I’d heard about The Searchers starring John Wayne years ago when I took a film class from Roger Ebert. Directed by John Ford, this Western classic chronicles Ethan Edward’s search for his niece who was abducted by Comanches. Ethan’s a troubling character especially in our era because he makes biased comments. He views Native Americans as enemies, not to be trusted.
After fighting in the Civil War, Ethan returns to his brother’s homestead where he’s welcomed by old friends and family. The mysterious disappearance of cattle gets the men folk to investigate and while they’re away Comanche attack the homestead burning it to the ground and killing most everyone. Nine year old Debbie, Ethan’s niece, was hiding but is discovered by the Comanches and they abduct her. Once Ethan, his adopted nephew Martin and the other men discover the devastation and carnage they set off for revenge and to find Debbie.
The years pass with no success. Most men move on with their lives, but Ethan and Martin, who irritates Ethan to no end, persevere. Martin took a lot of grief from Ethan. Their conflict reaches its peak when Ethan plans to kill Debbie if they find her because she’s lived with Native Americans so long that she’s no longer the same person. What?!
Yes, that makes Ethan rightly reviled. Martin represents the audience in his complete opposition to that. The film’s big question is will Ethan change?
It’s an epic with bold characters, even the small ones, bold colors and bold actions.
The scenery and cinematography are glorious. The Searchers shows the majesty of Texas’ tablelands. The colors are deeply saturated.
The film isn’t timeless. Ethan’s beliefs while not eliminated from society are rare. It’s jarring to hear Ethan’s ideas, but he had learned tribal languages and understood their cultures somewhat.*
John Wayne gives a classic performance as the definitive “rugged individualist.”
I enjoyed the romantic subplot which adds humor as shy Martin can’t summon the gumption to propose to his sweetheart who almost marries a fool.
The film was based on a novel by Alan Le May that was based on true stories of girls who were abducted out West. Many critics believe that Le May focused on the story of Cynthia Parker, but it’s likely to be an amalgamation of abductions.