The Searchers: John Wayne’s greatest performance powers John Ford’s seminal Western magnum opus

May 26th marks John Wayne’s birth anniversary. To commemorate this moment, here is a look back on his greatest performance in his greatest film. John Ford’s Magnum opus, The Searchers(1956), is universally considered the greatest, and the most influential, Western of all times, and often makes it to the top ten list of the greatest films ever made.

There is something about a  person, or a group of people going on a Quest that makes for great stories. Right from Jason and the Argonauts, Iliad, odyssey or Epic of Gilgamesh,… ; tales of Perilous journeys involving lengthy search for something (or someone) precious has fascinated humanity. So its not surprising that the same theme has formed the basis of some of our greatest movies. And none come greater than John Ford’s 1956 western classic, The Searchers. Ford is to American cinema (or rather cinema in general what Homer was to literature. Though D.W. Griffith is credited with creating the syntax of cinematic art, Ford was no less relevant in developing the cinematic medium. From the silent movies to the talkies; Black &White to color ; Academy ratio to widescreen, Ford was at the forefront of shaping and taking the art form forward; with movies ranging from solid works of a highly capable craftsman to downright masterpieces of an uncompromising visionary. Ford wielded a huge influence on his contemporaries – giants like Orson Welles, Kurosawa, David Lean- as well as those who came after him, even the ones who started working long after his death.

John Ford  played a major role  in the evolution of the Western genre. Though westerns have been around since the inception of cinema, It was Ford who nurtured it to respectability . He was instrumental in turning Western into the most prolific genre of American cinema; to the point that he even identified himself as solely as a maker of Westerns. In a very famous incident that happened at a stormy Director’s Guild meeting, he stood up to speak, identifying himself as “I am John Ford and i make Westerns”. By the time he made The Searchers, he was already the pre- eminent filmmaker in America- with a huge body of work covering almost all genres. He was also the most decorated, having won four Oscars for  Directing. Stagecoach(1939) was his first Talkie  western, and the film made John Wayne into a star. Since then, Wayne has been a regular collaborator of Ford . Post-Stagecoach, they would make the famed Western ‘cavalry‘ trilogy as well as non Westerns like The Quiet Man. The Searchers would be both a grand culmination as well as a brave  subversion of the western myths that Ford and Wayne had propagated up until that time through their movies.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Comanche chief Scar aka cicatrix (Henry Brandon) are the two main characters of The Searchers; who  among them is the protagonist and who is the antagonist depends upon whose point of view you are looking from. They belong to different races and different civilizations, but they are almost mirror images of each other.. For each, the other is the invader. For Scar, Ethan represents the White race that has invaded his land and killed his children. The atrocities he suffered is visible from the scar on his face. In revenge he goes about destroying as many members of the white race he possibly can. Unlike the Comanche chief, Ethan’s scars are emotional than physical.  For Ethan, Scar has not only invaded his homestead , but also sexually invaded his nieces and perhaps even his sister in law – who was his lover. Scar has taken away whatever was left of his family. Ethan, who is a virulent racist and quite unhinged to begin with, is now on an obsessive mission of vengeance as well as to rescue his niece, (or so it seems) who was kidnapped by Scar and is now ‘kept’ as his sex slave.

After a long, tortuous search of almost ten years, Ethan, disguised as a trader, manages to come face to face with Scar. But Scar fully knows who he is and why he has come. Instead of hiding, Scar proudly parades the scalps of Ethan’s family members by the very hand of his niece who is now his wife. This scene fully realizes the mirror image concept of these two characters. Ethan walks up to Scar and stands right in front of him surveying his visage as if he is surveying his own image in a mirror. We see Ethan’s medal now hanging from Scar’s neck. we see his niece now Scar’s wife. They even speak the same words “You speak very good English (Comanche) for a Comanche(White man). Did somebody teach you?” . The battle between these two individuals, with their complex motivations and moral ambiguities, makes for a narrative where the hero is as morally ambiguous as the villain; this is something we do not get o see in a Western, especially a John Ford\John Wayne Western. Like all Ford Westerns, The Searchers is also about the building of the American Nation. It depicts its state in the post civil war period, when it aggressively expanded to the west; killing the natives and taking away their lands. In many ways Ethan Edwards represents America after the civil war: Quite unhinged – after being at war with itself –  and racist towards the natives. Scar represents the Indian nations who are under attack and trying their best to survive by any means possible. We see  amoral acts of violence, tragedies and sacrifices on both sides. At the heart of the film is  Ethan’s (and thereby America’s) fear and intolerance towards miscegenation and contamination of their superior bloodline. Ethan’s quest is to kill his niece Debbie, rather than see her living with the Natives. But in the end , his acceptance of her, after Scar is killed, is a nod to the emergence of a modern, multiracial America.

