The Searchers

  • Directors: John Ford
  • Producers: C V Whitney
  • Writers: Alan Le May, Frank S Nugent
  • Genres: Adventure, Drama, Western
  • Actors: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, Vera Miles

The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns from the American Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) in rural northern Texas. Despite hints and supposition that Ethan has been up to no good, the movie’s early scenes never explicitly frame Ethan for wrongdoing. However, Ranger Captain Clayton (Ward Bond), who is also the local preacher, dourly observes, after Ethan refuses to take an oath of allegiance to the Texas Rangers (“no need to, wouldn’t be legal anyway”) “you fit a lot of [wanted poster] descriptions.” Ethan has a medal that he gives to his niece Debbie (Lana Wood), which suggests he has been in Mexico during the period of the Emperor Maximilian. He also gives Aaron two pouches of freshly minted Double Eagle $20 dollar gold pieces to help with the ranch. Martha and Aaron wonder, but do not ask, where they came from. Shortly after his arrival, a Comanche raid leaves his brother and sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan), his nephew, Ben (Robert Lyden), all dead, and his two nieces, Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie, abducted, and the family homestead burned down.

After the funeral, a group led by Captain Clayton goes in search of the raiding party. When they discover the location of the encampment, Ethan wants to attack immediately, before daylight. Clayton points out to Ethan that the Comanche generally kill their hostages at the first notice of a raid, which is something that Ethan already knows. This is the first sign that Ethan is willing not to bring the girls back alive. Captain Clayton gives the order that they will sneak in easy and scare off the band’s horses. By the time they get to the encampment the Indians are gone. The Rangers are then caught in a pincer movement trap and have to make a run for the river. As they cross the river, one of the group, Nesby (William Steele), is wounded. The Rangers take up a defensive position using the river as a buffer, and they manage to repel the attack. The Indians retreat. When Ethan attempts to kill one more Comanche, Clayton stops him by knocking his rifle barrel down. This enrages Ethan who says that from now on he will do the job by himself. Captain Clayton decides that they are too few to continue and must get Nesby back home to treat his wound.

Eventually Ethan, Martin, and the Texas Rangers find Debbie again. Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps the dead chief. Martin tries to prevent Ethan from killing Debbie, but it is Ethan himself who realizes how close he has come to destroying the last link to his family and how, in the act of scalping Scar, he himself has become what he hated so much. Instead of killing Debbie, he lifts her in his arms just as he did when she was a child. Ethan brings Debbie to the safety of friends and then walks away. The film, which opened with a near-identical shot of another doorway, slowly revealing the film’s landscape, finishes with a reversal: the film’s players enter the darkness within the doorway, and the door closes, just before the end title, leaving Ethan isolated outside where he turns and wanders away into the wilderness.

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