I’ve been meaning to do a Western Movie Month for several years now. Although I haven’t seen too many myself, I’ve always enjoyed a good western movie here and there. It at least used to be my dad’s favourite genre of both books and movies. Of course, if one is to do a Western Movie theme month, it would be utterly foolish to not talk about at least one John Wayne movie.
Enter The Searchers, a very successful movie released in 1956, which in 1989 was added to the Library of Congress as a historically significant film, among the first 25 movies ever given the honour. It’s also the first major film to get a “making-of” documentary, as requested by director John Ford. John Ford alone is worth talking about. He’s widely regarded as among the most important filmmakers of his generation, and was known for frequent use of location shooting and wide shots. He may have pioneered framing actors against vast, harsh, and rugged natural terrain.
Before I go any further, I was originally planning on reviewing Left Behind for the last week of last year to close out my Cheesy Christian Movies Month, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it interesting. It wasn’t really all that cheesy, and despite being low-budget, and talking about an end times topic that is debated, it wasn’t all that bad. At the same time, it wasn’t great either. I just couldn’t come up with enough to say to make it interesting, so I didn’t bother. Anyway, back to The Searchers.
Although The Searchers isn’t among them, Ford earned 6 Academy Awards, including The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley (the movie that beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture), and The Informer. With 140 films under his belt (even if most of his silent films are now considered lost), and a career that ranged from 1917 to his final film, 7 Women, in 1966, there’s no denying he had a long and successful career.
John Wayne, nicknamed The Duke, also enjoyed a long and successful career. It also began in the silent era, and he worked with Ford a number of times beyond The Searchers. He’s most known for his Western movie appearances, in fact his first leading role was in The Big Trail, a 1930 Western directed by Raoul Walsh. That movie bombed, and he mostly appeared in B-movie Westerns throughout the 30s, but The Big Trail has also since been added to the Library of Congress. Interestingly enough, his final performance was in 1976’s The Shootist, a Western where he played an aging gunfighter battling cancer. He died of stomach cancer three years later.
It’s possible you could partly attribute his cancer to his role in The Conqueror, which was actually filmed on a nuclear bomb testing ground. Many cast and crew members suffered from cancer over the years, but that’s a subject I’m considering touching on with my Box Office Bomb month. It’s also worth mentioning that his only Academy Award win came from True Grit (1969). I’m actually planning on looking at the 2010 version of the film next week, partly because I like connecting each film week by week whenever possible.
Anyway, The Searchers is about Ethan Edwards (Wayne), who returns to his brother’s home after an 8-year absence during the Civil War, and the 3 years after it ended. After some cows from a neighbor go missing, Ethan joins a group of rangers to try to recover them. However, it was a ruse by the Comanche tribe to lure the men away, so they could attack their homes. Ethan returns to find his brother’s home in flames, with his two nieces missing, and everyone else dead.
What follows is a multi-year search. At first, Ethan works with a group of rangers to track down the tribe, but after they’re caught in an ambush, it’s just Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin (played by Jeffrey Hunter). It’s worth mentioning that Hunter is known to play Captain Christopher Pike in the original Star Trek pilot, but he’s best known for his role in this movie and King of Kings. He passed away at 42, from complications resulting from an on-set explosion while filming Cry Chicago, his final completed film.
Other cast members include Ward Bond as Rev./Capt. Samuel Clayton. He co-starred with Wayne in 23 films, many of them Westerns, and also starred in the hilarious WW2 propaganda film, Hitler: Dead Or Alive. He also appeared in Gone With The Wind as a Yankee captain. Natalie Wood plays Debbie Edwards, the younger of the two missing girls, with her younger sister Lana Wood playing a young Debbie. They both successfully transitioned into adult actresses after starting as child actresses, although Natalie died mysteriously at 43. The investigation never quite closed, listing as “drowning and other undetermined factors”. Lana is still around though, having appeared in Diamonds Are Forever (Plenty O’Toole), Captain America II: Death Too Soon (a TV movie that also features Reb Brown and Christopher Lee), and has recently started acting again, mostly in Christian movies like The Book of Ruth: Journey of Faith.
The Searchers is definitely an old-fashioned movie. While watching it, I thought it was good, but not all that special. It’s grown on me since watching it, even before reading about its background. Although the movie doesn’t necessarily portray natives in a positive light, it doesn’t portray the “white man” as angels either. Ethan is hardcore and charismatic. He’s intelligent, but also ruthless, and not above shooting the Comanche warriors when they’re already fleeing. It’s also worth mentioning that native tribes kidnapping girls was actually very common in the early 1800s. In fact, it’s possible that the story is based on the actual 1836 kidnapping of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche warriors. She ended up marrying a war chief, had three children (one grew up to be the famous Comanche Chief Quanah Parker), only to be rescued against her will 24 years later.
This movie is based on a book of the same name, released in 1954 by author Alan Le May. If the story is based on the kidnapping of Parker, the movie is the more accurate of the two. In the book, they rescued the kid within days. In the movie, it takes years to find her, and by that time, she’s very hesitant to be rescued. It’s this moment where Ethan shows his darker nature, where he actually tries to kill Debbie before Martin steps in the way, believing it’s better for her to be dead than to live as a native.
It’s this clear portrayal of evil on both sides that makes this movie work, instead of just showing one side as the clear heroes.
As for this movie’s influence, it’s worth looking at several major ones. Director David Lean watched The Searchers repeatedly while preparing to film Lawrence of Arabia, in hopes to replicate the environmental shots. The scene of the burning house directly inspired the original Star Wars, when Luke returns to his burning homestead. The film also influenced Attack of the Clones, where his mother is abducted by the Tusken Raiders, and he massacres the entire tribe just like The Searchers’ climax. There’s also a partial Canadian remake Searchers, released in 2016. This film features nothing but Inuit tribes. That movie’s director, Zacharias Kunuk, declared Wayne’s character in The Searchers as “our hero”, recalling watching the movie in his community hall as a kid.
Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, Wim Wenders and plenty of others have cited The Searchers as influential to their work, or at least have intentionally paid homage to the movie. The more you learn about this movie’s influences on the industry as a whole, the better it becomes. It’ll certainly make rewatching this movie more interesting. There are other implied elements that the movie doesn’t make explicit, like a clear attraction between Ethan and his brother’s wife, and the fact that Debbie is 8 when he returns … about as many years old as Ethan’s been gone. Hmm …
I would definitely recommend this movie to fans of Westerns, or at least anyone interested in checking out the genre. Beyond its many influences on the industry as a whole, it’s a fairly tense movie with some great cinematography, good action, and a compelling story. Throw in John Wayne at his best, playing a hard case character as demonstrated by his repeated line, “That’ll be the day”. The supporting cast is strong enough that he doesn’t overshadow them. A day after seeing it for the first time, I fully understand why this movie is highly regarded.
Next week, I’ll be looking at the 2010 version of True Grit. After that, I’ll most likely watch either Shane or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. There are plenty of other great Western movies, so I may need to do this again next January. As for the fourth movie I’m covering, well … it’s the first live-action Western movie I ever saw, but I won’t say anything else just yet.
I’ve never seen this but now I’m adding it to my watchlist. I’ll definitely have to fix that. It sounds like a solid movie, a cult classic within the western genre. I did see the Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010) and enjoyed it quite a lot! I hope you enjoy that one.
I did enjoy it. But yeah, once you know how influential The Searchers was on movies in general, and some of the specific references and tributes in later movies, that alone makes The Searchers worth watching.
Pingback: Western Movies Month 4 – Shanghai Noon | healed1337