If you were to ask a hundred people for their list of the greatest motion pictures of all time, it would be a pretty scrawny selection that didn’t include John Ford’s The Searchers. Although released in 1956 and possibly eligible for Social Security benefits by now, The Searchers remains one of the Ford’s finest. Featuring an unbelievably solid cast, including John Wayne, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles and Jeffrey Hunter, The Searchers traces an ominous arc of vengeance and retribution through the then wild and unsettled west.
Wayne plays a dark character in this thinly veiled morality tale. As Ethan Edwards, he returns home to Texas after the Civil War, having fought for the Confederacy. When members of his brother’s family are killed or abducted by Comanches, he vows to track down his surviving relatives and bring them home. As the narrative unfolds, we also come to understand that Edwards has no great love for the Comanches. At one point, he leads a search party that finds a couple Comanches buried under a mass of sandstone. As the giant rock is pushed aside, Edwards pulls out his revolver and fires two rounds, one into each of the corpse’s eyes. Ward Bond’s character looks at him quizzically and asks, “What good did that do?” Edwards, still in the saddle, responds jovially, “By what you teach, Reverend, nothing. By what that Comanche believes, everything. If he ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit world.”
That mood pretty much permeates the entire film, as members of the search party fade or fall away, leaving Edwards and Martin Pawley to continue their quest, which takes them hundreds and hundreds of back-breaking miles and spans nearly a year and a half. As you might suspect with a character like Edwards, they find what they’re after, but the price paid is painted in gray and somber tones.
To many, The Searchers stands as a very powerful metaphor for what it took to expand this growing nation of ours. Was the effort worth it? Were our objectives met? Ford never says.