Written by Frank S. Nugent from a novel by Alan LeMay and directed by John Ford, the finest there ever was when it came to the Western, The Searchers is considered by most critics to be the greatest Western ever put on film.
“As a Civil War veteran spends years searching for a young niece captured by Indians, his motivation becomes increasingly questionable.” (IMDB)
Back in the 70’s, when Bruce Springsteen released the Darkness on the Edge of Town album, he mentioned The Searchers as being an influence on his life as well as that album. He referred to the final shot of John Wayne standing in a doorway, and it was echoed in Springsteen’s song “Adam Raised a Cain,” when the speaker of the song is standing in a doorway and afraid to enter a house because he’s not sure what’s going to happen. He’s done his best, but he just doesn’t feel welcome, like he doesn’t belong in his own home. I had not yet seen The Searchers, but when I did, I immediately understood what Springsteen meant. Also, having felt a little of that in my own home through high school made it all the more three dimensional.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns from the wrong side of the recently-ended Civil War, but he’s not the same as he was when he left. He is a leader who understands that sometimes war drives men to do things differently. And when they do things differently, they don’t come back in the same condition as when they left, not physically nor mentally. But sometimes those ways in which they are different can be useful. When a tribe of Comanche attack the homestead of Ethan’s sister and kidnap two little girls, one played by Natalie Wood, the “different” inside Ethan Edwards is the perfect kind of useful.
Ethan fought in ways that were questionable to the enemy and the accepted rules of war. He’s a soldier, first and foremost, and since he’s rather void of peace at the moment, he’s going to stay in “war” mode and hunt down those Comanche if it’s the last thing he does. In fact, he doesn’t seem all that worried about whether or not it actually will be the last thing he does.
Joining Ethan is his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). Ethan doesn’t like Martin, mainly because Ethan doesn’t like Indians, and Martin is a “half breed.” However, only Martin sticks with Ethan for the entire search, and that deserves respect in Ethan’s eyes. As for that entire search, it spans several winters, and there are several respites when it seems the trail has ended and all might be lost – until word comes from either the cavalry or wandering Mexicans who have seen or heard something significant enough for Ethan and Martin to set out again.
It’s a Western, but it’s way more than a Western because I must admit that I have never cried more intensely at any other movie. But it’s a Western? Yeah, but it’s also a family drama. It’s a story about a lost child and the family who knows what “family” means, and the family that doesn’t know what “family” means. It’s about those who give up and those who keep going. And it’s about what happens when what you find at the end of the trail is very different from what you expect or hope to find.
There are weddings, funerals, arrests, and awards. There are births and deaths, summers and winters, double crosses and bullets in the back. But among all the things that there is much of – there is one thing that there is none of – and that’s quitting.
The Good: Some colorful characters spread around the stoic John Wayne
The Better: No better use of Monument Valley nor any other Western landscape
The Best: Flawlessly wrenches your guts in ways that few films – and no Westerns – ever have.