Rediscovering ‘The Searchers’: A Cinematic Journey on John Wayne’s Birthday

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On May 26, something interesting happened.

I decided to watch The Searchers for the first time. This 1956 John Ford classic stars John Wayne and a very young Natalie Wood. Unknowingly, I chose to watch it on what would have been Wayne’s 117th birthday.

The movie lives up to its stellar reputation and offers even more. It’s unique because it bridges silent-era storytelling with talkie-era technological advances, making it stand out from its contemporaries. The Searchers is a perfect blend of narrative and spectacle, evidenced most clearly in its opening and closing sequences.

The film opens with a shot of a woman silhouetted against an open door, gazing out at the vast West Texas landscape. This is homesteader Martha Edwards, played by Dorothy Jordan. She walks outside apprehensively, the wind swirling around her. The camera follows her from the dark interior of her home to the sunlit Texas wilderness, showcasing endless skies, sunbaked buttes, sprawling deserts, and scattered greenery. She ultimately stops and the camera rests on a distant rider, her brother-in-law Ethan Edwards, played by Wayne. This initial camera movement thrusts the viewer into the open world of the story.

A silhouette of a person in a doorway

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Ethan dismounts, greeted by his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his children Lucy, Ben, and Debbie. They exchange pleasantries and move indoors, ending the opening sequence.

This introduction, with minimal dialogue, establishes Ethan’s romantic feelings for Martha, which become clearer as the movie progresses. Martha might also have feelings for Ethan, hinted at by the tension before the brothers shake hands and their immediate glances toward Martha. Ford’s silent filmmaking expertise is evident here, conveying Ethan’s unrequited love through nonverbal communication, facial expressions, and subtle gestures. Despite being trapped in his feelings, Ethan finds purpose in Martha’s existence.

Disaster strikes: While Ethan is away, a Cherokee raiding party led by Scar massacres the Edwards family, killing Aaron, Ben, and Martha. Lucy is captured and murdered, while young Debbie is taken prisoner. Ethan and his adoptive nephew, Martin, embark on a five-year journey to rescue Debbie. They eventually find the raiding party, kill Scar, and rescue Debbie, placing her with the Jorgensens, a rancher family close to the Edwardses.

This leads to the film’s closing sequence.

In The Searchers‘ final moments, Ethan approaches the Jorgensens’ ranch on horseback, cradling Debbie. The scene is viewed from inside the Jorgensens’ home, resembling the film’s opening shot of Martha. After gently placing Debbie on the ground, she is taken inside by Mr. and Mrs. Jorgensen. As the camera retreats into the darkened interior, emphasizing Ethan’s isolation, Martin and Laurie enter the home, leaving Ethan alone. He considers joining them but decides against it, walking alone into the Texas wilderness.

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The front door closes with Ethan on the outside. “The End.”

The concluding sequence mirrors the opening in both movement and meaning. The initial outward movement symbolizes openness and Ethan’s hopeful return. The final inward movement signals withdrawal, marking the end of Ethan’s story. For Debbie, her return is a rebirth, but for Ethan, it symbolizes death. He’s now a pallbearer laying Martha’s “remains” to rest, sealing his fate as a lonely wanderer.

With Martha’s death, Ethan loses hope for a transformative love. His three moments of tenderness in the film—greeting Martha, saying goodbye before pursuing lost cattle, and rescuing Debbie—highlight Martha’s influence. The rest of the film showcases Ethan’s sarcasm, cruelty, and anger, especially toward Martin, whom he mistreats due to his part-Native American heritage.

Yet The Searchers showcases Ethan’s gentleness, influenced by Martha. When Ethan rescues Debbie, he chooses life over hatred, inspired by his deep feelings for Martha. This mission was always about Martha, explaining Ethan’s obsession with finding Debbie. Ethan’s love for Martha motivated him, not concern for his other family members.

Rescuing Debbie gave Ethan a purpose after Martha’s murder. With that task completed, he has no place in the Jorgensen home. By the film’s end, Ethan is a shadow, consumed by isolation and grief.

On the surface, The Searchers is a straightforward story about a Confederate officer rescuing his niece. But John Ford’s deft storytelling reveals deeper themes of unrequited love and a man’s search for meaning, beautifully showcased in the opening and closing sequences.

It’s no accident Martha is the first person we see while Ethan is the last. It is, after all, a story about romantic love or, as the Western singing group the Sons of the Pioneers say in the opening title sequence, that which “makes a man to wander.”

Becket Adams
Becket Adams
Contributor. Becket Adams is a columnist for National Review, the Washington Examiner, and the Hill. He is also the program director of the National Journalism Center.

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