Wild West movie: The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne and John Ford made great movies — together and apart — after The Searchers– but that doesn’t make it any less of a culmination. Both had worked in, and thought about, the Western for years by the time they shot this haunting film. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man driven by a hate that’s inflamed when Comanches murder Ethan’s brother and other members of his family before kidnapping his two nieces. Ethan and his companions soon find one, Lucy, dead. The other, Debbie (Natalie Wood), they can’t find at all, leading Ethan to scour the West for her as he becomes increasingly twisted by his rage.

Ethan and Comanches

Wayne delivers a terrifying performance as a lost soul who uses revenge to excuse the darkness and prejudice already inside him. Through that prejudice, Ford began to address the genre’s treatment of Native Americans, not by softening the actions of the Comanches but by having Ethan respond to monstrous acts with even more monstrous behavior. In one chilling scene, he mutilates a corpse, thus condemning his victim, by Comanche belief, to travel the afterlife blind. But as Martin Scorsese observes in his documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies, Ethan is just placing his own curse on the corpse because “he’s a drifter, doomed to wander between the winds.”

Can a hero so awful really be called a hero at all? A few years later, Ford would contribute a segment to the Cinerama omnibus film How the West Was Won, but The Searchers, and Ford’s best films, and the most enduring Westerns made by anyone treat that title less as a statement than a question. How was the West won? What did it mean? What can we learn from it? Who profited? Who suffered? How did the stories we created from it shape our understanding of it all? They’re questions that lead to no answers, only more questions, and that’s part of the reason why the Western has proved so enduring. It’s a place where searchers go

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