While The Searchers was not especially lauded at the time of its release, it has acquired quite a following over the years, as critics, filmmakers, and viewers have noticed its particular cinematic virtues. Filmmakers as distinct as Steven Spielberg, Jean Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, and George Lucas have all cited the film as inspirational to their own practices, and it regularly shows up on lists of the greatest American films of all time. A.O. Scott writes for The New York Times, "Ernest Hemingway once said that all of American literature could be traced back to one book, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and something similar might be said of American cinema and The Searchers. It has become one of those movies that you see, in part, through the movies that came after it and that show traces of its influence."
Many have cited John Ford's work on the film as "visual poetry" and praised his innovative decisions to shoot the grand and expansive landscapes of the American West in addition to smaller domestic scenes of the American family. In an article about the film's influence, Glenn Frankel writes, "The film’s images—the door of a frontier cabin swinging open to reveal the vast grandeur of Monument Valley in the film’s opening moment, and closing again at the end; Indians stalking a small band of Texas Rangers on a vast horizon; two lone riders set against a blazing evening sunset—are among the most majestic in all of American cinema and the most copied. The emotions of sadness, grief, lost love, terror and defiance that it captures are among the most resonant. Set against its poetry, power and passion, films like Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger feel like Happy Meals or kids’ toys."
For all its acclaim and cinematic influence, The Searchers has its detractors. Many have pointed out that Ford's depiction of Ethan's horrible racism towards the Comanche tribe is not a particularly complex depiction; rather, it is only meant to add to Ethan's appeal. Perhaps the disturbing reality is that Ethan's complicated relationship to racial tension is what is so compelling about the film, but to a modern audience, this complication seems hardly complicated, and just plain bigoted. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael suggested, in her review of the film, "What made this John Ford Western fascinating to the young directors who hailed it in the 70s as a great work and as a key influence on them is the compulsiveness of Ethan's search for his niece (whose mother he loved) and his bitter, vengeful racism."