The Searchers (1956)

Cinematography Winton C. Hoch
Directed by John Ford

Ethan Edwards, returned from the Civil War to the Texas ranch of his brother, hopes to find a home with his family and to be near the woman he obviously but secretly loves. But a Comanche raid destroys these plans, and Ethan sets out, along with his 1/8 Indian nephew Martin, on a years-long journey to find the niece kidnapped by the Indians under Chief Scar. But as the quest goes on, Martin begins to realize that his uncle’s hatred for the Indians is beginning to spill over onto his now-assimilated niece. Martin becomes uncertain whether Ethan plans to rescue Debbie…or kill her.

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Near Villainous Role for THE DUKE

19 November 2001 | by marquis de cinema (Boston, MA) – See all my reviews

The Searchers(1956) has been reflected to death by many filmmakers in their own work with main ideas, situations, and plot as guide. Many elements of The Searchers(1956) influenced film directors ranging from Brian De Palma, George Lucus, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Sergio Leone. There are scores of other movie makers whom I cannot list at the top of my head that were affected by this one film. Obvious film influences are Once Upon a Time in the West(1968), Obsession(1976), Taxi Driver(1976), Star Wars(1977), and Hardcore(1979). It shows that great works of cinema are also able to inspire many admirers and disciples. Only films(stories) by Akira Kurosawa has been reflected more often by film directors than The Searchers(1956).

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John Wayne was legendary American film star and big box office draw by 1956. The Searchers(1956) lends creedence to John Wayne being an exceptional actor enforced by his multi-layered performance. In a career that spanned five decades, The Searchers(1956) is the efflorescence of John Wayne. John Wayne gives a complex/flawed portrait of a man looking for redemption and salvation. One fine moment that examplifies the multi-layerness of John Wayne’s performance is the look on Ethan Edwards face as he feys over what will happen to his brother and family. The Searchers(1956) was to John Wayne’s career what Treasure of the Sierra Madre(1948) was to Humphrey Bogart and Vertigo(1958) was to James Stewart.

Story is about drifting, trying find something which is self-meaningful. Ethan Edwards is such a drifter who is always in search of a purpose. The Searchers(1956) is really about drifting in the American Frontier and search for self-discovery. There were many drifters like Ethan Edwards in the Old West especially in the wake of the Civil War.

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The Cowboy drifter in the Old West is almost the equivalent of the Samurai ronin in Tokugawa Japan Era. These drifters were men who were on the go, had temporary employment, and always wondered about their existence in life.

Rare individualistic motion picture in the old studio system days when many Hollywood films were studio controlled. The Searchers(1956) defies the typical 1950s Hollywood film presentation because its a director’s picture. Excells on a visual level with interesting camera placement. Camera framing also plays a psychological and visual role in representation of two conflicting worlds(Civilized West and Wild West). Helped by crisp and flawless editing that flows the plot along effortlessly. Shades of Homer’s THE ODYSSEY are penetrated into the heart of the story with irony.

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Deals with racial prejudice with honest and truthful gusto. Racial prejudice in The Searchers(1956) is filmed in terms of emotional and psychological depth. The racial prejudice of the protagonist echos the prejudice of many white people in the Old West felt towards native Americans. The relationship between Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley is met by distrust, prejudice, and sarcasm. Only towards the end does Ethan Edwards begin to show some sign of acception and respect for Martin Pawley. Shows that people are willing to change if they are willing to confront the dark side of humanity.

John Ford was the one director who was able to channel the talents of John Wayne to full heights. He made it possible for John Wayne to become an American film star by casting him in Stagecoach(1939). The other major director John Wayne had great success with was Howard Hawks. The Searchers(1956) is the greatest film of the Ford-Wayne tandem. Each are at their highest and most professional peak as film artists. In film working relationship they were halves of one and one of halves.

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Ethan Edwards fullfills the requirements of hero and villain in narrative plot structure. This makes him an anti-hero with human strengths and flaws so typical of this type of protagonist. Its funny that John Wayne detested Italian Westerns and yet played a character in The Searchers(1956) who fits the mold of the Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Ethan Edwards is the closet thing to a villain John Wayne played in the movies. At the beginning Ethan Edwards lives only for hate and revenge. By the end he becomes merciful and forgiving.

On-location photography gives the film its rugged character. Monument Valley is depicted with beauty, mystery, and savagery. The people in the story are represented by their environment and location. Monument Valley was a favorite film location of John Ford who was obsessed by its untamed and individualistic nature. Monument Valley site is explored on a physical, psychological, and social level. Scenery is an important character of the Classic American Western and none so more true then in The Searchers(1956).

