In rural Texas, Ethan Edwards (the immortal John Wayne) returns from the Civil War, where he fought for the Confederacy. His brother and his family welcome him home, but it's obvious that there are problems between the brothers, especially when Ethan is introduced to his adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who is part Indian. While out one day, Martin and Ethan trade barbs that bring out Ethan's chilling racism, but that dissipates when they return home to find the brother's house burned down, most dead, and the two girls, Lucy and Debbie, missing. Ethan and Martin quickly find Lucy, raped and murdered, and set out to find Debbie. While they are searching, Martin falls for Laurie (Vera Miles), a white girl whose family offers them a place for the night.
They finally track Debbie (Natalie Wood) down, only to find that she has forgotten who she is and that she has become the wife of Scar (Henry Brandon). She has slept with Scar, which fires up Ethan's racism to the point that he wants to kill her instead of rescue her. It leads to a climactic battle against Scar and his people where we see the true nature of both Ethan and Martin.
John Ford, who was always a subversive S.O.B., had spent years trying to face the inherent racism that was brooding in his chosen genre, but it wasn't till this film that he really got to dig into it. Ford faced the idea that the cowboy figure didn't consider Indians a race, but more of a disease, a parasite that Scar had injected Debbie with and made her unworthy of him. He learns to accept Martin, but he never really warms to him. Where this racism was embraced as hero logic before, Ford now saw it as the deep, mortal flaw in the cowboy hero. Ford was making a radical gesture: Maybe the hero isn't perfect; maybe he's a real scumbag.
Of course, these days this doesn't sound so crazy, but the image of the cowboy hasn't been this rocked since Heath Ledg... well you know where I'm going with this. Even on a purely aesthetic level, The Searchers, shot in Arizona's Monument Valley, is a stunning piece of work, with Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch using depth and layering to define the spare, haunting atmosphere of the film. The film's last shot, with Ethan framed perfectly, alone in a doorway, is the kind of imagery that never gets old and maintains its powers for centuries. Some argue that High Noon has more power and mythic subtext. Ha! That'll be the day.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Tuesday 13th March 1956
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: C.V. Whitney Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: John Ford
Producer: C.V. Whitney
Screenwriter: Frank S. Nugent
Starring: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley, Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgensen, Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards (older), Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton, John Qualen as Lars Jorgensen, Olive Carey as Mrs. Jorgensen, Henry Brandon as Chief Cicatrice (Scar), Ken Curtis as Charlie McCorry, Harry Carey, Jr. as Brad Jorgensen, Antonio Moreno as Emilio Gabriel Fernandez y Figueroa, Hank Worden as Mose Harper, Beulah Archuletta as Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky (Look), Walter Coy as Aaron Edwards, Dorothy Jordan as Martha Edwards, Pippa Scott as Lucy Edwards, Patrick Wayne as Lt. Greenhill, Lana Wood as Debbie Edwards (younger)