1 Year, 100 Movies: #12 The Searchers (1956)


For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

The Searchers” is the last Western on this list- hurrah! The film opens with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to the farm of his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy). Martha (Dorothy Jordan), greets Ethan as he approaches. We get a sense right away everything is not as it should be. There may have been something between Ethan and Martha- and Martha and Aaron’s youngest, Debbie (Lana Woods) may really be Ethan’s daughter- and not his niece. When Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter)- a son adopted by the Edwards after Indians killed his parents, sits down to dinner Ethan exclaims that he looks like a ‘half breed’. Martin says that he is one-eighth Cherokee, but Ethan sneers- revealing his deep rooted racism toward Native Americans. Their worries take a back seat when they go to a neighbor’s assistance when they find out his cattle have been killed. It turns out that was a ruse to get them to leave their home unprotected. They return to find the homestead in flames, and the entire family murdered, except for Lucy (Pippa Scott), and young Debbie. The Comanche raiders have taken both of the girls.

They form a posse to pursue the Comanche, but it becomes apparent that Ethan wants more than to get Lucy and Debbie back alive- he wants to slaughter as many Native Americans as he can as well. Ethan, Martin and Lucy’s boyfriend Brad (Harry Carey Jr.) continue their pursuit. When the trail splits, Ethan follows the smaller group through the mountains, and meets up with the other men on the other side of the ridge. He is distraught and missing his Confederate overcoat. Brad presses him, and we learn that Ethan found Lucy’s body in the mountains, and buried her in his coat. The acting in this film is amazing- an no exception here. Wayne gives just a line or two and a pained expression, and we know what has become of his niece. Brad, consumed with the loss, rushes into the Comanche camp and is killed. There is nothing that will stop Ethan from finding Debbie now.

This film explores how racism can grow to consume a person. Although Martin is dedicated to the search for Debbie, his adopted sister, Ethan continues to reaffirm that Martin’s Native American blood makes him incapable of feeling a kinship to Debbie. Ethan often blames small mistakes Martin makes on the fact that he is part Cherokee. Martin feels no real connection to his Cherokee heritage, having been raised by the Edwards, but Ethan’s racism keeps him from accepting Martin as an equal.

Martin and Ethan lose the Comanches’ trail in the snow, and are forced to return home. Since the Edwards’ home was destroyed, they stay with the Jorgensens, a family of farmers that were friends with the Edwards. Here we find out that Martin is involved with Laurie (Vera Miles), the Jorgensen’s daughter. The developing romance breaks up Ethan’s relentless hunt, and provides some comedic relief- especially after they have continued their pursuit, and write to let everyone know that Martin has accidentally gotten himself married to a Native American woman, “Look,” instead of trading for a blanket. This leads them closer to finding others who will lead them to Scar- the Comanche chief that took Debbie. In their pursuit they find that “Look” has been killed in a raid.

Ethan and Martin continue on after receiving a letter from a trader that may know Scar’s whereabouts. They have a run-in with the trader, spend more years searching, and then finally, with the help of a Hispanic man, find the camp they have been searching for. Posing as travelers wishing to trade, they enter the camp and gain an audience with Scar (Henry Brandon). They find an older Debbie (Natalie Wood), but cannot communicate with her directly for fear of what would happen to her. After the meeting Martin realizes that Ethan intends to kill Debbie and as many Comanches as he can. Ethan sees Debbie as defiled, as she has integrated into the Comanche tribe after so many years- and he lumps her in the category with the rest of the Native Americans that he so despises. When Debbie comes to their camp to warn them of men coming to kill them, Ethan draws his gun on her. Martin protects her- not allowing him to kill his sister. It’s interesting to note here that he didn’t just shoot Martin to get to Debbie. Martin is part Native American- but Ethan must have grown fond of him in the five years they spent together- at least enough not to kill him.

Ethan and Martin are chased away, and return to the Jorgensen farm. They arrive on the day of Laurie’s wedding- Martin talks to her about it, and she doesn’t want him to leave her again. Martin and Laurie’s fiance have a hilarious fight, and again Martin is pulled away from Laurie in search of Debbie. A group of US soldiers warns them that the Comanche are near and asks anyone capable of fighting to saddle up with them. Ethan of course leads the charge. Before they attack, Martin asks to sneak into the camp ahead to rescue Debbie. They let him get her, and he finds and rescues her. He has to shoot a man that wants to stop him, and the men attack after hearing the shots. Martin and Debbie are fleeing the carnage of the attack, and Ethan gives chase. Ethan corners Debbie in the hills and descends on her- but at the last moment he picks her up and carries her to safety. What!? Even Debbie is confused. Up until now, Ethan has been bent on killing Debbie, a child that could be his own, because he saw her as tainted by the Comanche he despised. Why the change of heart? Did knowing Martin have something to do with it? That change of heart is short-lived. After returning Debbie and Martin to the Jorgensens, Ethan leaves her to wander the Western expanses alone.

The imagery in this film is so vibrant, and the visual parallels between Scar and Ethan are spot on. There are so many questions without clear answers, so much sorrow and hatred, that “The Searchers” has become a touchstone for limitless musings. “Taxi Driver” is one of those films. All of the questions and subject matter are deep and not entirely comfortable, but they are posed in such a satisfying way, that we feel enriched. Ethan may be a largely unlikable character, but our lives can be better from knowing him.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:



One response to “1 Year, 100 Movies: #12 The Searchers (1956)

  1. Pingback: 1 Year, 100 Movies: #11 City Lights (1931) | thegreentreeischirping

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