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Another major motif in The Searchers(1956) is redemption. The path of hate and vengeance is replaced by compassion and forgiveness. Its this motif as well as others that makes the story a subtle Catholic driven tale. Redemption is the saving grace for a destructive and negative character like Ethan Edwards. Revenge until the climatic moment takes importance over everything else in Ethan Edwards life. Redemption is one motif from The Searchers(1956) that influenced Scorsese and Schrader.

Martin Pawley goes with Ethan Edwards on revenge pledge as way of following path of fealty. The moment of Ethan picking up his niece and holding her with compassion is a tender one. Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley provides a nice foil to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Cinematography in The Searchers(1956) is forceful and graceful. In time The Searchers takes place, drifters like Ethan Edwards are dime a dozen but by the period depicted in films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinaph, they are nearly extinct. The Searchers(1956) is a milestone in both American and World cinema.

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The ultimate western

9/10
Author: ironhorse_iv from United States
5 March 2013
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

John Ford’s The Searchers is my favorite all-time western. To even further appreciate this masterpiece one must read Alan Le May’s novel by the same name on which this movie is based.

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If you do, you will appreciate certain details which John Ford made sure to recreate on the screen, and most importantly you will get a better understanding of the time line. It is truly amazing how Ford managed to fit so many years into two hours without losing too much. John Ford use of scenery and character development was unsurpassed. It just has everything. The movie opens with a door framing shot on the Edwards homestead. The shot shows the loneliness and isolation of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning home from the civil war. Over dinner, we learn that he’d always been a “loner” since his brother was married to the woman he loved, and the “cause” he fought for in the Civil War lost, but he refused to surrender. While out on patrol, the Edwards homestead was attack by Native Americans. The scene with Ethan Edward coming home to see the death and the burn ruins of the home is sheer brilliance and was the last straw he had with the Comanche tribe.

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He notice that his niece Debbie was capture by them, and force to be a wife to its leader, Scar. He wasn’t going to allow that. He goes to rescue the girl, spending years searching for her, his motivation becomes increasingly questionable and dark. John Wayne as Ethan Edwards was the subtle darkest character he ever played. He had a serious hated for Indians, which the book made clear and the movie less so. If you pay very close attention when Debbie (Natalie Wood) is hiding out by the Tombstone, you can just make out the writing. It shows why Ethan is borderline racist. A lot of people might point that that the movie might be a bit racist due to Ethan’s hatred of anything Native American. This is not a racist movie. In fact, Ford examines the extremity of racism by the whites against the Native Americans during this period. In fact, there was a lot of interracial hatred in Texas and the West. Still, nearly all of the violence and hatred in the film is by the whites.

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The film questions the racist attitude they had at the time towards the American natives, epitomized by Wayne’s character, but still Ford had attempted to justify mass murder for revenge in the film. Hence the dry run at the Academy Awards. John Ford’s purpose in making The Searchers wasn’t to make a statement about the horrible treatment and oppression of Native Americans. It was to tell a good story. The Searchers, is in fact one of the biggest complex, multi-layered films to come out of the Hollywood studio system. The photography and film subtext is legendary. The Searchers was filmed in VistaVision, and movies made in VistaVision look so much better today when restored than other forms of film-making at the time. Watch it on Blu-ray which has breathtaking cinematography of Monument Valley in its best. The setting in Monument Valley was made for westerns. The ending of The Searchers is great, without a doubt. Arguably one of the greatest scenes in the history of movies.

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Ford says everything without words. This scene is simply perfect show and tell. There are so many analysis of what happen to Ethan Edward in the final minutes that raise questions. When Duke John Wayne holds his arm, it was tribute to his hero, Harry Carey, who was a star of silent western films. Harry Carey often did what Duke did in the last scene of The Searchers. Still there are a bit of silly, such in the case in the letters being read by Vera Miles in the cabin on the large wooden bench. Those parts dragged a little. I thought the fight scene at the end was a little hokey. The editing isn’t that great and some of the props were obviously 70 years ahead of their time. The movie didn’t get the critical acclaim when it came out. It wasn’t until the 1970s that The Searchers came to serious critical acclaim, too late for Ford but not Wayne. Taxi Driver, Star Wars, and Godfather was inspired by the technique of this film. That’s saying something.

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Several film critics have suggested that The Searchers was inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche warriors who raided her family’s home at Fort Parker, Texas.[13][14] She spent 24 years with the Comanches, married a war chief, and had three children (one of whom was the famous Comanche Chief Quanah Parker), only to be rescued against her will by Texas Rangers. James W. Parker, Cynthia Ann’s uncle, spent much of his life and fortune in what became an obsessive search for his niece, like Ethan Edwards in the film. In addition, the rescue of Cynthia Ann, during a Texas Ranger attack known as the Battle of Pease River, resembles the rescue of Debbie Edwards when the Texas Rangers attack Scar’s village. Parker’s story was only one of 64 real-life cases of 19th-century child abductions in Texas that author Alan Le May studied while researching the novel on which the film was based.

