1956’s The Searchers, the definitive work by the iconic director John Ford, is effectively the pivot point in the history of the cinematic Western, representing the summation and apex of the genre’s traditional form and therefore the launching pad for its many reinventions. It’s also a masterpiece in the surest sense of the word, suffused with epic adventure and gripping drama and equipped with a stacked roster of compelling performances—none moreso than John Wayne’s legendary star turn as Ethan Edwards.
The Heights Theater
Thursday, October 22
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, Alan Le May (novel)
Editor: Jack Murray
Cinematographer: Winton C. Hoch
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood
US Theatrical Release: March 13, 1956
US Distributor: Warner Home Video
Edwards is a soldier with a troubled, shadowy past who, as the film begins, returns to his family’s West Texas ranch, where he’s greeted with a mix of familial warmth and cautious suspicion about his past. He’s reintroduced to his nieces, Debbie and Lucy, as well as to Martin, a young man of one-eighth Cherokee descent that Ethan rescued as a boy and who has since been adopted by his brother’s family.
One morning early in his stay, he and Martin are recruited into a group of Rangers searching for a band of Comanche cattle thieves, only to return to find the family ranch burned to the ground, with everyone dead but Lucy and Debbie, who appear to have been abducted. Ethan and Martin—joined, for a brief spell, by Lucy’s fiancée—hastily set out on their trail, a quest that swells to take up the film’s entire narrative, ultimately spanning years.
This lengthy sojourn is punctuated by stretches of melancholy meandering, by wrong turns and dead ends, and by spiky bursts of humor, violence, and romance—almost as if the narrative itself is mimicking the desert landscape’s vast, beautiful, and treacherous expanse. And as the story winds to its conclusion, it delivers a hard-earned, bittersweet rendition of the classic Hollywood happy ending, eschewing the maudlin in favor of a satisfying juxtaposition of thrills and clear-eyed, hefty emotional symbolism.
For better or worse, Ford’s film embodies everything that made the classic Western what it was—from its stark, unyielding sense of moralism to its troubling depictions of Native Americans (stereotypes of whom as violent savages were directly perpetuated by the enduring popularity of Westerns in Hollywood’s first several decades). And yet this perfect encapsulation also laid the groundwork for a succession of works that would comment upon the Western from within the genre’s conventions, refracting and reexamining its foundations — and sometimes upending them.
These newer creations—from Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary, if today equally canonical, 1969 epic The Wild Bunch through HBO’s sprawling mid-2000s television drama Deadwood and up to this year’s baroque, surrealist enigma Jauja—feel of a piece with the Western’s legacy, yet ultimately transfigure it into something else. And although The Searchers certainly has no trouble standing on its own, it’s ultimately this extension and reconfiguration of the Western that keeps the film vital today. A contemporary vantage point helps turn The Searchers into both a historical snapshot, perfectly representing its place in the long legacy of cinema, and a looking glass through which both the past and future of its genre can be glimpsed.