Searchers, The (1956)

The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford.

This is the most famous example of a small Western film genre: "white women kidnapped by the Indians". Other examples are:

The presumption is that the women have been raped, degraded and enslaved such that they are now untouchable and would be better off dead. All of these films violate that judgment, each in its own way.

I don't know if it is still understood today, but once upon a time everyone in books and films knew that being captured by the Indians meant rape, torture, mutilation and death. Hence "save the last bullet". This is why Ethan is haunted by the sight of the corpses and won't let young Martin (or the audience) see them. Imagination does the work here, making the audience complicit in the horror.

John Wayne goes deeper into something he started with Howard Hawks in Red River (1948). His Ethan goes beyond hard to obsessed, sometimes deranged. For the audience his obvious competence and bravery is at war with his unpleasant race hatred. He spends years tracking down kidnapped Debbie and we never know if he is going to to rescue her or kill her. Does he know himself?

For balance, savagery is not confined to the Indians:

"Let's go home, Debbie" is a great scene. What causes his turnaround between his first meeting with his niece and the second? He's been to the wedding with its comical brawling. Anything else?


I've had the Blu-ray for years but this must be the first time I've seen it. The image and composition are vastly better than I remember. Some scenes are on soundstages, which is unfortunate. It takes us out of what are otherwise vivid and realistic settings.

Winton C. Hoch cinematography. Score by Max Steiner with some traditional tunes, although the opening and closing credits have that "chuckwagon boys" sound, song by Stan Jones and performed by Sons of the Pioneers.

Available on Blu-ray with a low-key commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich.