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DVD Review: The Searchers

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After finally seeing John Ford’s The Searchers, I just don’t understand all the fuss about, and praise heaped on, this unfocused western.

The film rambles on like a crooked wagon down a forever expanding anthill, coming up with some striking images (the winter scenes, in particular, are gorgeous) and a few moments of genuine excitement, but is mostly glued together with unwanted comic relief and a focus on boring, manipulative relations between poorly acted stereotypes (yes, this includes John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards). The Searchers may have been grand and impressive in 1956, but it’s too shallow and blunt to stand up as a masterpiece today. Frankly, compared to other films of the middle fifties (American, European and Japanese) it’s plain childish.

It’s therefore a bit unfair that The Searchers is commonly held as the ultimate collaboration between Ford and Wayne, when the two legends had already made the great Stagecoach in 1939, and would go on to make the solid The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962. As for talk about it being one of the greatest Westerns or films ever made: silliness and a contemporary fascination with racism.

But let’s see what other, smarter people have to say.

Roger Ebert on the film’s influence:

Ethan’s quest inspired a plot line in George Lucas’ ”Star Wars.” It’s at the center of Martin Scorsese’s ”Taxi Driver,” written by Paul Schrader, who used it again in his own ”Hard Core.” The hero in each of the Schrader screenplays is a loner driven to violence and madness by his mission to rescue a young white woman who has become the sexual prey of those seen as subhuman. Harry Dean Stanton’s search for Nastassja Kinski in Wim Wenders’ ”Paris, Texas” is a reworking of the Ford story. Even Ethan’s famous line ”That’ll be the day” inspired a song by Buddy Holly.

I didn’t know most of that, I’ll admit it. But Westerns, in general, and Ford, specifically, often took their plots and stories from mythology and employed countless archetypes and universal symbols to tell their tales. If Ford takes an idea from one source, and someone takes that idea from Ford, doesn’t the idea still belong to the original source?

On Ford’s compositions:

Ford’s eye for composition was bold and sure. Consider the funeral early in the film, with a wagon at low right, a cluster of mourners in the middle left, then a diagonal up the hill to the grave, as they all sing Ford’s favorite hymn, ”Shall We Gather at the River” (he used it again in the wedding scene). Consider one of the most famous of all Ford shots, the search party in a valley as Indians ominously ride parallel to them, silhouetted against the sky. And the dramatic first sight of the adult Debbie, running down the side of a sand dune behind Ethan, who doesn’t see her. The opening and closing shots, of Ethan arriving and leaving, framed in a doorway. The poignancy with which he stands alone at the door, one hand on the opposite elbow, forgotten for a moment after delivering Debbie home. These shots are among the treasures of the cinema.

I’ll give Ford that. The Searchers has some lovely shots and great editing. It has memorable images. But are they treasures of the cinema? I think that’s grounds for objection on the basis of overstatement.

On themes:

In ”The Searchers” I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide; the comic relief may be an unconscious attempt to soften the message. Many members of the original audience probably missed his purpose; Ethan’s racism was invisible to them, because they bought into his view of Indians. Eight years later, in ”Cheyenne Autumn,” his last film, Ford was more clear. But in the flawed vision of ”The Searchers” we can see Ford, Wayne and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero.

This would hold, but more complicated and thought provoking films (with troubled, rounded characters) were already being made all around the world. Fellini’s La Strada (1954), Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) are three from the fifties that come to my mind immediately. And as far as Westerns go, High Noon (1952) and the underrated Winchester ’73 (1950) are just two that were more complex and mature. The Searchers wasn’t the first attempt by a filmmaker to tackle hard issues, it just seems that way because it’s so awkward. The questions of masculinity posed by High Noon are still valid. Ford’s “exploration” of racism and obsession is quaint, in the kindest terms.

Colour me surprised to find that David A. Cook’s cinema-bible A History of Narrative Film gives only passing mention to The Searchers (less than a sentence), while still offering it praise.

…and, pre-eminently, the epic questing/captivity narrative The Searchers (1956, Warners), widely regarded today as one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

Does Cook not have enough space to expand? Is he in my boat; does he not know why the film is so well regarded? He goes on to talk about Ford’s career, his portrayal of Natives, and explains Ford’s place as one of the greatest American directors. But for his entire output, and not for any one film. Nothing special about The Searchers.


Could it be that for some strange reason (perhaps because 1956 was a bad year for movies) we’ve been celebrating The Searchers without cause?

Could it be that we like to find average films from the past that agree with our contemporary views (The Searchers ends with Ethan’s change of heart and a rejection of his racist views) and try to bury and diminish old films that do not share our opinions (The Birth of a Nation, for example)?

Could it be that The Searchers is great and I just don’t see it?

Rating: 2.5 / 4.0


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  • Jill Henry

    For whites who support white societies with traditional values, The Searchers is a great film in creating white solidarity and kinship.

    Jill Henry

  • The Searchers is a great film, but you’re not alone in wondering what the big deal is; Pauline Kael didn’t get it, either. I love watching it for all the reasons Ebert cited, and because it’s a very powerful film about hatred: about a man driven by a murderous rage who finds, at the end, that it can only take you so far — and that, whether you want it to or not, love can conquer the power to destroy. That’s why that scene of the rescue of Debbie (Natalie Wood) is still so powerful, even after multiple viewings. Up to the very moment of her rescue he has wanted to kill her, or thought he did, and then he can’t. You can call that ending manipulative and predictable all you want, but John Wayne’s performance never fails to make me believe it.

    Another fascinating aspect of the movie is, as Ebert also noted, that it’s a study of Ethan as a man alone: this loner with no real family, nothing but himself to rely on, an outsider living by his own code, his own morality, someone who has been toughened by a lot of disappointments and who doesn’t believe in much. Yet here he is, on this long winding search — which becomes first a search for Debbie and then a murderous hunt to blot out not just the Indian tribe but Debbie herself; to wipe out, in Ethan’s ex-Confederate eyes, everything that has tainted the purity of the family. He’s an Avenging Angel whose anger even goes well beyond death — it isn’t enough to kill Indians, you have to shoot their eyes out, too, so that they are forced to spend eternity wandering between the winds. Ethan is a force of nature — a good guy at some level, obviously, but also a man bent on destruction. He goes through a sudden change, but he remains largely unchanged; alone at the end. Bullheaded, stubborn, bloody, unbending, and bending; he’s some odd American archetype.

    I do agree though that the movie is overlong, and the “comic relief” wedding (which is featured in Scorsese’s Mean Streets) kind of sidetracks it.

  • I’m not a huge fan of The Searchers either, although I am not certain it deserves quite the commentary you hammer it with. Melodramatic and overly long? Yes, I think so. Childish? As a cultural touchstone of its period, I don’t think so.

  • Rodney Welch: Thanks for the in-depth comment. I had no idea about the ‘Mean Streets’ thing, even though I love the film.