Ethan Edwards, an ex Confederate soldier, finds that his family has been massacred and his niece captured by the Comanches and vows to bring her back and kill every one of the indians who did this to him.
Producer Merian C. Cooper tried to rope in his old King Kong colleague David O. Selznick on The Searchers, but the Gone With the Wind mini-mogul sneered that he didn't think a John Wayne western was important enough to bear the sacred Selznick logo. Over the last 30 years, in the 10-yearly Sight & Sound poll of world critics, The Searchers has risen from the 19th best film of all time to the fifth. Gone With The Wind (1939) isn't as well-liked as it once was, and none of Selzinck's other "important" pictures are remembered at all.
The Searchers is an in-depth character study of Indian-hating Ethan Edwards that is also a probing examination of just what it meant to be John "Duke" Wayne. Rarely taken seriously as an actor, Wayne proved here, and in other films for Ford and Howard Hawks, that his often-ridiculed mannerisms of speech and walk could serve an unforgettable performance.
Adapted from a novel by Alan LeMay, much-improved in translation to the screen, the film opens with Ethan (Wayne), a diehard who has been drifting into mercenary soldiering and outlawry since losing the Civil War, returning to the Texas farmstead of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). Ethan is idolised by Aaron's kids: daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood) and son Ben (Robert Lyden). It's also clear that he is in love with, and loved by, his sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan). Texas Ranger-cum-preacher Captain the Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton (Bond) turns up with a posse in pursuit of some varmints who have run off the cattle of neighbour Lars Jorgenson (John Qualen). Clayton remarks, "I haven't seen you since the surrender — come to think of it, I didn't see you at the surrender." "I don't believe in surrenders," replies Ethan. The posse includes one-eighth Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), orphaned in a massacre of settlers by the Comanche and raised in Aaron's family, whose dark skin offends the racist Ethan (" a fella might take you for a half-breed"). When the posse find Jorgenson's slaughtered cattle, Ethan knows the culprits are Comanche, luring the men of the region away so they can stage a "murder raid."
In a primal scene, famously restaged in Star Wars, Ethan returns to Aaron's farm and finds it burning, the two girls missing, and Martha raped and murdered. Presumably, Aaron and Ben are dead too, but Ethan barely notices — a suggestion that the lust for vengeance which permeates the rest of the film isn't as clear-cut as might be expected. In searching for Scar (Henry Brandon), the war chief who has planned the raid and kidnapped Debbie, Ethan recognises the savage as his secret self, acting out the suppressed desire to take Martha and sunder his brother's family. Ethan and Martin spend five years tracking Scar, trailing through desert and snow, and our expectations of good and evil, civilisation and savagery are in dispute. Martin accidentally barters for an Indian bride, Look (Beulah Archuletta), the sort of slapstick ethnic stooge who makes modern audiences cringe.
But there's nothing funny about the way she up and offs at the mention of Scar's name and turns up as a corpse at the site of another massacre, of Indian women and children by the US Cavalry (we learn Scar's sons have been killed by whites). As Martin becomes the hero of the film, we are forced to confront the possibility that John Wayne — Duke! — is the villain, a man so possessed by hatred of Indians that he plans not to rescue
Debbie but shoot her dead because she has become the sexual property of the Comanche. The home stretch, shot like most of the film in and around Ford's beloved Monument Valley, is an emotional rollercoaster as the initial attack on the Edwards' home is mirrored by a joint Texas Ranger-US Cavalry action against Scar's camp. Ethan finds Martin has already killed his arch-enemy and has to content himself with scalping Scar.
He then fights his way past Martin and seems intent on killing Debbie. Instead, in one of the greatest moments in cinema, he picks her up in a desperate embrace. "Let's go home, Debbie," he croaks. Martin and sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles) are together at last, Debbie is apparently adopted into the Jorgenson family and a new compound family of "Texicans" are together. Only Ethan is left outside. Earlier, he had mutilated a Comanche corpse by shooting out his eyes: "He can't enter the spirit lands and has to wander forever between the winds," he says. In the end, he shares the Indian's fate, walking away from the camera into the desert as the closing door blots him out.
In 1956 audiences flocked to The Searchers precisely because it was a John Wayne western, and lapped up its mix of Injun-fightin' action, rough comic knockabout and intense, emotional storyline. Seen now, it is all that and much, much more.