The Searchers

AFI Rank: #96
Year Released: 1956
Director: John Ford
Actors: John Wayne, Natalie Wood

The Searchers is intriguing - it was only #96 on the original AFI top 100 list, but in a revote it leapt high to #12. An amazing improvement in a short period of time! Either way, the movie is well deserving of its top-100 listing and takes its place as a powerful western that breaks the rules.

Most Westerns are very simple. Good guys kill bad guys, good guys win. With The Searchers, the twists are more grey. John Wayne is the confederate brother of a Texas family man. When John gets back home, his brother's wife seems fairly fond of him, and there are subtle undercurrents. We get a sense that John hasn't been exactly law abiding in the years he's been gone. When John's brother's family is slain, and the two girls taken hostage, there's no question in his mind. He's going to go out and slay as many Comanche as he can point his gun at.

You get a wealth of emotions in what follows. There's the lad who goes crazy with grief and rides into a massacre. There's the lad who wants to do what's right. There's the scenes of "white women" who had been driven crazy by living with the "wild Indians". And John himself seems to feel this is just what happens. He decides that, once a female is touched by a Comanche, she's better off dead. No need to bring her home - she's tainted permanently.

I adored the subtlety of many scenes. The way viewers can get the sense of the relationship between John and his sister-and-law just with looks and actions. The rolling turmoil of emotions within John.

I also adore the gorgeous scenery - although I have an issue here. Clearly this is Monument Valley in Utah. Monument Valley is absolutely spectacular landscape and is also quite unique. I consider myself blessed to have been able to spend time there. How could they possibly call that "Texas"? Wouldn't that be like shooting a movie in New York City with its incredible landmarks and then calling it Houston? Why not set the scene in Utah?

It also bothered me that the key Native American character - Chief Scar - was played by Henry Brandon, was born in Berlin, Germany. Surely they could have found an ACTUAL Native American to play that important role. It felt nearly like black-face to see him painted up to "pretend" to be a Comanche. It made every scene with him in it feel fairly silly. And to continue there, clearly the movie - from the point of view of the characters - is fairly strongly anti-Comanche. There is never even the slightest sense that the girls might *be happy* with the Comanche tribe and want to stay there. The Comanches are simply "nasty wild animals".

So those are some of my issues. But against that, The Searchers gets great credit for involving women so thoroughly. Many movies of this ilk barely have a female to be seen, even thought clearly half of the population in a situation like this was female. I give thorough kudos to The Searchers to show how interwoven women were in these situations. They were stuck waiting at home, hoping for their men to return. They were the innocent victims of these attacks. Where so many movies fail the Bechdel test, The Searchers actually passes, given the scenes of the family at home and the women all talking together.

So to summarize, I definitely don't think The Searchers is perfect. They should have simply set it in Utah. They should have had a Native American main character so the scenes felt real. But that being said, the movie created an incredible, multi-layered feeling of reality. The characters weren't just black or white. The situations were complex and relied on many subtle undertones. The character growth over the course of the movie was powerful. And it's a movie that can be enjoyed repeatedly. I do wish that the movie had been more multi-sided, showing that the Comanche were human beings too and that the girls might have enjoyed what their culture offered. But for the time period in which it was made, and based on what had come before, The Searchers was an important turning point in how westerns were portrayed.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100