John Wayne’s “The Searchers”

A Recognized Movie Classic

In 1956, when The Searchers was first released, nobody knew that it would today be a widely-hailed classic movie. Nowadays, it’s especially noted as one of the greatest Westerns of all-time. Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles and a young Natalie Wood, among others, it was one of the first in the cowboy genre to examine issues of racism in the old West; especially that practiced against Native American tribes. Directed by John Ford, it was the 12th movie he and Wayne made together

The Searchers, filmed using the Vista Vision process and with bold colors and beautiful scenery (especially of Monument Valley, Utah, which filled in for the famous Llano Estacado region in the Southwest), is also a favorite of many of today’s most famous writers and directors. Steven Spielberg ranks it as one of his all-time classic movies, and for good reason. It’s broad outlines were later used to great effect in the Star Wars franchise, and in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, to use a couple of examples.

Playing the part of Confederate Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, John Wayne delivered a portrait unlike any he’d created previously. Haunted by hatred and violence, Wayne’s Ethan demonstrates over the course of a five year span how truly debilitating racism and hatred can be if allowed to go unchecked. His portrayal, in fact, is now regarded as one of the finest in a decades-long career. Aided throughout the movie by a young half-Cherokee friend of his brother’s slain family (Jeffrey Hunter), the film centers on the long search for his young niece, who’d been kidnapped in the same Cherokee raid that saw Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew killed. Hunter’s character himself has to contend with the latent racism evidenced by Ethan on occasion, and also on the woman whom he left behind during the years-long search (played by Vera Miles).

Near the end of the film, we’re not sure if Ethan means to kill his niece for the sin of having lived among the Cherokee, and being “taken” in marriage to the band’s leader, or to bring her back to safety. The satisfying conclusion, though, shows that redemption is possible, even for someone as conflicted by racial hatred as Ethan Edwards.

In its day, nobody thought The Searchers would rank among the best Westerns ever, but its grand scope and cinematography, combined with Ford’s masterful direction and the power of its themes, have all conspired to place it in lofty company. Additionally, John Wayne’s portrayal of a tortured and haunted Ethan Edwards, makes this a definite movie classic.