The Searchers is a 1956 Western film directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, and Monument Valley, Utah. An adaptation of the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, it's widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.
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 the 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 (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 Jorgensen (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 gotten married to one of those "bucks," she's no better than a Comanche herself...
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 the 1940s (not that there aren't later ones), they almost certainly have an Homage to this film somewhere in one (if not more) of theirs.
The film and book, and their real-life sources, are near-perfect embodiments of The Captivity Narrative. They have been cited in studies about how such narratives continue to influence American life and attitudes towards women and non-whites, to this day. Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream has an entire chapter on The Searchers and its influence on the media images and political attitudes with which America responded to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
This film provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer:
- Martin is pursued by "Look," the portly Comanche woman with whom he has an Accidental Marriage. She refuses to leave him alone because she doesn't speak his language and ignores all of his nonverbal horror at her presence. Even if he did find her attractive, he would likely want to get rid of her anyway, since he was already beholden to Laurie. Later, he completely ignores the obvious advances of a much more conventionally attractive Latina dancer.
- It's clear that Laurie only tolerates Charlie because her parents like him and she thinks Martin has abandoned her. The ease with which she drops him when Martin returns emphasizes this.
- Accidental Marriage: Not understanding Comanche customs, Martin Pawley accidentally marries a Comanche woman and finds her following after him as he leaves. Since he's effectively engaged to Laurie already, this puts him in an awkward position. Ethan finds the whole thing hilarious and makes things worse by encouraging the "marriage."
- Accidental Proposal: Martin thinks he's trading a few hats for a Comanche blanket, but discovers to his horror that he's accidentally proposed to a Comanche woman, who starts following him as his "wife."
- Adaptation Name Change:
- Ethan was called Amos in the novel. The name was changed to avoid any association with the radio/TV sitcom Amos N' Andy.
- The Mathison family of the novel becomes the film's Jorgensen family.
- Adopt the Dog: Ethan 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."
- Alliterative Name: Ethan Edwards.
- All There in the Script: In the screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, the medal Ethan Edwards gives to Debbie is identified as "a gold medal or medallion" awarded by Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to mercenary soldiers who fought between 1865-67 for the Emperor Maximilian's French forces against Mexican revolutionaries. This medal implies Ethan served in the French Mexican Expedition during his three-year absence and also explains his fluency in Spanish. This a hugely important point in understanding Ethan's backstory, since this means that he once again took up arms against the United States (who backed Juarez and the revolutionaries) and once again ended up on the losing side.note
- Ambiguous Criminal History: It's strongly implied that Ethan spent the intervening years as an outlaw. Rev. Clayton even asks him if he's wanted for a crime and remarks that his face fits a lot of descriptions. He also refuses to be sworn in as ranger, saying that it's pointless and it "wouldn't be legal anyway".
- And Then John Was a Zombie: The final scene of the movie suggests, and Word of God confirms, that the ultimate fate of Ethan Edwards is to wander "between the winds", like the Indians believe will happen to anybody whose corpse has no eyes, and the destiny Ethan has invoked over a dead Comanche in the middle of the movie by shooting his eyes from his corpse.
- Anti-Hero: Ethan is a racist and abrasive man, but he's our protagonist, and he's trying to rescue an abducted girl.
- 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 vast flatlands of West Texas are played by the towering sandstone buttes of the fairly small Monument Valley in Utah. Comanche country does have some canyons and rock formations (particularly Palo Duro Canyon), but nothing on the scale of Monument Valley. As depicted in the film, Ethan and Martin basically 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).
- Automaton Horses: Averted. One character rides off in spite of Wayne's assertion that the horses need rest and grain. The next time we see him, he's wandering horseless in the desert carrying his saddle.
- Badass Boast:Martin Pawley: I hope you die!Ethan Edwards: That'll be the day.
- Badass Preacher: The Reverend Captain Clayton is both a lawman and a man of god.
- Barred from the Afterlife: A group chasing a 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 Bad: Chief Scar, who leads murderous raids on settlers' homesteads and kidnaps their girls.
