John Ford had been making westerns for almost four decades before he acknowledged the racism inherent in cowboys vs Indians and directed this exciting, breathtakingly beautiful and psychologically complex masterpiece.
John Wayne found the role of his career as Ethan Edwards, an Indian-hating ex-Confederate soldier torn apart by the thought that his kidnapped niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood) has been raped by savages.
The film covers Edwards’ relentless five-year search for the missing girl, who he eventually comes to feel he must kill because she has been ‘defiled’ by contact with her Comanche captors.
The true genius of The Searchers is in its ability to keep the audience’s sympathy for Ethan, despite the evident fact that he is a murderous racist who seethes with sexual repression and a loathing for the civilisation imposed by the victorious northern states.
In doing so, it elicits a far more complex and productive response than that of more obviously liberal films in this vein, such as Broken Arrow (1950).
Great credit must be given to Winton C Hoch who did the cinematography, much of it in Utah’s Monument Valley, an isolated region on the border between Utah and Arizona.
TRIVIA: The Searchers may be a classic of American cinema, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Look out for the car that appears in the right-hand corner of the shot of the cavalry crossing the snow-covered river!
Harry Carey Jr
Debbie Edwards as a girl