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His surviving research notes indicate that the two characters who go in search of a missing girl were inspired by Brit Johnson, who ransomed his captured wife and children from the Comanches in 1865. Afterward, Johnson made at least three trips to Indian Territory and Kansas relentlessly searching for another kidnapped girl, Millie Durgan (or Durkin), until Kiowa raiders killed him in 1871.

The ending of Le May’s novel contrasts to the film’s, with Debbie, called Dry-Grass-Hair by the Comanches, running from the white men and from the Indians. Marty, in one final leg of his search, finds her days later, only after she has fainted from exhaustion.

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In the film, Scar’s Comanche group is referred to as the Nawyecka. The more common names for this Comanche division (with whom Cynthia Ann Parker lived) are Nokoni or Nocona. Some film critics have speculated that the historical model for the cavalry attack on a Comanche village, resulting in Look’s death and the taking of Comanche prisoners to a military post, was the well-known Battle of Washita River, November 27, 1868, when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked Black Kettle’s Cheyenne camp on the Washita River (near present-day Cheyenne, Oklahoma). The sequence also resembles the 1872 Battle of the North Fork of the Red River, in which the 4th Cavalry captured 124 Comanche women and children and imprisoned them at Fort Concho.

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Reception

Although the film was set in Texas it was filmed in Monument Valley, Utah.

Upon the film’s release, Bosley Crowther called it a “ripsnorting Western” (in spite of the “excessive language in its ads”); he credits Ford’s “familiar corps of actors, writers, etc., [who help] to give the gusto to this film. From Frank S. Nugent, whose screenplay from the novel of Alan LeMay is a pungent thing, right on through the cast and technicians, it is the honest achievement of a well-knit team.” Crowther noted “two faults of minor moment”:

  • “Episode is piled upon episode, climax upon climax, and corpse upon corpse…[t]he justification for it is that it certainly conveys the lengthiness of the hunt, but it leaves one a mite exhausted, especially with the speed at which it goes.
  • “The director has permitted too many outdoor scenes to be set in the obviously synthetic surroundings of the studio stage…some of those campfire scenes could have been shot in a sporting-goods store window.”

Variety called it “handsomely mounted and in the tradition of Shane“, yet “somewhat disappointing” due to its length and repetitiveness; “The John Ford directorial stamp is unmistakable. It concentrates on the characters and establishes a definite mood. It’s not sufficient, however, to overcome many of the weaknesses of the story.”

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The New York Herald Tribune termed the movie “distinguished”; Newsweek deemed it “remarkable.” Look described The Searchers as a “Homeric odyssey.” The New York Times praised Wayne’s performance as “uncommonly commanding.”

The film earned rentals of $4.8 million in the US and Canada during its first year of release.

Possibly the greatest movie ever made (ala Spielberg)

10/10
Author: sngjudge (sngjudge@gte.net) from Los Angeles, CA
24 July 2000

OK. First of all, I have seen quite a few movies in my time, and the complexity of this film makes this one of the top 5 movies of all time. Steven Spielberg said (in an early 90’s interview) that this movie was possibly the greatest of all times, due to the depth of the character studies.

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The interplay between Ethan & Martha (his brother’s wife)is subtle, yet screams of an undying, yet unfulfilled love that has endured for several years. You have to see the scene where Ward Bond is left in the house eating doughnuts, and witnesses the final, tender goodbye, while looking straight ahead, coming to the realization of what it all means, and how hard it is for the two of them to keep it from everyone else.

It is true that the film was filmed in Utah with the story taking place in Texas, but that quickly becomes a moot point. There is not space to extol all the virtues of this movie The relationship of Ethan & Martin, Martin & Lori, and the raw emotion experienced by all members of the cast are worth the rental price. No cast member came back from making this movie the same way they were when they left. Watch the film, it gets inside you. Watch it again, and you’ll find things you never saw before, no matter how many times you see it.

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Forgotten theme

10/10
Author: flaxies7 from United States
17 March 2005

Whenever I read critic’s reviews of “The Searchers,” I’m continually astounded by how they beat into the ground the racial aspect of the movie. Yes, it is undeniably an important theme in the plot, but no one ever touches on its more simple and beautiful qualities: the harshness of life in the Old West; the pioneer spirit so eloquently described by Ma Jorgensen. And most importantly, the fierce dedication to family shown by Ethan and even more so by the true hero of the film, Martin Pawley. As for the allegedly racist views of Ethan Edwards, go read the book, as Amos (the Ethan character in the book) had very real reasons to despise the Indians. People do ugly things to each other. Life is complex and viewpoints are often the results of one man’s experience.

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