- Bilingual Bonus: Quite a bit, with both Comanche and Spanish. For instance, Marty at first does not realize that Chief Cicatriz = Chief Scar.
- When the search party arrive at the fort/trading post, Emilio greets a group of Comanche—or rather, a group of Navajo extras playing Comanche—with the Navajo word "ya'at'eeh."note
- 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.
- Bleed 'Em and Weep: During the shoot-out at the river, Martin cries after shooting his first Indian and throws down his gun, showing more compassion for the Indians than his companions.
- 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.
- Scar was played by Henry Brandon, a blue-eyed German.
- Jeffrey Hunter, who was entirely white, must have gotten a deep tan to play the 1/8th Cherokee Martin.
- But Not Too Foreign: Martin Pawley is 1/8th Cherokee (though this doesn't restrain him from fighting Comanches). Ethan gives him a hard time for this, but ultimately comes to respect him, in a way. Martin was fully white in the original novella, and his ancestry was tweaked in the film to give Ethan some Character Development.
- The Call Knows Where You Live: The raided homestead.
- Captain Obvious: Lars Jorgensen, noting how puzzled Laurie is by the sudden reference to "the late Mr. Futterman" in Martin's letter, comments "That means Mr. Futterman is dead, by golly!" Played for Laughs, but also for Dramatic Irony, since we know Martin is tactfully sidestepping any mention of the fact that Ethan was responsible for his death.
- 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.
- Casting Gag: Patrick Wayne, the then-16-year-old son of John Wayne, as the very green Cavalry Officer Lieutenant Greenhill, who, as the son of the colonel, got his job purely out of Nepotism.
- Catchphrase: Ethan's "That'll be the day."
- Chekhov's Gun: Lieutenant Greenhill's sabre, which is implied to have slashed Reverend Clayton during the climax.
- Chocolate of Romance: Frontier variation, as Charlie brings Laurie a bag of "boiled sweets" (hard candy) when he visits.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Mose Harper. Though it's hinted he might not be quite as out there as he appears to be.
- Clueless Chick-Magnet: Martin is a handsome guy, and both Look and the dancer at the cantina are smitten with him, but he seems annoyed by their attention.
- Cradle of Loneliness: One of the many visual hints of Ethan and Martha's relationship in the past is when Martha hugs Ethan's coat out of sight of other characters. Martha eventually married Ethan's brother and started a family.
- Cryptic Background Reference: Whatever happened to Ethan during the war.
- The Cuckoolander Was Right: Mose Harper is looked on by everyone as a crazy old coot and is actually shown to be wrong on a couple of occasions at the beginning of the movie (about Ethan Edwards having gone to California and about the cattle-rustlers), but later on, on two occasions, he supplies crucial information about the whereabouts of Chief Scar and his camp.
- 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 T'sala-ta-komal-ta-name/Look.
- Deadpan Snarker:
- Ethan is always quick with a disparaging quip.
- Scar knows enough English to give an Ironic Echo to Ethan's quip about someone teaching him his language.
- 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."
- 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. She tells Martin that Debbie isn't worth 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:
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.
- Aaron Edwards and his family, as well as his neighbors.
- 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.
- Disposable Fiancé: Laurie is all set to marry Charlie, but then Martin returns right before the wedding and he and Charlie (clumsily) fight over her, but in the end Laurie chooses Martin. This is a change from the novel, where Martin returns to find Laurie and Charlie already married.
- The Ditz: He's a sharp dresser and knows how to play guitar, but otherwise Charlie McCorry is extraordinarily slow-witted and dense, to the point that he doesn't even know how to conduct a fistfight properly.
- Don't Call Me "Sir": Ethan tells Martin not to call him 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 his hatred of Native Americans and his general spitefulness.
- Eiffel Tower Effect: The fairly distinct landscape of Monument Valley is seen all over the Southwest.
- Empathy Doll Shot: Debbie's doll that Ethan finds in the backyard after the raid.
- Epic Movie: While it doesn't quite hit the two-hour mark (it runs 119 minutes), the battle scenes, the Homeric storyline, and the sweeping panorama shots of Monument Valley all give the film this feel.