Then there are the mythic dimensions that Ford imparts his  Westerns- both Biblical and Ancient Greek . The Edwards Brothers, Ethan and Aaron, are representative of Cain and Abel. Aaron is the good son and good brother, who took care of the homestead and raised a family, while Ethan is the immoral one. Ethan fails to protect his brother (and family), and is cursed to wander the earth forever. The basic plot of the film: A group of people on a quest to rescue a kidnapped girl is straight out of Homer’s Iliad – interestingly the Trojan war also lasted exactly ten years. The great French critic and filmmaker, Jean Luc Goddard, once remarked that the final reunion between Ethan and Debbie is equivalent to Odysseus reuniting with Telemachus. Apart from being the most Homeric, The Searchers is also the most Shakespearean of Ford’s films. His films have always blended high drama with low brow comedy- mostly  performed by a bunch of his stock actors in very stereotypical roles. In this film, this contrast is much more evident and sometimes irritating because the main drama is very dark and intense with a constant undercurrent of violence. The film has the feel of Shakespearean Tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear, where we have a titanic character, albeit very flawed , at the center of the narrative going through the  quagmire of sorrow and suffering while there are colorful stock characters – embodied by Ward Bond, Ken Curtis., John Qualen, Hank Worden -bumbling  through the narrative as if acting in their own separate movie.

Now coming to the main Ford stock actor; the actor whom he turned into a star and Icon – John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards is undoubtedly the greatest performance  of his career. And like all truly great performances, he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, leave alone winning one. It’s impossible to imagine any other actor pulling off this character. None of his peers like Bogart, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda could embody Ethan the way Wayne does.  Wayne was 49 years old when he played Ethan. He had been acting in movies close to 30 years and it was 17 years after Stagecoach, which proved a landmark film for both Ford and Wayne. He was at that time the biggest movie star in the industry. But more importantly, he was beginning to be identified as the ultimate American Icon who symbolizes the traditional American values, both on and off screen. In that regard, Ethan Edwards is a very unique character where its, at once, the most unlikely John Wayne character and yet its a typical Wayne character. Wayne brings the history of his previous  western films to this role. He is heroic ,courageous and individualistic like his previous characters. But here he is much more darker, more meaner, intolerant and may be psychotic, thus making this both a celebration and subversion  of his legendary persona.

