The Searchers

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In 1868, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns from the American Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in the wilderness of west Texas. Wrongdoing or legal trouble in Ethan’s past is suggested by his three-year absence, a large quantity of gold coins in his possession, a Mexican revolutionary war medal that he gives to his young niece Debbie (played as a child by Natalie Wood’s sister Lana Wood), and his refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers, as well as Rev. Samuel Clayton mentioning that Ethan “fits a lot of descriptions”.

Shortly after Ethan’s arrival, cattle belonging to his neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) are stolen, and when Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) leads Ethan and a group of Rangers to follow the trail, they discover that the theft was a ploy by Comanche to draw the men away from their families. When they return home, they find the Edwards homestead in flames; Aaron, his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their son Ben (Robert Lyden) dead, and Debbie and her older sister Lucy (Pippa Scott) abducted.

After a brief funeral, the men return to pursuing the Comanches. On the trail, they find some of the Comanches buried who apparently were shot during the raid. Ethan further mutilates one of the bodies. When they find their camp, Ethan recommends an open attack, in which the girls would be killed, but Clayton insists on sneaking in. The Rangers find the camp deserted, and when they continue their pursuit, the Indians almost catch them in a trap. The Rangers fend off the Indian attack, but with too few men to ensure victory, Clayton and the posse return home, leaving Ethan to continue his search for the girls with Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Debbie’s adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). However, after Ethan finds Lucy brutally murdered and presumably raped in a canyon near the Comanche camp, Brad becomes enraged, rides wildly into the camp, and is killed.

Ethan and Martin search until winter, when they lose the trail. When they return to the Jorgensen ranch, Martin is enthusiastically welcomed by the Jorgensens’ daughter Laurie (Vera Miles), and Ethan finds a letter waiting for him from a man named Futterman, who has information about Debbie. Ethan, who would rather travel alone, leaves without Martin the next morning, but Laurie provides Martin with a horse to catch up. At Futterman’s (Peter Mamakos) trading post, Ethan and Martin learn that Debbie has been taken by Scar (Henry Brandon), the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanches. A year or more later, Laurie receives a letter from Martin describing the ongoing search. In reading the letter aloud, Laurie narrates the next few scenes, in which Ethan kills Futterman for trying to steal his money, Martin accidentally buys a Comanche wife (Beulah Archuletta), and the two men find part of Scar’s tribe killed by soldiers.

After looking for Debbie at a military fort, Ethan and Martin go to New Mexico, where a Mexican man leads them to Scar. They find Debbie after five years, now an adolescent (Natalie Wood), living as one of Scar’s wives. When she meets with the men outside the camp, she says she has become a Comanche and asks them to leave without her. However, Ethan would rather see her dead than living as an Indian. He tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her with his body and a Comanche shoots Ethan with an arrow. Ethan and Martin escape to safety, where Martin saves Ethan by tending to his wound. Martin is furious at Ethan for attempting to kill Debbie and wishes him dead. “That’ll be the day,” Ethan replies. The men then return home.

Meanwhile, Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) has been courting Laurie in Martin’s absence. Ethan and Martin arrive home just as Charlie and Laurie’s wedding is about to begin. After a fistfight between Martin and Charlie, a nervous “Yankee” soldier, Lt. Greenhill (Patrick Wayne), arrives with news that Ethan’s half-crazy friend Mose Harper (Hank Worden) knows where Scar is. Clayton leads his men to the Comanche camp, this time for a direct attack, but Martin is allowed to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. During the attack, Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps him. When Ethan sees Debbie, Martin is unable to stop him from chasing her, but instead of killing her, Ethan carries her home. Once Debbie is safely with her family, and Martin is reunited with Laurie, Ethan walks away, alone and clutching his arm, the cabin door closing on his receding image in one of the most famous and iconic closing scenes in film history.

REVIEW:

Awhile back, I think it may have been earlier this year, I was looking at a list of the top westerns. Nearing the top of just about every one of those lists was The Searchers. As you can imagine, I just have to see what all the hype was about and if all the praise was worth is, especially since this film wasn’t even nominated for any awards (not that that’s a bad thing).

What is this about?