- 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.
- Fake Shemp: Hank Worden ("Old Mose Harper") was tied up finishing shooting on The Indian Fighter and was unavailable for some shots in this movie. In scenes where the Rangers have ridden out together in Monument Valley, "Old Mose Harper" is played in group shots by another actor hanging back and hiding his face. Single shots of Worden as Harper in these scenes were shot later.
- 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.
- As revealed on her tombstone, Comanches killed Ethan's mother. Not to mention the massacre at the start of the film, which only thrives his racism.
- Genre Deconstruction: Of The Western. The hero is unabashedly racist towards Native Americans - even toward his own adopted nephew, who is one-eighth Cherokee. He's still the hero, however, while his Comanche counterpart dies shamefully. And he's really no more racist than many of the other characters. What really makes him frightening is that he's both racist and insane (the buffalo hunting scene exists entirely to underline this point).
- Go Through Me: Ethan tries to shoot Debbie, but Martin shields her with his body. Then a Comanche wounds Ethan with an arrow as they escape.
- Going Native: White girls stolen by Comanche inevitably go native. Ethan meets several abducted girls who have been rescued too late, and they all act insane. Ethan fears that Debbie will go native and be ruined forever.
- Good Shepherd: Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton is an effective leader of his community in religious, legal and martial fields.
- Gory Discretion Shot:
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...!
- 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:
- Grey-and-Gray Morality: One of the grayest westerns of the "classic era" (and any other 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.
- Hidden Depths: For a bigot, Ethan certainly speaks "good Comanche," knows a lot about different Native Tribes, understands nuances and communicates with them. He's even more knowledgeable than Martin Pawley, the liberal Audience Surrogate.
- Hollywood Atheist: Ethan frequently makes disdainful comments about religion throughout the film. At one point he describes Christianity to a reverend as "what you preach," suggesting at very least some level of alienation to the religion.
- 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.
- Hostage MacGuffin: Ethan & Co. spend years searching for his niece, abducted by Injuns.
- 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.
- Irony: Despite opposing Ethan's quest for revenge, and calling him out on his crazy violence, it's finally Martin Pawley, the relatively pacifistic part-Cherokee sidekick who kills Scar, when he comes and rescues Debbie.
- 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?(later)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.
- This was implied to have been History Repeats for Ethan and Martha. Ethan was away too long and eventually Martha had to Settle for Sibling.
- Jerkass: Ethan is an abrasive and racist person, though 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.
- Leeroy Jenkins: Lucy's fiancé Brad Jorgensen rides directly into the Indian camp upon learning of her death, and it goes about as well as you'd expect.
- Let's Fight Like Gentlemen: Played for comedy in the fistfight between Marty and Charlie. They formally invite each other to lead the way outside to fight. Once outside, Martin helps Charlie take off his jacket and hat and finds a safe place to put them. Then Charlie sets up a way to formally begin the fight by laying down a piece of firewood and asking Martin to spit on it. When they start fighting, they immediate descend to barbarous biting and gouging, which is quickly broken up by Clayton and his men, who insist on enforcing rules for a clean fight. Before they can begin again, Charlie pauses the fight to find the owner of a lost fiddle to ensure that it doesn't get damaged. Once the two combatants have socked each other a few times under the auspices of the crowd, they're made to shake hands and make friends again.
- 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.
- Luke, I Might Be Your Father: A common interpretation is that Ethan may actually be Debbie's biological father, rather than uncle. After all, she is eight years old, and he is returning after an eight-year absence. It adds an interesting gloss to his character if his obsession was partly over cuckolding his brother and subsequently abandoning his child. John Ford intended this subtext, but preferred to leave it ambiguous and up to the viewer.
- A Minor Kidroduction: That's Natalie Wood's little sister Lana playing Debbie in the opening scenes where Debbie is kidnapped.
- Mirror Character: Ethan and Scar. Scar speaks "good American" for a Comanche, Ethan speaks "good Comanche" for an American. Likewise both of them fought the United States, Ethan Edwards as a Confederate, and Scar as a Comanche, and are out of place in the expansionist Union. Ethan became a mercenary after the South Lost, while Scar works as a freelance bandit and Indian raider for Mexicans on the Border.