The Searchers is a very deceptive film that way. The opening of the film is classic Western, with Wayne’s Ethan Edwards getting the classic Western hero introduction: the black screen opens out into a bright, sunny monument valley and we see a lone rider, Ethan Edwards, approaching an isolated homestead. We get the feeling that this is the glorious homecoming of the hero, but though he is welcomed by his brother and family, we immediately sense uneasiness. We feel something wrong  in the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law Martha- perhaps they were lovers before he left the place. Ford drops broad hints to this possibility and ask us to make our own observations, or just ignore it- like Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) does in the scene where he discovers the intimate feelings that Ethan and Martha has for each other. We also realizes that Ethan is a racist who treats his nephew Martin Pawley (a quarter breed Cherokee played by Jeffrey Hunter) with suspicion and contempt . But then again, we see him caring for Martin at several stages of their relationship. We sense a tough paternal love between Ethan and Martin. Ethan is also presented as the ultimate alpha-male, but he is rendered impotent throughout the film. And it is here where John Wayne’s casting becomes crucial. His towering personality and ferocious voice is in stark contrast to the helpless state he finds himself throughout the film. Starting with the massacre of his family, Ethan fails to arrive in time to prevent a tragedy and has to bear witness to its painful after effects. Ethan is lured away in a trail for stolen cattle, leaving his family exposed to Comanche attack. But soon he realizes that  stealing cattle was just a ruse and the Comanche are on a murder raid. This moment in the film is a testament to Wayne’s range as a performer. Ethan refuses to go with Martin saying that the horses need rest and grain, he then kicks Moose in his butt for singing & dancing like a Native. But the next moment, when he is  wiping the sweat of his horse’s back, his demeanor changes completely. From the fiery, hateful antagonist, he suddenly becomes  vulnerable and concerned, knowing well that his family is going to be under attack. It’s one of the rare close up shots of his face in the movie and we see the tenderness in his eyes. By the time he returns to the farm, The Comanche have already struck; killing everyone, burning down the farm and kidnapping his two nieces, Lucy and Debbie. Driven by vengeance and desire to retrieve his nieces, Ethan is most anxious to pursue the Comanche. He cant even wait for the funeral to end. But then his relentless pursuit does not produce any result. By the time he finds his  elder niece Lucy, she is brutalized and murdered. All he can do is dig her grave. His loses their trail in the snow, but still brags about catching up someday and saving Debbie. But his objective shifts in the intervening years as Debbie comes of age. He seeks not to rescue her but to murder her now. But he fails there too, as a native warrior’s arrow wounds him while he is attempting to shoot Debbie . The wounded Ethan is tended to by Martin. Now old and graying, he returns home unsuccessful in his mission. In the end, it is not Ethan who kills Scar, but Martin Pawley. Ethan has to be content with scalping him- that proves to be a moment of catharsis for Ethan, as he is able to let go off his racism, his anger and hatred and accept Debbie as she is. Finally, in the much celebrated last scene of the film, he brings Debbie home. After a lifetime of failures – defeat in love and war- He has finally achieved  some form of victory. But he is not going to stay and celebrate. He pauses for a moment at the doorway  with one hand on the opposite elbow, as images of past, present and may be even future flashes in front of him.  He then walks back into the wilderness from which he came from. The door that Martha opened at the beginning of the movie to welcome him is now closed shut behind him.

Beyond the unique plot and characterization, the film possess an ambiguous narrative style which is very different from other Ford films. Take the scene which i consider the pivotal moment in the film and perhaps the greatest acting moment in Wayne’s career. It comes about half way through the film when Ethan returns to Brad (Lucy’s fiancée) and Martin from finding Lucy in the canyon. He rides straight in, jumps off his horse and starts  digging into the dirt with his knife. He is out of breath, out of strength, and is hardly able to speak. He does not give clear answers to Martin’s questions. He  takes a sip of water, gets back on the horse and rides on. The audience, like  Brad and Martin, are confounded by his behavior. But then, the pay off comes in the next scene where Brad claims to have spotted Lucy. Wayne’s reaction to Brad’s comment is part violent rantings of a psychotic and part the pained reaction of a blood relative, and Wayne hits the right note here-  both in his voice and body language. He tells Brad that he found Lucy in the Canyon and buried her in his Johnny Reb coat. That’s all he says, without going into further details and forbidding Brad from asking for further details with the an agonizing :

What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more..  

Now when you connect this with his behavior in the previous scene, it opens up a lot of interpretations

One , he found Lucy raped and murdered in the canyon and he buried her.

Second is even more disturbing , but very plausible by his future behavior, which is that ;Ethan killed Lucy after the Comanche had gang raped and abandoned her. He then buried her in his Johnny Reb coat. His act of digging the knife into the dirt looks like an attempt to clean the blood from the blade.

You could clearly see Ethan falling apart when Brad questions him about the incident and he sternly forbids him from ever bringing this up. It’s also interesting to see that he does not stop Brad from riding to his certain death into the Comanche camp, but he stops Martin from following him. And this is the greatest aspect of this film: it contains some of the most magnificent images and sounds ever put on film, but then what is unseen and unsaid in the film are even more intriguing and haunting.

