The Searchers: What it Means to Never Quit (Review)

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.

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Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) faces his cousin Debbie (Natalie Wood)

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.

Wayne's stoic and classic pose as the underappreciated Uncle Ethan

Wayne’s classic pose as the underappreciated Uncle Ethan

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.

Overall: 10/10

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Written By Rich

Rich is a retired English teacher and author of two published books: When the Mirror Breaks, a collection of short stories, and Connecting Flight, a novel about two lost ghosts. His film education has been mainly due to watching Siskel & Ebert through high school and college, and he is a regular attendee at Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s annual film festival in Illinois every April. With all this free time on his hands, you’d think he would see more films, but red wine seems to keep getting in the way.

the author

Rich is a retired English teacher and author of two published books: When the Mirror Breaks, a collection of short stories, and Connecting Flight, a novel about two lost ghosts. His film education has been mainly due to watching Siskel & Ebert through high school and college, and he is a regular attendee at Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s annual film festival in Illinois every April. With all this free time on his hands, you’d think he would see more films, but red wine seems to keep getting in the way.

  • http://kirkham007@gmail.com 70srichard

    John Wayne Week here at the Cinema Katz, nice. This is a haunting theme when we know what is behind Ethan’s quest. The feeling of being an outsider in your own family is underlined well by the shot you linger over.

  • http://www.cinekatz.com Shane

    Very high praise. I just watched Once Upon a Time in the West, and loved it. Thought it was about as close to a masterpiece as it gets. Now, I must watch The Searchers. You had me at the Bruce Springsteen reference, by the way.

  • http://brainsnorts.wordpress.com/ Rich

    i hope you come back and share your thoughts about the movie. thanks for reading. and i’m glad the bruce reference helped.