- 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.
- Naked People Are Funny: The scene with Martin in the bath and Laurie.
- Nested Story: An unexpected, sophisticated use of this in a Western. Much of the second act is made up of flashbacks framed by Laurie reading Martin's letter to her aloud to the Jorgensens and Charlie.
- Nobody Here but Us Birds: Ethan does a bird whistle when observing the Comanche camp before the Final Battle.
- No Place for Me There: Debbie is back home, Martin and Laurie have reunited and can start planning their future, Mose gets to rest in his rocking chair, but Ethan realizes that they represent a changing world in which he doesn't really belong anymore, so he wanders away from the Jorgensen house as the film ends.
- 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.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The buildup to the Chief Scar’s raid (complete with murder and rape that can’t be shown onscreen) on the Edwards homestead turns a scene that otherwise would have qualified as Narm into something that is effectively scary indeed. We already know what’s coming, for that’s been established by the absent members of the Edwards family realizing that they’ve been drawn into setting out on a scouting mission by the Comanche war party so that the older, female and child members of the family would be unprotected. But the victims themselves at first give little indication that they know what will happen (even though they obviously do), at first trying (and failing) to let on that anything is wrong at all. The eerie silence of the prairie – except for the bizarre cry of a prairie chicken – also contributes to the atmosphere. There’s also the boy’s plaintively voiced fear: “I wish Uncle Ethan was here.” But worst of all is the slow emotional ungluing of the Edwards women – from nervous to frantic to terrified to hysterical to bitterly resigned to their fate – and all this before we see a single Comanche! The eventual violence is shown to us only as a smoking, charcoaled house, but we can imagine the rest vividly.
- 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.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The last shot from inside the house, showing the hero walk away into the distance, then the door closes.
- Oh, Crap!: Lucy Edwards screams her head off when she realizes the Comanche are about to attack.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: T'sala-ta-komal-ta-name is only known as "Look," but she allows Ethan and Martin to call her this to make it easier for them to say.
- 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.
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Ethan hates Indians, and he's not shy about expressing it, which oddly makes him more honest than the other settlers who behind closed doors, share his extreme views about captive women and miscegenation.
- Private Military Contractors: Ethan became a mercenary after the defeat of the Confederacy. Ford suggested in an interview, that he might have fought for either Benito Juarez or the Emperor Maximilian, though Ford leans towards the latter on account of the shiny gold coins.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Ethan rescued his niece from the Comanche, but not before she endured five years with them and partially went native. Once she's returned, he's grown alienated from his family and departs for the wilderness, having gained nothing by the success of his mission.
- Race Lift: Martin was white in the novella. In the film, he's 1/8 Cherokee
- Recurring Camera Shot: Recurring shots of the sun-drenched desert, flanked by shadowy foreground objects, pop up as Book Ends, and a few times in the middle of the film.
- Returning War Vet: Ethan is a Confederate vet who returns to west Texas in 1868. He's rather vocal about his continued loyalty to the Confederacy.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Rather 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 Lucy'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)note , 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).
- Sidekick Graduations Stick: While Martin Pawley starts as Ethan's sidekick and Butt-Monkey, he gradually becomes The Hero in the film's final half, winning the support and admiration of the Jorgensen family and settler community, succeeding in securing Laurie where Ethan lost Martha, and ironically being the man who killed Scar even if he was Ethan's Arch-Enemy, Ethan even comes around to naming Martin Pawley his heir. Critics suggest that Ford considered Pawley to represent America's future, being multi-cultural (part Cherokee), protective and less masculine than Wayne, and this is the positive kernel in the overall Bittersweet Ending.
- Signature Headgear: 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, but stops himself at the last moment.
- 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.
- Singing Voice Dissonance: Charlie McCorry talks with a dopey hayseed twang, but when he sings to Laurie he's revealed to have a smooth, pleasant singing voice (as well he should, since he's played by Ken Curtis, who was previously not only a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, but also briefly took over as Tommy Dorsey's featured singer after Frank Sinatra went solo).
