John Ford’s The Searchers is the classic western. It has everything a western needs and more. It’s set in the old west, under a beautiful blue sky and amazing red rock formations in the distance. There are plenty of cowboys riding around, indians they can justify shooting, fights to get into, and a girl that needs saving. And, of course, it stars John Wayne.
The year is 1868, and Ethan (Wayne) has just returned from the Civil War. He hopes to settle in peacefully with his brother’s family, including his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who is ⅛ indian. Not long after his return, Comanche indians, led by Chief Scar, lure the men away from his family’s home and kill all but the youngest daughter, Debby. Ethan leads a band of men to track down the tribe and bring the girl home, but it proves to be too dangerous. The band falls to a duo, Ethan and stubborn young Martin. As time goes on, Martin senses Ethan’s dark hatred of the Indians and fears for Debby, who has been living assimilated with the tribe during all their searching.
There’s an amusing side plot, involving a young woman, Laurie (Vera Miles), waiting for Martin. She makes her feelings obvious and has had her heart set on him since they were small children. But in true cowboy fashion, Martin is not as clear about his affections. While he is out searching for Debby for years, he only sends one letter. Poor Laurie may not wait forever for him, and who knows what kind of reputation Martin will return with, if he returns at all.
After the film was over, I felt a little dumbfounded. There were dozens of questions racing through my mind. What can possess two men to search for one girl for over five years? Some interpret underlying secrets to fuel the searching; could Debby be Ethan’s daughter? Ethan has some extreme hatred toward the Indians that comes up before the murders and kidnapping, where did that come from? Is that connected to why it took him three years to return from the war? There seem to be half-hints along the way to a couple of these questions, but nothing to satisfy any real answers.
I’d also like to discuss my dissatisfaction with the ending, so here’s your spoiler alert, skip this paragraph. In one scene, didn’t Debby say she wanted to stay with the Indians? She even went as far as to call them her people. So what was with the sudden willingness to leave with Martin? And Ethan was ready to kill her when she refused to go earlier, he knew nothing of her sudden change of heart, how convenient that he has one too.
Now, don’t let my hang-ups on the plot/writing bring down the film. I was actually very impressed and happy to have finally seen it. The cinematography is splendid, making great use of the beautiful Monument Valley. The framing of the beginning and end shots were much appreciated. There were perfect moments where a beautiful shot, a swell of music really brought an impact on an important moment in the story. Both Hunter and Wayne put on a great performance that I could take seriously and become very involved in both of their characters. There is a good amount of action, as well as laughs and drama. The Searchers really is a great classic western that I have waited too long to see, and suggest everyone check it out.
“Injun will chase a thing till 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’ll just keep comin’ on.”