The Searchers

How about a spot of movie discussion? I’ve been meaning to see The Searchers again for years, having not seen it since childhood (several centuries ago, as we all know). I remember finding it quite haunting as a child. I’ve seen bits of it many times since then, of course, especially the famous closing scene, which I think fully deserves its famosity, or what people call its “iconic” status. Ok they can call it that, because it is sort of literally iconic. It’s visual.

But the opening scene is pretty god damn iconic too – and of course it’s a bookend to the closing scene. Ethan rides in out of the vast empty landscape, and the members of the family collect on the porch. It’s stunningly beautiful.

I can’t find the whole thing on YouTube; no doubt copyright prevents. That’s too bad because this skips the ballet shot from the side of the porch where each character enters and takes up a particular spot, as if on a stage or…for a painting. Still, the first 52 seconds are nothing to sneeze at. The door that closes on Ethan at the end opens at the beginning.

Having said all that – I dislike the sudden veers into comedy, and I dislike much of the comedy itself, especially (of course – so predictable) the hahaha Indians stuff. The worst bit is when the Indian woman who was sold to Martin (without his realizing it) is treated as a big joke, culminating in the scene where he lies down for sleep and then she lies down beside him and he turns over in outrage and violently kicks her away, and she rolls out of the frame. Then Ethan roars with laughter. Ew. Just not funny, dude.

It is about Ethan’s racism, but it’s also racist itself. That’s pretty obvious.

I dislike the time-wasting stuff with Charlie’s courtship of Laurie, and I hate the dopy fight scene between Charlie and Martin. Argh. Suddenly it’s a Three Stooges movie. It doesn’t go with the rest. Knock it off, boys, get back to the damn search.

I knew how it ended but I’d forgotten just about all of what led up to how it ended. I’d forgotten what happened to Lucy. That’s quite a powerful scene – Ethan suddenly roaring, “You want me to draw a picture? You want me to spell it out for you? Don’t ask me! Never ask me as long as you live!” Oh. She was gangraped, and maybe mutilated. Got it.

Oh wait, here is a version with the opening.




  1. Beatrice, anti-imperialist anti-racist Islamophobiaphobic leftist says

    Funny coincidences are funny. I saw The Searchers scheduled for tomorrow on a program here. (… checked: at 1:40 in the night, so I’m not sure I’ll stay awake that long)

    Will (maybe) get back to you if the discussion stays alive until Tuesday. 😉

  2. sharoncrawford says

    I really like the movie. I saw it first when it was in the theatres lo these many yers ago. The racism and sexism is so awful, though. Ethan wants to kill the Natalie Wood character because she’s been having sex with Injuns, which renders her polluted.
    Aside from that (sort like “aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln”) it’s a great movie.

    My second favorite John Wayne movie, “The Quiet Man,” suffers from similarly awful sexism but is a stunner otherwise. And Maureen O’Hara is gorgeous.

  3. says

    Well Ethan’s racism is the part that’s about Ethan’s racism, I think. But the hahaha Indians stuff is just the racism part.

    Ethan’s racism is (so to speak) othered right at the beginning, when Martin comes in and Ethan gives him the hairy eyeball. To everyone else Martin is part of the family.

    The other thing is that Debbie is polluted because of sex as well as because of Indians. Sex with Indians! Eek. But Martin and the senior Jorgensens don’t see it that way.

    One of many dangling loose ends is the fact that Laurie does see it that way, but at the end she doesn’t point and go “ew.”

  4. anbheal says

    For a more nuanced view of the events, I recommend Empire Of The Summer Moon, a very good (if not great) history of the last great indigenous leader, Quanah Parker, and his mother Cynthia Ann (for whom The Searchers were searching). It’s hard not to conclude that Texans and Comanches were two of the biggest asshole cultures that history ever threw at each other.

  5. Jeff D says

    When Martin Scorcese was teaching a film course (at Columbia Univ.?) 40 or more years ago, a student who is now a successful director said that Scorcese showed The Searchers to the class after saying “You will never see a better western.” A good way to phrase it. I first saw this film as part of a campus art-film series back in the mid-1970s, when I was in law school, and I never tire of it.

    Yes, the comedy relief scenes now play awkwardly, and yes, Ethan Edwards is a racist, but he’s also a complex character: driven by hatred and vengeance, but also sometimes gentle, and possessing (compared to the other characters) much more knowledge of (and a little respect for) what is depicted as Comanche culture . . . as in the scene where Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche warrior and explains why he did it.

    The opening and closing shots are justifably famous, and for me, their power results not just from the camerawork and from John Ford’s skill (nobody was better at framing a shot; Orson Welles studied Ford’s earlier films over and over) but also from Max Steiner’s wonderful score, which incorporates melodies from Civil-War-era songs such as “Lorena” and “Bonny Blue Flag.”

    Is there something about the western genre that requires at least a little racism to “work” as cinema? I’m not sure, but my second-favorite western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, also has a psychologically damaged Confederate veteran as its main character, and it was based on a novel by a KKK-loving white supremacist!

    I don’t know why some films are either extremely difficult or impossible to find via Netflix or on-line download (and forget about finding them for rental at your local video rental store, if there still is such a store in your area). The Searchers has been available on DVD (and for at least 3 years on Blu-Ray) in several very good transfers. With this film, as with others (I own DVD copies of more than 300 films), if one really wants to be able to view great films more than once, one has to break down and go out and buy the DVD.

  6. Francisco Bacopa says

    I love this movie, though I find it quite problematic for some of the reasons already mentioned here.

    I think the fight scene at Laurie’s party is in there to make The Searchers more like The Odyssey.

    One minor quibble is I am quite familiar with the area of Texas where the events the movie were based on took place. It’s at least 800 miles from Monument Valley, if not even as much as a thousand. Nice green and fairly well-watered farmland. At one point they mention the size of a cattle heard in the movie. If they’re raising them someplace where the land looks like it does in the movie, they must be getting a tanker truck of water every other day and two trucks of feed per week.

  7. says

    Heh, very true, I was thinking that throughout. It’s obvious why Ford loved filming there, but dang, it’s not cattle country.

    Ohhhh, the Odyssey! Interesting.

    I still think it’s a big mistake though. Jarring. Way too slapstick and crude for the bulk of the movie.

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