- Sleeping Dummy: Ethan prepares one at his camp to fool Futterman.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: "Garry Owen," the actual marching song of the 7th cavalry, plays over a scene of the US cavalry returning from slaughtering an Indian village and hustling the survivors (mostly white women captured by the Indians) off to a fort.
- Spared by the Adaptation: In the book, Amos is killed by a Comanche girl he mistakes for Debbie. In the film, the final shot implies that Ethan is "doomed to wander between the winds forever" or that he's going to step out and commit suicide off-screen.
- Spell My Name with an S: In the novel and the shooting script, it's Martin Pauley and Charlie MacCorry, but the film's casting sheets use Pawley and McCorry, and those generally are the spellings that anything written about the film use. Lack of closing credits doesn't help.
- 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.
- Charlie serenades Laurie with "Skip to My Lou". Then the film cuts to Ethan and Martin trudging through the New Mexico desert, as a fully-orchestrated rendition of the song plays.
- "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 Debbie's father. 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: Whether Debbie has developed this with the Comanches or is eager to be rescued is one of the eternal debates surrounding this film. When they first find her, Debbie says "These are my people" and rebuffs Ethan and Martin. But at the climax she's happy to see Martin and wants to leave immediately. The book is a lot clearer on the topic: Debbie had repressed the memory of the raid, but talking with Martin and Amos made her remember that Scar killed her family, so she wanted to get away from him.
- 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.
- Surprisingly Sudden Death: After an entire film of buildup, Scar gets killed unceremoniously when he sneaks behind Martin Pawley, Pawley wasn't even aware that it was Scar when he shot him, and the film emphasizes the suddenness by refusing to linger on Scar's body. It's only when Ethan comes into the tent and sees the body that you realize it was Scar, and the quick cut implies that Ethan scalped his old foe.
- That's an Order!:Rev. Clayton: I say we do it my way and that's an order.Ethan: Yes sir. But if you're wrong, don't ever give me another.
- 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.
- It also promises "Adventure...from the sand-choked desert of Arizona to the snow-swept plains of Canada." Indeed, those were the places those particular scenes were filmed, but the film itself takes place in the Comanche lands of west Texas, eastern New Mexico and the Oklahoma Panhandle.
- 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.
- Unwanted Rescue: It's actually a bit ambiguous whether Debbie really wanted to be rescued, with the issue of whether she had Stockholm Syndrome playing a big part in this discussion. Her anguished, slightly confused expression when the Jorgensens take her in at the end of the film shows that she wasn't exactly thrilled about being "reunited" with a neighbor family, since her real family is gone.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film was inspired by real events. In 1836 Comanches abducted one Cynthia Ann Parker. She was raised by them, became a member of the tribe and gave birth to a son. One day, U.S. soldiers attacked the tribe's encampment and "recaptured" her. However, she did not want to leave "her people" and regretted this and the loss of her son for the rest of her life. Fiction, however, has nothing on truth: Her son, Quanah Parker, became a Comanche leader and fought the army for many years. When he and his band finally surrendered, he went to live among whites and became a successful businessman.
- Victorious Childhood Friend: 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.
- Victory by Endurance: As the page quote demonstrates, Ethan lives this trope.
- Villain Protagonist: Ethan Edwards. He views the Comanches with hatred and anger after the killed his mother and most of his family and tries to kill his own niece who he thought got demonized by the Comanches. It's until the end, he finally lets his hatred go.
- Wedding Smashers: Martin finally comes home just as Laurie is getting married to someone else. Fisticuffs ensue.
- Will Talk for a Price: Futterman reveals what he knows to Ethan only after receiving an up-front payment and a promise of the rest of the reward money should Ethan find Debbie. Emilio also states that he has information "for a price. Always for a price."
- Would Hit a Girl: Martin rather savagely kicks his accidental bride and Abhorrent Admirer down a hill. Alarmingly, this is played for comedy.
- 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 GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Martin is bewildered and highly amused upon learning that Laurie is engaged to Charlie.
- 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).