The Searchers (1956)
September 4, 2022 10:10 PM - Subscribe

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns home to Texas after the Civil War. When members of his brother's family are killed or abducted by Comanches, he vows to track down his surviving relatives and bring them home. Eventually, Edwards gets word that his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) is alive, and, along with her adopted brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), he embarks on a dangerous mission to find her, journeying deep into Comanche territory.

Directed by John Ford.

94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

Currently available for digital rental in the US on multiple outlets.
posted by DirtyOldTown (17 comments total)
When I first watched this, my roommate - who'd seen it before - was flitting in and out of the room doing his own stuff. During an early scene, I stopped him, pointed at the screen and asked: "So, John Wayne...his character's supposed to be a douche in this, right?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:32 AM on September 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

I was on a John Wayne kick some years ago and watched a lot of his films including the John Ford ones and I gotta admit, I just did not get this one, why so many people say it’s his best. I’m not a big Western fan though. After watching Stage Coach, I understood why he was a star, that entrance! So I’ll be watching this thread hoping someone can explain. I loved the opening shot, the woman opening the front door, but that’s about it.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:29 AM on September 5, 2022

Roger Ebert's essay "All roads lead to The Searchers" may be a good starting point.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:38 AM on September 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Searchers is one of those movies that I didn't watch all the way through until much later in life. So I went into it knowing that it is a great movie. But like a lot of the great ones I finally watch, my reaction was, "eh, that's it?" Don't get me wrong, The Searchers is a pretty good movie. But really, in the broadest strokes, when you've seen one John Ford western, you've seen them all. We got Duke. We got Ward Bond. We got that crazy bald guy. We got young men in fistfights. We got male singers. We got a formal dance. How many other John Ford movies check those boxes? So for me, the whole ethos behind Ethan's quest to get Debbie back is lost in the shuffle, more or less.
posted by Stuka at 8:54 AM on September 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Respectfully, y'all are missing pretty hard on this one. What's interesting to me is how many people in recent years that don't really have this movie register for them.

I am headed out and can't deep dive into this personally, so I'm going to quote from a Letterboxd review that nails it:
The Searchers gives the lie to the supposed heroism of the Wild West mythos. John Wayne plays the same Indian-killing cowboy we've seen him play since the early 1930's, the image of a valiant savior come to rescue a bunch of white folks from the Native American menace, but here he plays it as explicitly racist, calling out the pathological nature of the traditional cowboy's racialized violence. Our heroes of the West were always outlaws who had to ride off into the sunset, but they were glorified outcasts, they were getting rid of the "real" bad guys. The Searchers shows this hero not as an altruistic warrior, but as a murderer whose positive effects on society are less purposeful, more of a coincidental afterthought.

Wayne's cowboy isn't only problematic because of his racist motivations, but also for the implications this racism has on the American home. The creation of the domestic sphere is a common thread for the Western genre, and The Searchers highlights this by bookending its narrative with scenes of Wayne arriving at home (first from the Civil War, then from the conflict of the film). He helps maintain the stability of the private domestic space at the expense of the public: the home is kept safe by Wayne killing more Indians. The American Dream is born from the graves of the Native Americans. Our country is built on an Indian burial ground...

I was troubled by the fact that the Native Americans were still portrayed as the violent savages that they are in the traditional mythological western, but the crucial distinction here is that all the white folks are just as violent and savage as the Natives. The only way out of this violence is into civilization, as the end of the film shows both racial and cultural "Indians" coming together with white folks to create a new domestic/social space—which is of course why the violent, savage John Wayne has no place in it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:11 AM on September 5, 2022 [15 favorites]

I highly recommend the (loose) remake by Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. Here's the trailer.
posted by Morpeth at 11:10 AM on September 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

