Submitted by Don Doman
“The Searchers” (1956) stars John Wayne in one of his most compelling films ever directeed by film legend John Ford. I’ve seen the movie countless times. I’ve owned my own copy for years, and yet when I come across the film on cable as I flip through the channels with my remote, I stop and watch it again. The film is about heroes, revenge, leadership, and doing the right thing.
“The Searchers tells the emotionally complex story of a perilous, hate-ridden quest and Homeric-style odyssey of self-discovery after a Comanche massacre, while also exploring the themes of racial prejudice and sexism. Its meandering tale examines the inner psychological turmoil of a fiercely independent, crusading man obsessed with revenge and hatred, who searches for his two nieces (Pippa Scott and Natalie Wood) among the “savages” over a five-year period. The film’s major tagline echoed the search: “he had to find her…he had to find her.”
— Tim Dirks
The “wine dark sea” is as much a part of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey as Monument Valley is to the iconic landscape of the classic western. We are creatures of our own habitat and design. Monument Valley represents the frontier, and the frontier is a hard place to live. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a dedicated man, a hate-filled man, a driven man . . . a man of contradictions and flaws. Ethan comes home to Texas three years after the Civil War. When Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) says, “I ain’t seen you since the surrender. Come to think of it, I didn’t see you at the surrender.” Ethan replies, “(I) don’t believe in surrenders.” That one line tells you what you need to know about the character.
A group of Texas Rangers and deputized posse go looking for raiding Indians who have stolen some cattle. The posse finds the cattle slaughtered and Ethan realizes they have been lured away for cause. Fierce Comanche Indians, led by the chieftain “Scar,” kill Ethan’s brother and rape and then kill his sister-in-law. His two nieces are kidnapped.
A large posse sets out to search for the girls. As time goes by the posse dwindles. It becomes clear that Ethan considers the girls dead or worse. They may have become Comanche themselves. He is now only seeking revenge. Reverend Clayton of the Texas Rangers asks Ethan if he is ready to quit his search. Ethan replies, “That’ll be the day.” That comment inspired Buddy Holly to write his rock-a-billy hit song in 1957 after seeing “The Searchers.”
Ethan and his brother’s adopted son, Marty, who is part Cherokee and therefore less than human, continue looking for the Comanche and any evidence of the girls. Ethan finds Lucy, raped, tortured, and murdered. The two continue on with Ethan the driving force. Marty stays to protect Debbie from Ethan if they ever find her.
In the end Ethan gets his revenge and rescues Debbie. He cannot kill her.
In the film we see some of the best shots ever recorded on film. We hear memorable lines. We see excellent acting. We see relationships develop. We experience great directing. But most of all, we see the face of leadership.
In Ethan Edwards we see a leader we can depend on. We know him. We can depend on him. We honor his decisions. We know that he will arrive at his destination. We know too, that we will arrive with him.
Some leaders you would follow into Hell because you feel that you will reach your goal AND continue to live . . . or at least have a better chance of surviving. We see this in the leadership of Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) in “We Were Soldiers,” Captain Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) in “Band of Brothers,” Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker) in “Zulu,” and Michael Corleone (Al Pachino) in “The Godfather” saga. Each of these people have flaws. All leaders have flaws. We should never stop following because leaders have flaws, but we should never be blind to them.
Ethan Edwards has major flaws. He overcomes many on his journey. We see him struggle with his thoughts and decisions. In “Band of Brothers” there is mention of an officer during the Battle of the Bulge: “. . . wasn’t a bad leader because he made bad decisions. He was a bad leader because he made no decisions.” Great leaders are worth the search and effort to find them. Ethan Edwards is a leader. He makes bad decisions, but moves on. He is a hero. In the end he does what is right. To do less would be unthinkable. As Ethan says, “That’ll be the day.”