I also consider this to be John Ford’s best film. Ford followed his older brother Francis from
Maine to . By 1917 Ford had joined his brother as a director of silent films. It was when talkies came along that Ford really started to hit his stride. Even though he directed the very popular Will Rogers in 1934’s Judge Priest, and won a Best Directing Oscar for 1935’s The Informer, it was 1939 that proved to be a breakout year for him. He and John Wayne worked together for the first time on Stagecoach – the film that made Hollywood Wayne a star and that also featured Ford’s first use of as a location for shooting. In addition in 1939, Ford also directed Henry Fonda in both Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk – two more classics from the greatest year ever for films. By the mid 1950s when Ford made The Searchers, once again with John Wayne in Monument Valley, he was a four time Oscar winner who was ready to make a “career capping” film. Monument Valley
The movie, based on the Alan Le May novel of the same name, opens with Ethan Edwards (
) riding into his brother Aaron’s ranch. While Aaron is not completely happy to see Ethan, his wife and children are. In fact, his wife and Ethan are obviously in love with each other, and a more modern look at the film would make a viewer wonder if Aaron’s children are actually at least partially Ethan’s, especially in regards to Ethan’s reactions to later events regarding the daughters. Wayne
Also living at Aaron’s ranch is Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), a mixed race (white and Indian) man who Aaron raised after he was abandoned. Ethan, a virulent racist against Indians ever since his mother was killed by them, is very unhappy with Marty being there. He soon gets a newer reason to hate Indians when he and Marty are lured away from the ranch by an Indian attack elsewhere because when they return they find Aaron, his wife, and a son all killed and their two daughters kidnapped.
Ethan’s anger reaches towering proportions. He sets out to recover the girls and wreak his vengeance on the Indians who did this. The Texas Rangers help him initially and Marty also accompanies them. Showing the depths of his rage Ethan shoots out the eyes of an Indian corpse he finds because his tribe believes that means he will not be able to find his way to the afterlife. After an Indian attack on the Rangers most of them regroup while Ethan, Marty, and a man named Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) continue the pursuit.
Brad is in love with the older daughter (Pippa Scott) that was kidnapped. He still has hopes of saving her, but Ethan lets him know that he found the girl’s defiled corpse (perhaps a reaction to Ethan’s actions with the Indian corpse). In a blind rage Brad charges into the Indian encampment and is killed. The Indians get away and Ethan and Marty, hopelessly outnumbered, return to the ranch.
The youngest girl, Debbie, is still presumably alive. Ethan and Marty head out once again to track down the Indians, Marty leaving behind a woman he loves (Vera Miles) to do so. Ethan’s obsession drives him on over the months and even years that follow. He and Marty track the killers out of
Texas into Colorado and eventually to the territory. Along the way they continue to hear stories about Debbie, how she has become part of the tribe, and how she may even have been made a wife of one of the men. We become aware of the fact that Ethan’s rescue mission at some point along the way changed in purpose. His hatred of the Indians is so great that he now sees Debbie as defiled by them and that the best thing he can do for her is to kill her along with the rest of them. New Mexico
They finally catch up to the tribe again and find the now-teenage Debbie (Natalie Wood). Just as Ethan feared, she considers herself part of the tribe. Ethan tries to kills her, but Marty manages to stop him and Debbie gets away. This is far from being over, though, especially as far as Ethan is concerned. By the way, the young version of Debbie seen at the beginning of the film was played by Natalie’s younger sister Lana Wood, who would go on to be best known for playing Plenty O’Toole in the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.
The Searchers shows just what John Wayne could do when he got to play a more complex character than usual. As intimidating as he could be onscreen as a good guy, he was practically a force of nature as a man consumed by hatred and revenge. And the final image of him silhouetted in a doorframe is one of the most famous shots in film. Unless you absolutely hate westerns I highly recommend this movie.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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