The film takes place in Texas in 1868. We see a woman, Martha Edwards, opening the front door of her cabin, and looking out at the expansive desert. Her husband, Aaron, comes up beside her as Ethan Edwards, a war veteran and Aaron's brother, approaches. Their daughters, son, and family dog also come out onto the porch to greet Ethan.
Ethan greets them all and they go into the house. Ethan picks up the little girl, Debbie, mistaking her for her older sister, Lucy, then greets Lucy and Ben. Ben tells Ethan that Lucy has a "fella" whom she kisses, and everyone scolds him. Ethan gives Ben his saber as the children go into the kitchen. Aaron asks Ethan how California was, but Ethan clarifies that he wasn't there.
Later, during supper, Marty Pawley arrives at the Edwards' home. Marty greets Uncle Ethan, but Ethan stares back at him grim-faced, unable to recognize him. As Marty sits, Ethan suggests that he could be mistaken for a "half-breed." Marty clarifies that he is 1/8 Cherokee, but English and Welsh otherwise. "Ethan found you, under a sage clump, after your folks had been massacred," Aaron tells Marty.
Later, Marty sits outside on the front porch, before going inside to bed. As he goes off with Ben, Ben asks Ethan to tell them about the war, but Aaron insists that the war ended three years prior. "Then why didn't you come home before now?" Ben asks, with an indignant tone. Debbie tells Ethan that Lucy wears the locket Ethan gave her as a young girl, but not much since it makes her neck green. Ethan takes out a saddlebag and gives Debbie a medal.
When the kids go to bed, Ethan asks Aaron why the Todd place is abandoned, and Aaron tells him that Todd went back to chopping cotton. Aaron tells Ethan he's welcome to stay as long as he wants, but intimates that he would like him to go somewhere else. Ethan pulls out a pouch full of money to pay his way at the house. Aaron puts the pouch in a compartment in his chair, as Ethan goes and sits on the front steps.
The next day, Sam Clayton, a captain and reverend, along with some other men, arrive at the Edwards' and announce that Lars Jorgensen's "best cows" have been stolen. Clayton sits down at the table for breakfast, hungry for doughnuts and coffee. He inducts Marty and Aaron into Company "A" of the Texas Rangers, to go in search of the cattle, telling them that it is volunteer work and they won't be paid. As Ethan enters, he greets Clayton, who notes that he hasn't seen Ethan since "the surrender." "Don't believe in surrenders," Ethan says, before telling Clayton that he will go on the mission instead of Aaron.
The Texas Rangers leave, as Debbie and Ben open the door to the outside and make fun of Lucy for kissing her boyfriend, Brad. Clayton sips his coffee and looks over at Martha as she gathers Ethan's things. Before he leaves, Ethan kisses Martha's forehead tenderly.
The Rangers, along with Marty and Ethan, ride off into the desert. Marty rides up alongside Ethan and tells him that he gets a bad feeling about the trail they're on, but as he begins to elaborate, Brad, who has ridden ahead, waves to the group. They ride over to where he is and find the cows, which have been shot down, evidently by Comanche warriors. "Stealing cattle was to pull us out," Ethan says. "This is a murder raid. Shapes up to scald out either your place or my brother's." The Rangers decide to go to Jorgensen's place, and Marty asks if Ethan is coming, but Ethan insists that the horses need rest, and decides to stay.
Back at the Edwards' house, Aaron hears something in the distance, and the family dog begins to bark. Inside, Debbie sets the table for dinner, as Aaron takes a gun down from above the door and goes out, lying that he wants to kill some sage hens. Martha tells Lucy not to light a lamp, as Ben tells Martha that he wishes Uncle Ethan was there.
Aaron looks worried as he hears the cries of the Comanche in the distance. Martha tells Ben to close the shutters and hastily blows out Lucy's lamp. Lucy screams, and Martha slaps her to keep her quiet. Martha tells Debbie to go sleep out near her grandmother's grave and not make a sound or come back no matter what she hears. Martha hands Debbie her doll and Debbie runs out to her hiding spot. When the dog, Chris, follows Debbie, Debbie tells him to go back to the house. As she goes and hides behind the grave, a Comanche warrior steps over her and blows his horn.
We see Marty in the middle of the desert, calling for Ethan. The scene shifts to Ethan arriving back at the Edwards home, which is now on fire. He pulls out his rifle and rides towards the house. Marty follows him. As Ethan calls for Martha, he looks inside a small hut, seemingly disturbed by what he sees. Marty weeps and tries to look in the hut, but Ethan holds him back, eventually striking him down. When Ethan sees the dog over by the grandmother's grave, he goes over and finds Debbie's doll.
The next day at the funeral, Ethan cuts the singing short, insisting that they cannot waste anymore time. Brad's mother, Mrs. Jorgensen, approaches Ethan and tells him that she thinks of Lucy and Debbie as her own, and that she doesn't want the boys to "waste their lives in vengeance." Ethan rides away with Marty.
From the start, the cinematography in The Searchers is breathtaking, both because of its being shot in the rugged expanse of the American West, and because of the camerawork itself. The film opens with the image of Martha Edwards opening the front door of her home. We see the woman's silhouette from behind as she opens the darkened house up to the bright yellow light of the surrounding desert. The camera slowly zooms forward to reveal the breathtaking horizon line. Before we have met any of the characters, the perspective of the camera becomes a character itself, encountering the landscape just as Martha does.
This shot gives the impression that not only is the camera its own distinct character, but also the landscape itself takes on distinct qualities. The terrain of the American West, in all its expansiveness, is both a majestic place and a mysterious one. There is a sense of possibility, but also great danger suggested by the sheer amount of space that stretches out in front of Martha. Nature and space are an entity that haunts the characters in The Searchers, particularly, the white settlers, who find that the frontier may not be as welcoming as they had imagined.
The protagonist of the film is Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier who is returning to his brother's home in Texas after years away, played by the iconic hero of American westerns, John Wayne. Wayne enters the film much in the same way he enters most of his films, and indeed many films directed by Searchers director Ford: on a horse, with lilting underscoring. Wayne, with his deep drawl, craggy facial expressions, formidable frame, and dry affect, is the quintessential American cowboy. His reticence, macho demeanor, and tight-lipped-ness, is precisely what is meant to make him heroic in the eyes of the viewer, and the characters that surround him treat him like a savior, a self-sacrificial and cool-headed rescuer, who will know what to do when the going gets tough.
The racism of the white characters is apparent from the first dinner scene, when Marty comes in for dinner. Ethan gives him a death stare as he sits down, before noting that he looks like he could be a half-breed, the result of miscegenation between a white parent and a Native American parent. Marty tells him he's 1/8 Cherokee, but English otherwise, but Ethan maintains a skepticism about him, based on the young man's complexion. From this, we see that there is grave animosity between white Texans and the natives of the area, a prejudice that is also greatly based around anxiety about interracial reproduction, also known as miscegenation.
The Comanche characters are depicted as violent and aggressive, and they present an intense threat to the settlers in the film. After luring the Rangers out into the desert looking for Jorgensen's cattle, the Comanche attack the Edwards' cabin, killing Ben, Martha, and Aaron, and kidnapping Lucy and Debbie. This sets the conflict of the film into the motion; Marty and Ethan must set off to rescue the kidnapped girls, and avenge the deaths of their family members.