subtext in the film, but according to a John Wayne interview, John Ford hinted many times that Ethan may have been the father of Lucy and Debbie. There are many meaningful glances between the two, he kisses her a little too tenderly on the forehead, and when he returns to find the homestead burning, it's not his brother's name or anyone else he calls out - it's Martha.
  • Still Wearing the Old Colors: Ethan is first seen wearing a Confederate Army jacket years after the war ended.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: It gets a little confusing, because at first Debbie says "These are my people" - but then, when her stepbrother sneaks into the Comanche camp to rescue her, she is happy to see him and wants to leave immediately.
  • Suicide Attack: When Brad finds out what happened to Lucy, he charges into the Comanche camp, fully knowing it's a trap. Martin tries to stop him, but Ethan knows it's no good. A few shots are heard, and the scene cuts to the next morning when Ethan and Martin continue on, alone.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: Disclaimer during opening credits.
  • Token Minority: Martin Pawley, who is an octoroon (one-eighth) Cherokee.
  • Tragic Bigot: While Ethan Edwards is basically a Jerkass to everyone, he gains a little sympathy over his hatred of Comanches since a group of them killed his family and took his niece to live as one of them.
  • Trailers Always Lie: Sort of, in regards to Ethan. The narration in the trailer plays up his "courage" and paints him as an unconquerable hero—and downplays his flaws to anger and loneliness. It shows the moment where he pulls the gun and tells Martin to "stand aside" from Debbie, but audiences almost certainly assumed there would be a justifiable context.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer gives away the "I found Lucy back in the canyon" Wham Line exchange, as well as the moment of Ethan holding Debbie in his arms near the end.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: One of the many things in this film is famous for is the completely silent interactions between Ethan and his sister-in-law, which most people interpret as an unspoken form of this trope.
  • Unscrupulous Hero: Ethan is one of these. He seems quite burnt out by it at the end of the film, however.
  • Utah / Arizona Doubling: Monument Valley is not in Texas! But who cares, it's Monument Valley!
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Searchers is loosely based on the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped by a Comanche war party at the age of nine after they massacred her family's settlement. She spent the next 24 years living among the Comanche and almost completely forgot her previous life, marrying a Comanche chieftain and starting a family. She was "rescued" by a band of Texas Rangers at the age of 34, but refused to adjust to life in white society. She escaped and returned to the Comanches at least once, only to be "rescued" again before she fell into a state of depression and died of influenza in 1871.
  • Victorious Childhood Friend: Or unlucky, considering how long she has to wait-Laurie Jorgensen. When Martin suggests they start "going steady", she pointedly tells him they have been going steady since they were three years old and it was about time he found out about it.
  • Wedding Smashers: Martin finally comes home just as Laurie is getting married to someone else. Fisticuffs ensue.
  • Will Talk for a Price: Futterman would talk to Ethan only for money.
  • You Are What You Hate: For a racist hatemonger, Ethan Edwards knows a great deal about Comanche rituals and culture, he's far better informed about native tribes and their habits than the part-Cherokee Martin (who was raised among the Settlers). This is Lampshaded by Scar who notes that Ethan speaks "good Comanche".
  • You Have Waited Long Enough: Laurie almost marries someone else, but given that Marty only sent her one letter in about five years that is understandable. (And your letter mentions how you accidentally married another woman).