If it was me picking the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, I would not choose The Searchers (1956) as the highest rated Western on that list. It is ranked twelfth overall, while the next one of its genre is High Noon (1952) at twenty-seven. I would put that one above The Searchers. Indeed, I do not know if I would have it in the top 100. They say that with such things, subjectivity is everything. Let us look at some of the themes involved. There is random violence, racism, and a casual disregard for the law. Some of this, I suppose, is nothing unusual for Westerns. After all, they called it the “Wild West” for a reason. The first issue I took with the film is having the main protagonist be a Confederate veteran. Then there is how native peoples are portrayed. It is in keeping with prevailing views then on the so-called “red man,” which Hollywood did its part in perpetuating for far too long. My problem is having this kind of thing enshrined amongst so many other worthy titles. To give it credit, director John Ford’s cinematography is incredible. It is the aspects of the story that make it seem like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
The Searchers opens on a lone rider trotting up to an even lonelier farm in the far reaches of Texas. The man on the horse is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), and the spread belongs to his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). Aaron lives there with his wife and four children, one of which is the adopted Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). They are all keen to see Ethan, who is returning from the Civil War, and apparently one other conflict. He has a gift for the youngest, Debbie (Lana Wood), but is not too keen on Martin, owing to the young man’s heritage. There is strike one. Anyway, the next day they are visited by the local reverend/Texas Rangers captain, Samuel Johnston Clayton (Ward Bond), who comes with their distant neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen). Some of Lars’ cattle have been run off by Comanches in the area, and Captain Clayton is organizing a posse to find those responsible. Ethan and Martin come along, and when they find the missing cows dead, they realize they have been lured into a trap. While they are out riding, the Comanches have circled back and attacked the Edwards farm. Ethan and Martin get there as fast as they can, only to find Aaron and his wife killed, along with their son. Following a barely endured funeral on Ethan’s part, the Rangers head into the country once more, this time on the trail of the Comanches they believe are responsible. In addition to revenge, they hope to recover those taken, namely the Debbie and her older sister, Lucy (Pippa Scott). Eventually, they find an enormous band of Comanche, too many for them to handle. At this point, Ethan and Captain Clayton decide that they either need one or two men to carry on, or they need a much larger posse. They go for option A, with Ethan and Martin being the ones to go on, well, um . . . searching. They spend a lot of time searching. Searching. Searching. Searching. And it gets them nowhere, save for finding Lucy’s dead body. Come winter, they lose the trail of the Comanches they had been tracking and return to the Jorgensen spread, an equally desolate locale as the Edwards farm. Waiting there is the Jorgensen’s only daughter, Laurie (Vera Miles), who has been waiting for Martin. They are sweet on each other, and Lars has offered for Martin to stay and provide employment. This would have been acceptable had it not been for information received by Ethan that the Comanches leader Chief Cicatriz (Henry Brandon), known more commonly as Scar, has been spotted with Debbie. To Laurie’s devastation, Ethan and Martin take to the trail again, though their destination proves to be a dead end, literally. Still, they go back to searching. More searching. At one point, they end up trying to trade goods with another band of Comanches, which only inadvertently nets Martin a wife. She runs away, though, when they try to make her give them information about Scar and whether Debbie is alive. They later find her dead after a United States cavalry patrol raids a Comanche settlement. So, guess what time it is? You guessed it: back to searching. Their wanderings take them into New Mexico where they receive a tip that Scar has Debbie nearby. They are taken to the location, and they finally have a face-to-face with Scar. They also find a slightly aged Debbie (Natalie Wood). After the tête-à-tête, Debbie comes to warn them to get away, but it turns into a Comanche ambush that has Ethan believing Debbie to be a turncoat. Though they manage to escape, Martin believes Ethan to want to kill his niece. At any rate, they decide to return to the Jorgensen farm. When they do, they get there just as Laurie is about to marry another man. A fight breaks out between the groom-to-be and Martin, only to be interrupted by Lieutenant Greenhill (Patrick Wayne) of the United States cavalry. He has come to request that Captain Clayton gather his Texas Rangers because Scar’s band has been spotted nearby. Overlooking their encampment, Martin convinces everyone to let him go in to get Debbie out before they commit their atrocities. The next morning, hearing Martin’s gunshots that take down Scar, the Rangers ride into camp and commence to slaughter. On the outskirts, Ethan gallops up on Debbie, but picks her up instead of murdering her. With that, they all return to the Jorgensen property one last time, and everyone presumably lives happily ever after.
It is easy to watch The Searchers and decry its horrible treatment of native peoples. One might look at the Church as being no authority on attitudes towards native peoples. There have been some problems, but taken as a whole, Catholicism’s record with native peoples has led to entire countries being converted to the Faith. I am not talking about the kinds of conversions that come at the tip of the sword, but that which comes from companioning with them and leading people to Christ through fellowship. The carrot will always be more effective than the stick. If you want an example of the other kind of conversion, look at Captain Clayton. In these kinds of movies can you have a preacher unironically toting pistols and rifles. I will give him credit for handing a wounded person a Bible as a source of comfort, albeit in the middle of a gunfight. Not to impugn my Protestant brothers and sisters, but only amongst their sects could you have such a character. Catholicism often gets roundly criticized for holding onto millennia old traditions when it seems like the rest of the world has long rendered them obsolete. If being hip to the times means arming priests, I think the Vatican will have a problem letting that slide. I will stick to letting the Daughters of St. Paul, among other branches of the Church, continue the work of keeping the Faith relevant today.
If you are not familiar with the Daughters of St. Paul, you should check them out instead of watching The Searchers . . . after you read this review, of course. As I said in the introduction, the film deserves some praise for the way it is shot. The positive remarks begin and end with that remark. I did not even find the performances noteworthy. John Wayne was, actually, a good actor, but there were a number of inexplicable gestures in the movie that had me wondering if they were not meant to be left on the cutting room floor. In sum, there are better Westerns.