The other most interesting and unspoken aspect of the film is the relationship between Ethan and Debbie. It seems likely that Debbie is Ethan’s daughter, a product of the affair with Martha that he had just before going to war. He has been gone 8 years and Debbie is 8 when he returns. You could see that he mistakes Debbie for Lucy. So Ethan’s quest for killing Debbie becomes an act of Filicide, setting up a parallel with the Greek Tragedy of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan war, who has to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia for the cause. There are lot of other questions that’s left unanswered; where was Ethan after the war. How did he come into a lot of money, how does he know so much about the Comanche (According to Rev. Clayton, Ethan ‘fits a lot of descriptions‘); Why does he seem to protect Martin and bequeaths his property to him even though he seems to despise him so much for his part native ancestry. Ford just let these questions hang out there, which he usually doesn’t do. The film came between Mister Roberts and The Horse Soldiers; both of which are normal Ford movies which is nowhere near as dark or intense as The Searchers. This film seems to come out of nowhere and stands apart in his filmography. I always wondered whether it was the fight he had with life long friend Henry Fonda on the sets of Mister Roberts  that brought  out this dark side in Ford; Or maybe he was trying to adjust to a changing landscape of the fifties- with its intense method actors like Brando and Dean and gritty Elia Kazan movies.

As already mentioned, Ford creates some of the most hauntingly poetic images in movie history for this film. The monument valley, which he has used for many films, never looked more beautiful and more threatening. The scene where Ethan glimpses the burnt homestead, the first battle between the searchers and the Comanche; with Comanche riding in parallel framed against the horizon to Ethan and Company in the foreground, the climactic attack on the Comanche camp with the camera continuously tracking Ethan riding and shooting, are all scenes now part of movie-lore. The film was shot in the ultra crisp Vistavision process, which enabled Ford to stage much of the scenes in medium and long shots and avoid close ups; because the faces were so clearly visible in a medium shot. But he does cuts to close ups 4 or 5 times, which are for some really great moments. The really big close up is in the pre climactic scene when Wayne signals to the rest of the bunch above the Comanche camp. This close up must have launched Sergio Leone’s career, because he was a die hard fan of Ford and Leon’s films were full of such close ups. That’s another aspect of The Searchers. It inspired more Films and filmmakers than any other film. Both “The Seven samurai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” has scenes inspired from the film. Leone copied an entire sequence for “once upon a time in the west”- the scenes preceding the McBain family massacre is taken from the scenes prior to Comanche attacking the homestead. But the real inspiration was for the new Hollywood filmmakers-Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Paul Schrader- and in Films as different as Taxi Driver and Star Wars.

The Searchers is in no way a perfect film for today’s times, because there are stuff in it that has not dated well. The treatment of a subplot involving a native girl who is named Look, who gets ‘married’ to Martin, is very problematic. Ethan and Martin’s rough treatment of the girl- which is played for laughs is- cringe worthy, but Ford does subvert it by showing the horrifying images of Look’s death, which happens as part of a massacre. He makes us feel ashamed for laughing at her earlier. Again, this whole angle  seems to fit into the deceptive nature of the film. So all said and done, it’s still a great film- created in Ford’s subtle, minimal, classical style. And just as the iconic opening and closing scenes signifies, it’s like opening and reading a great novel; it gets better with every viewing, bringing forth new layers and meanings.


10 thoughts on “The Searchers: John Wayne’s greatest performance powers John Ford’s seminal Western magnum opus

  1. Excellent article! I wasn’t aware of how John Wayne’s persona on the screen changed with the times and this helped me appreciate the film better. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Every fan should go to Monument Valley and stay at the View hotel. Then drive around or take a guided tour. I was brought up on Ford/Wayne westerns partly because a relative of my mother wrote most of the screenplays. I thought I knew a lot about The Searchers but the info in this article is amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks Kenneth, and thanks for sharing the information. I’m sure your mother’s relative had a great time working on these movies


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