The Searchers

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(1956, directed by John Ford)

- inducted 2015 –

"The Searchers' complicated depiction of the American West has been thoroughly dissected over the years, from those defending the movie's unusual acknowledgment of its protagonist's single-minded prejudice to others that insist that director John Ford's acknowledgment of the racism that fueled the genocide of Native Americans doesn't excuse the movie's moments of internalized racism, like the way Martin's casual cruelty against his Indian "bride" is played for laughs. My favorite piece on the film is Jonathan Lethem's essay 'Defending The Searchers,' where the author wrestles from a very personal perspective about the impact the film has had on him and his impulse to defend it against those who find it offensive or simply boring and dated, even as his own relationship to the movie changes and grows more complex over repeated viewings. It's a movie that has similarly nested in the minds of countless filmmakers who have clearly been inspired, for better or worse by Ford and John Wayne's depiction of a tortured, obsessed 'hero.'

"My own relationship with The Searchers is a little more detached. When I rewatch it, I'm overwhelmed with the movie's stunning, iconic images, the power of Wayne's performance and the knowledge that the movie is the ancestor of so many of my favorites. At the same time, I admire Ford's attempt to deal with the uglier aspects of Ethan's relentless pursuit of the niece abucted by Comanches, even as I can't help wincing at that 'bride' sequence and other moments that remind of the limits of Ford's and the movie's enlightenment. It's a product of its time, as all movies are, and yet every time I watch it, I find myself focusing on another detail that further complicates my feelings about it.

"Rewatching it last week, I was struck by the scene where Ethan, after discovering that Debbie, his niece, wishes to remain with the Comanches who have raised her for the past five years, dictates his will to Debbie's adopted brother Martin, leaving everything to him as he no longer has any 'next of kin.' Martin is furious at Ethan for disowning his niece, and for good reason. And yet, earlier in the movie, we learned that Martin is part Comanche, which provokes a few racist barbs from Ethan. Why is Martin less of an Indian to Ethan than Debbie? Have the years they've spent together caused Ethan to see beyond that, or does being raised by a white family trump his Native American ancestry (and vice versa, in Debbie's case?). Or, as Debbie is also now one of the 'brides' of Scar, the Comanche who killed her sister, is Ethan's intention to kill the girl as much about sex as it is about race?

"That it could be any or all of these things is The Searchers in microcosm, and Ford's movie endures because it owns its contradictions and doesn't tell us how we should feel about them. It may not be a fully 'progressive' film by contemporary standards, but its honesty about the darker aspects of both the West and its own values - made more powerful because it is, at the same time, as exciting and visually stunning an adventure today as it ever was - makes it a more powerful statement on America's bloody, brutal history than any solemn message movie on the subject could ever hope to be."

~ Andrew Bemis

Principal cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Warden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Patrick Wayne, Lana Wood
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent
Based on the novel by Alan Le May
Executive producer: Merian C. Cooper
Associate producer: Patrick Ford
Director of photography: Winton C. Hoch
Production design by James Basevi and Frank Hotaling (art direction), Victor Gangelin (set decoration)
Costume design by Charles Arrico (uncredited)
Film editing by Jack Murray
Original music by Max Steiner
Makeup by Web Overlander
Hair stylist: Fae Smith
Sound by Hugh McDowell Jr., Howard Wilson
Special effects by George Brown

Duration: 119 minutes
Languages: English, Navajo, Spanish
Filmed in color (Technicolor)
Sound mix: Mono (RCA Sound Recording)
Aspect ratio: 1.75:1 (VistaVision – Motion Picture High Fidelity)

Produced by Warner Bros. and C.V. Whitney Pictures
Released in USA by Warner Bros.
Premiered in USA on 13 March 1956

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1989
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 25 November 2001
- DGA Awards, Directors Guild of America, 1956: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, John Ford (nominated)