The Searchers is the quintessential classic western. In this 1956 film, John Wayne has perfected the part of the world weary western hero. Director, John Ford, creates a film with a complex protagonist (part hero, part villain) shot in the gorgeous vistas of Monument Valley.
Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a confederate soldier who returns to his family in Texas years after the Civil War has ended. The opening shot with the camera peering through the doorway as Ethan returns and the closing shot peering through that same doorway are breathtakingly beautiful and exquisitely composed as if painted on canvas by the old masters.
The story is based on the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker – a young girl kidnapped by Comanches. In this film, the girl’s name is Debbie (played by Natalie Wood). Ethan and her adopted brother, Martin (played by a strapping Jeffrey Hunter) go on an obsessive five year quest to find her.
Throughout the film, Ethan makes racist comments about various Native American tribes. He also talks about women who have been raped or had sex with Native Americans as not human. Martin is on the quest to find his sister, but he also wants to make sure Ethan doesn’t kill her if she’s been “defiled.”
This depiction of the flawed hero inspired many other directors. Martin Scorsese based Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver on the Ethan Edwards character. Scorsese wrote in the Hollywood Reporter, “In truly great films — the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable — nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery.”
The intensity of the film is cooled by comic moments, mostly domestic scenes back at the Texas homestead fueled by the antics of talented character actors (Ward Bond, Hank Worden, John Qualen). However, some of the attempts at humor aren’t funny to someone watching this film today. The scenes where a Native American woman believes Martin has bought her to be his wife come off as cruel.
Despite the obvious flaws of Wayne’s character, this film is considered a masterpiece that has inspired generations of film makers.