One place where I'd diverge from critical consensus on this film is that many critics think John Wayne was anti-racist and in on Ford's plan. I think he thought he wasn't racist but actually bought into a lot of the racist attitudes of "opening up the frontier" and Ford used that, creating a marvelous tension that is a key source of the film's power. Wayne wants Ethan to be heroically redeemed and Ford really does not.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:17 PM on September 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

Oh please—how many enrolled tribal members are Metafilterites? No one here needs to read woke white opinions. This is a creative work of art,not a by-the-numbers PBS-spinach documentary. If only Natalie Wood’s character had been taken by Neo-Nazis or MAGA hat wearers.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:29 PM on September 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

....Wow, Ideefixe, don't hold back and tell us how you really feel.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:10 PM on September 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

This movie hits a lot of the same themes that the novels of James Fenimore Cooper hit: that the people who open up the frontier for settlers cannot themselves settle, that violence and blood are the fertilizer for the seeds of civilization. Neither Ford nor Cooper had first-hand experience with any of this: Monument Valley is a great backdrop for myth, but you can't actually farm it. However, although Cooper was a truly terrible writer, he saw the ambiguities of the relationship of white colonists and Native Americans better than Ford, and I guess that's why I never much liked this movie. [However, I like the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, so I am in no position to throw stones]
posted by acrasis at 6:03 PM on September 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

If you wanna see this as just a movie about guys on horses and whatnot, you do you.

But for me, this movie is about racism, so talking about racism in regards to the film is engaging with the work on its own terms.

John Ford was obsessed with Native Americans in his later years and increasingly wanted to weigh their plight against the weight of the racism in America's mythology and history.

That's not a woke, revisionist take. That's paying attention to what Ford spoke about. And to what the film is about.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:28 PM on September 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

The Searchers is one of those films that you should see just to know where so many films since borrowed from.
posted by octothorpe at 6:05 AM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

That's a good essay, eschewing false binary and looking at this film and John Ford's work in general in a complex way.

Did Ford have a lot of racist stuff in his films? Yes. Was The Searchers explicitly against racism? Yes. Did The Searchers have some racist elements in it, even so? Also yes.

Ford is a very, very complex filmmaker. Not only was he one of the great studio filmmakers who delivered crowd-pleasers that also contained real thematic depth, whether the popcorn-munching masses picked up on it or not, but he was also an artist of very conflicted nature personally. There are his many sides when it comes to racism, sure. But he was also a filmmaker singularly obsessed with American notions of peak masculinity... even though he was quite possibly gay.

I think it's possible to defend nearly any take on John Ford, but in doing so, it makes you wonder if trying to reduce him to any one thing isn't a pointless endeavor.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:50 AM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I hope this isn't a spoiler, but this movie was the first thing I thought of when I read the part of Graeber and Wengrow's The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity where they said most settlers captured by Native Americans preferred staying with the tribes rather than returning. It made me wonder if this was widely known when the movie was made.

It's one of my favorite John Wayne/John Ford films because it doesn't try to dress up the Western genre as anything other than the racist thing it is. Stuka is right...we have all the Ford tropes in this movie, but they're actually a sweet coating to help the viewer swallow some bitter medicine.
posted by lhauser at 4:49 PM on September 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

I saw this way back in high school and, as a I recall, didn't think highly of it then. The movie came up in a book my wife is reading, and she wanted to watch it, so last night, we did. My opinion has only gotten worse.

Even setting aside the problematic aspects of the movie, it's just not that good. For the most part, the characters don't talk to each other, they yell and over-emote (except for John Wayne, who plays one note as usual). A lot of their actions seem to be almost random. All of the characters, regardless of race, are very broadly drawn.

Beautiful cinematography though. And this viewing got me to look up Hank Worden, who has an instantly recognizable voice. I was amazed at the length of his career ("2nd elderly man" in Cop Rock!).
posted by adamrice at 1:04 PM on November 27, 2022

A recent post on the Blue about The Searchers: "Is that you John wayne, is this me"
posted by zamboni at 12:12 AM on April 10

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