After his entire family is viciously wiped out, hardened war veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) embarks on a long journey to find his only surviving niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been captured by hostile Comanche Indians.

What did I like?

Binary sunset. I don’t know if this is the case, but very early on John Wayne’s character has his family wiped out by the Comanche Indians. As a matter of fact, they are burned to death. As I watched that scene, I was taken back to the binary sunset scene from Star Wars, where Luke returns to the charred remains of his family and the farm. Both scenes are very powerful and set up the motives for both characters.

Start the conversation. Whether you want to admit it or not, there is an underlying them of racism that the film tries its best to not get too involved with. Don’t believe me? John Wayne’s character tries to kill his niece because she has been living with the Comanche. At the beginning of the film, he creates quite the tense scene at dinner with Jeffrey Hunter’s character because he’s 1/8 Cherokee. There are a few other moments like this, I think they all involve Wayne’s character that make you think. At this point in time, talk about race wasn’t commonplace.

Cowboys and Indians. When I was a little boy, my friends and I occasionally would play cowboys and Indians. The climactic scene of this film took me back to those days. Don’t let it be said that there isn’t action in this film, because there is. It may only be a minute or so long raid that brings this film to its climax, but it is worth the wait. It should be noted that it is done effectively without the use of special effects or bloodshed, just straight up action and good direction. Do those things even exist anymore?

Scenery. I would be remise if I didn’t mention the scenery. One of the reason I love westerns so much is seeing the open range that used to be the old west. This is one of those films where you can really see part of the desert part of the US. I believe this was filmed in Texas/New Mexico and it just gorgeous. There were times I found myself drifting away from what was going on and just drooling in awe of majesty that used to be out there, but now is nothing but cityscape, except for some parks.

What didn’t I like?

Got Wood. Natalie Wood may not have been as big of a star as she would go on to be, especially after West Side Story, but one has to wonder why you use her in a film that she doesn’t really have any lines, when they could have very easily just used any run of the mill actress in her place, preferably one that was actually Native American, or at least had dark skin. On the flipside, using her younger sister (who would go on to fame as Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds are Forever) was a stroke of genius.

Race. Earlier I mentioned how Wayne’s character had a problem with the Indians (he was also a Confederate soldier, mind you). I don’t know if this was just a thing in Hollywood at the time, or if there were just no Native American actors at the time, but with as many films about cowboys and Indians as there are out there, one would think that you could find some decent ones out there to play the leading roles. I say this because the squaw wife, played by Beula Archuleta, is an actual Native American actress. She played similar characters throughout her career, but never got a major role, as those have always gone to someone who was spray tanned to look darker. I don’t know, but to me this is very similar to the blackface dilemma African-Americans faced in the 30s.

Watching The Searchers, I was taken back to those Saturday mornings when I was little and sitting on my grandfather’s lap watching the afternoon movie or Bonanza. They say that John Wayne not only felt personally connected to this film (he named one of his sons after his character, Ethan), but also considers it his best. Personally, I was blown away with how great this film turned out to be. I thought it might have ended up being another subpar western, like many that I have seen recently, but it has reaffirmed my love for the genre! Do I recommend this film? With an emphatic yes, I do. With this film you get action, drama, comedy, and tragedy. Not to mention one of the best endings ever put to film. This is a flick that not only needs to be put on your must se before you die list, but moved near the top! Watch it ASAP!!!

5 out of 5 stars

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4 Responses to “The Searchers”

  1. […] of a rivalry, for lack of a better term, there is between cowboys and Indians. Now, in a film like The Searchers, it makes sense for the Indians to not be seen, as it sets the tone, but this film, we should have […]

  2. […] Grounded meat does not spaghetti. Let’s face it, westerns are just another fantasy like sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero flicks. Even when they are real, we turn the characters into such exaggerated caricatures of who they really were, that they become legends. Coincidentally, that topic is touched on in this film. I believe it is Stewart that utters the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It could have been someone else, though. My point is that this is probably the most grounded and believable western I’ve seen in all my days, except maybe for something like The Searchers. […]

  3. […] watched a western that pits these two against each other. Think the last one might have been The Searchers, since then I think all the westerns I’ve seen, except for maybe 2 or 3 have targeted the […]

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