The Searchers

The Searchers Study Guide

John Ford’s The Searchers is considered to be one of the greatest American westerns of all time. Released in 1956, it is based on a novel by Alan Le May and depicts a version of the Texas-Indian wars. A commercial as well as critical success, the film starred John Wayne as a Civil War veteran in search of his missing niece, played by Natalie Wood.

Filming took place in Monument Valley, in Arizona and Utah, Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, and Alberta. The plot was based on novelist Alan Le May's research about child abductions in Texas during the 1800s. It was met with critical acclaim upon its release, and is still considered to be one of the greatest American films ever made.

In 2013, in an article about his love for the film, director Martin Scorsese wrote about his fascination with the film, in all its complexities. He writes, "In truly great films—the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable—nothing's ever simple or neatly resolved. You're left with a mystery. In this case, the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realizes his goal, brings her back and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note. In its final moment, The Searchers suddenly becomes a ghost story. Ethan's sense of purpose has been fulfilled, and like the man whose eyes he's shot out, he's destined to wander forever between the winds."

In spite of its status as a great western, many have noted its political shortcomings. It seeks to show the point of view of Native Americans and their motivations, but it also depicts them as brutal and ruthless. While it takes an exploratory approach to race and different attitudes of the 19th century, it centers the white experience and depicts a strong fear of miscegenation among its white characters. Brutality towards Native individuals is depicted throughout the film, and Ford suggested in interviews that he wanted to depict the fact that Native Americans were not welcoming to white settlers—a move that some have suggested is a justification for genocide in the West.