IMDB #241: The Searchers

Hey, it’s our first foray into an all-American genre: The Western. The first of around twelve or so on the countdown (more if you count modern neo-westerns like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood) is 1956’s The Searchers.

The Key Players:

Adapted by Frank Nugent from Alan Le May’s novel of the same name, The Searchers is directed by the legendary John Ford, the all time record holder with four Best Director statuettes to his name (For The Informer, The Quiet Man, The Grapes Of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley- none of which are Westerns, ironically). Ford directed some 140 films in his career, and defined the Western as we all know it.

And the lead role in this film was written for one man, and one man only- the star of 24 Ford films, John Wayne. We all know John Wayne, who took home one of just two Oscar nominations for True Grit, but remains an icon (just ask Paula Cole, who doesn't seem to realize that John Wayne would probably be a terrible boyfriend. But maybe not as bad as the Marlboro Man, who must not have any teeth by now).

There’s some other people in this cast, I guess, but nobody I recognize other than Natalie Wood in a brief part. Jeffrey Hunter costars as Wayne’s sidekick, essentially, but it’s largely a one-man show.

The Story:

1868, rural Texas: Wayne, a confederate veteran (who’s been up to God knows what for the last three years), finally comes back to visit his brother’s family. The reunion with the whole family goes swimmingly, except for some slightly racist things Wayne says to Hunter, the family's adopted son who happens to be one eigth Native American.

Then the local Ranger shows up to round up a posse to hunt some Comanche (which Wayne pronounces "co-MANTCH" for the whole film) sighted nearby causing trouble, and enlists Hunter and Wayne, despite the latter's dubious past.

Wayne shares some silent looks of longing with his brothers wife (!) and then they leave. But it turns out that it a was all a ruse, and the Comanche raid the farm while everyone's away- killing the brother, his wife, and their young son, and spiriting away their two daughters.

So Wayne, Hunter and company try and track them down, only to lose them after an initial skirmish. Our two hero's and the older daugher's fiancee proceed with the search alone, only to find the older daughter's body (whereupon the fiancee flips out and gets himself shot).

So then it's just a matter of a over five-year-long search for the younger daughter (played by Natalie Wood by the time they catch up with her), now living among the Comanche.

And this whole time Hunter has a girlfriend that may or may not marry some yokel dweeb if our heroes insist on traveling the country all the time.

The Artisticness:

It's a western. There's long, beatiful (if you like that sort of thing) shots of barren landscapes and windy desert. I can see the appeal, I suppose.

But the real appeal of The Searchers is its relative subversiveness- well before the murky, gritty Leone westerns of the 70's, this film doesn't present the frontier struggle with any sort of black and white, cowboys v. Indians cohesiveness.

Wayne is an antihero, a badass who knows a surprising amount about the Native American way of life but thinks of them as less than human nonetheless. He's cavalier with the lives of hostages, and takes extra shots when his enemy is in retreat

It's not your standard John Wayne character, anyway. Equally spiteful is the Comanche Chief ("Scar"), who kidnaps a white girls for each one of his dead sons. And the savagery of both sides of the central conflict are merely in the forefront of an entire landscape of treachery and self-serving malice. Half the people that Wayne and Hunter run into offer help with their search, and then try and kill them for their lunch money when they turn their backs.

The Searchers is a depature from your Gene Autry, Howdy Doody frontier types, to say the least, (in fact, the dweeby singing cowboy trying to woo Hunter's girl gets punched in the face at a point), and it paved the way for the genre to be less of a goofy talkie picture where guys wore bandanas or feathers and more of, you know, an art form.


So when they initially catch up to the Comanche, Wood remembers them but wants to stay with "my people" instead of come back. At this, Wayne tries to shoot her since being a Comanche chief's bride is "worse than death," but Hunter stands in his way and then Comanche shotguns start going off until they have to leave.

They head back to town (I'm not clear which town- have they been in Texas this whole time?), break up Hunter's flame's wedding to the dorky guy, round up a posse and march on the Indian camp- Hunter sneaks in for Wood before the raid starts (Wayne wanted to just march in, risking her swift execution by her captors, because he is not a nice guy).

End result- Hunter shoots Scar, Wood inexplicably changes her mind and wants to go with them, and Wayne nearly shoots her again but stops himself when it occurs to him he might be batshit crazy.

Then everyone but Wayne goes back inside to continue there lives and be normal people, but he stays out in the wild because that's where borderline-pyschotic anti-heroes live, and the film ends with a great shot of a door closing on him and the sunset.

It's a good ending, in that it subverts your expectations for any kind of grand finale (the Comanche are better scalpers than marksmen, I guess) and makes the high tension about John Wayne, a beloved hero, chasing down a scampering Natalie Wood with death in his eyes. And of course he stops himself, but for a moment there you're like no way!


Overall- Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Well, to be quite honest, I've seen some other random John Wayne movie where he has to protect a bunch of children or something maybe (actually The Cowboys- where he hires schoolboys to help herd cattle. I saw it in middle school) and none of the Leone westerns, so I'm not a great judge on where this ranks among the greatest westerns.

But it was a decent enough film, even though it dragged a bit with the years of searching, and 241 doesn't seem out of line. Plus, it's John Wayne! Come on!

The Legacy-

In addition to the stark depicition of racism and moral turptidue opening the door for countless great future Westerns, this film ranks as a classic influence on plenty of other filmmakers.

The discovery of the brother's burned farm is more or less directly referenced in Star Wars, when Luke realizes Uncle Owen won't ever ask him to run errands again. My other favorite tidbit is that Wayne's character's cynical refrain of "that'll be the day" from the film inspired the Buddy Holly song of the same name.

Also it was officially named the greatest Western ever by the American Film Institute on their 2008 lists by genre (which shafted Sergio Leone, probably for being Italian).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Some YouTuber calls this "probably the best ending in the history of cinema." Yeah, I don't know about that, but it's a cool shot:

Leftover Thoughts:

A lot of people make a big deal about the secretly-in-love with the wife's brother thing in terms of Wayne's motivations, but I think that only comes out after multiple veiwings and thinking too much about it. Really not that played-up.

There's a remnant of an earlier kind of western when Hunter tries to bargain for a blanket with a different tribe, and ends up with a wife instead. Hilarity ensues, but then she gets killed by some U. S. Rangers- whoops.

Also, to try and convince Hunter that they should just barge into Scar's camp (and risk Wood's death) he tells him one of the scalps of hair Scar showed them to initimidate them was Hunter's mother's. This is never mentioned again.

I hope The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (another Ford/Wayne project) is significantly different, because it's coming up soon on the list.

1 Response to "IMDB #241: The Searchers"

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