Possibly the best movie made by John Ford with John Wayne, and possibly one of his best stop. Indeed The Searchers, quite probably ranks among the best Westerns ever made, and possibly one of the best, or influential movies ever made. Some might say one of the most controversial also. The acting, cinematography, scrip and plot all come together for a classic
Opening a few years after the close of the American Civil War, where he fought with the Confederacy, Nathan Edwards (John Wayne, She wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949) returns to the family home, his sword in hand. We are not directly told what he did in those years since the war, but he has a bag of gold, the origins of which are unknown. The homecoming is not without tensions. Some years previously he rescued a young boy from Comanches and left him at the home with Ethan’s brother, effectively the boy is his adoptive nephew. Immediately Nathan remarks how the boy could be mistaken for a half-breed, there is a tension between the two throughout the film, the causes of which can vary from mentor/student, to begrudgery and racism, it is sometimes hard to tell which is which.
While home, news comes through of raids on neighbours homesteads, the local Texas Ranger Captain, Sam Clayton (Ward Bond, Rio Bravo, 1959) calls and asks for help with volunteers to join the search. While out it becomes clear that the raids were a diversion, returning home to the farms, we find the Edwards’s home burnt down, and all dead except the girls, who are missing. The Rangers, after a brief burial service officiated over by Rev. Clayton, go in search of the Comanches in question, they come into contact with suspect Indians but after skirmishes, there are too few Rangers left to be effective. Nathan goes on with his “nephew” Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, Star Trek, 1986) and his older niece Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr., Big Jake, 1971), after a while they find Lucy, dead and having been raped, Brad in a fit of anger attacks the Indian settlement and is killed in the process.
As the year progresses, the two are no closer to finding Debbie, they return home to their old neighbours, The Jorgensens (Brad’s parents), here he is given a letter from a trader which might be a clue to Debbie’s whereabouts, here they learn the identity of the Indian who is believed to have Debbie, Scar (Henry Brandon, The War of The Worlds, 1953), a Comanche chief. As the pair travel we learn more about them, The trader who wrote to them originally is killed by Nathan for trying to rob his gold. As they progress they learn an number of Scar’s people have been killed by the Army following an engagement. At this stage our heroes get close to Debbie, where we realise Nathan is more intent on killing his niece rather than rescuing her. She is damaged goods beyond repair. They are unable to get to her. They return home as the light of Martin’s eye is being married to another, and as predicted a fist fight ensues, this is broken by word from the Army (the young Lt. is with Nathan’s old friend Mose Harper (Hank Wardon, The Alamo, 1960) who is “half-crazy). They have found the Indians holding Debbie. Without any other discussion, Nathan leaves for the camp, Martin quickly behind him. The Texas rangers raid the camp, Martin kills scar while Nathan scalps him, once again we see Nathan as a dark figure, guided by his own moral code, as this happens Debbie is fleeing , confused. Nathan chases after her, Martin fearing that Nathan will kill her, chases after them both. As Nathan reaches Debbie, he simply helps her on to his horse and says those famous words “Let’s go home”. The final scene when they arrive home is closed off with that famous closing shot of Wayne walking away through the door.
Beautifully crafted both cinematically and through its script, written by Frank S. Nugent, who was actually Ford’s son-in-law and Alan le May (author of the original book). Watching this today, it is still as fresh as when it was first made. We can also see firsthand the changing attitude of society, not just with the 19th century but with the mid-20th century and today. Within a few short years the way the Native American Indians are portrayed is changed forever, no longer are they the stock-in-trade bad guys.
This is a short enough review, it could be a lot shorter – Excellent movie, one of the best ever made, involving the search for an young girl and the individuals own search for themselves and their values.