If John Ford is the greatest Western director, The Searchers is arguably his greatest film, a film about one man’s troubling moral codes, a big-screen adventure of the 1950s that anticipated the complex themes and characters that would dominate the 1970s. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who returns to his brother Aaron’s frontier cabin three years after the end of the Civil War. Ethan still has his rebel uniform and weapons, a large stash of Yankee gold, and no explanations as to where he’s been since Lee’s surrender. A loner not comfortable in the bosom of his family, Ethan also harbors a bitter hatred of Indians (though he knows their lore and language well) and trusts no one but himself.
Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Aaron’s adopted son, join a makeshift band of Texas Rangers fending off an assault by renegade Comanches. Before they can run off the Indians, several homes are attacked, and Ethan returns to discover his brother and sister-in-law dead and their two daughters kidnapped. While they soon learn that one of the girls is dead, the other, Debbie, is still alive, and with obsessive determination, Ethan and Martin spend the next twelve years in a relentless search for Debbie — and for Scar (Henry Brandon), the fearsome Comanche chief who abducted her.
But while Martin wants to save his sister and bring her home, Ethan seems primarily motivated by his hatred of the Comanches; it’s hard to say if he wants to rescue Debbie or murder the girl who has lived with Indians too long to be considered “white.”
To modern audiences, the raw racism and intolerance may bit a bit hard to digest, but at least the Indians are not portrayed either as complete savages or buffoons. Most film critics see this as director John Ford’s tentative exploration of racism and miscegenation in the American West set against the real-world battle for civil rights for African Americans in 1956.
Fewer critics note the pointed double standard in the treatment of the women. Ethan is ready to kill the kidnapped Debbie for her perceived dishonour. Yet when Martin mistakenly takes an Indian bride (he thinks he’s buying a blanket), the “marriage” is at first a source of amusement. She is later murdered by American soldiers when she returns to an Indian village in a possible effort to help the searchers find Scar, and Martin at last displays pity for her.
On a more trivial note, Wayne’s wry catch-phrase in the movie inspired the lyrics for a great rock’n’roll song – Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the Day.”
John Wayne gives perhaps his finest performance in a role that predated screen antiheroes of the 1970s; by the film’s conclusion, his single-minded obsession seems less like heroism and more like madness. Wayne bravely refuses to soft-pedal Ethan’s ugly side, and the result is a remarkable portrait of a man incapable of answering to anyone but himself, who ultimately has more in common with his despised Indians than with his more “civilized” brethren. Natalie Wood is striking in her brief role as the 16-year-old Debbie, lost between two worlds. The Searchers paved the way for such revisionist Westerns as The Wild Bunch (1969) and McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and its influence on movies from Taxi Driver (1976) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977) testifies to its lasting importance.