I first came across this film at Christmas 1991 on BBC-2, thanks again to Danny Peary’s Cult Movies. It was a box office favourite during the 50s, but the critics hadn’t really been impressed. However during the 70s, a string of new directors led by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas began showing their influence from it, Coppola’s final scene in THE GODFATHER as the door is closed on Kay is showing it’s influence from THE SEARCHERS and as George Lucas’s blockbuster STAR WARS” shows a young girl is kidnapped and her rescue.
John Ford had become known as “My name is John Ford, I make Westerns”, but he had won four best director Oscars, none for westerns (THE INFORMER, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN) and I was quite surprised in Derek Malcolm’s list that he chose the excellent, but rarely seen YOUNG MR LINCOLN with Henry Fonda.
He had a box office smash with the silent western THE IRON HORSE in the 20s, but with the coming of sound he didn’t make a western until STAGECOACH in 1939, the year of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, DODGE CITY and THE OKLAHOMA KID, but STAGECOACH was the biggest of them all and it made John Wayne a star as the Ringo Kid.
Over the next decade Wayne and Ford specialised in war pictures such as the excellent THE LONG VOYAGE HOME and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. It was whilst Orson Welles was screening STAGECOACH over and over again that he cast the cinematographer of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, Gregg Toland to make his first film, CITIZEN KANE.
After the war, Ford’s first western was MY DARLING CLEMENTINE with Henry Fonda, it remains the best version of the often filmed Wyatt Earp legend. Soon after this Howard Hawks cast John Wayne in RED RIVER and John Ford announced “That son of a bitch can act!” He cast him as the ageing cavalry officer in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, but his Ethan Edwards was an even more deeper and darker character in THE SEARCHERS.
Ethan comes home many years after the war to see his brother and his farm. Whilst Ethan is away, the family is attacked by an army of Comanche Indians led by a Chief called Scar, the two youngest girls are taken as hostage, the rest are slaughtered. Ethan gathers a posse to track down the Comanche and find the girls alive, after the eldest girl is found raped and killed, the posse turns back and leaves it up to Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter who would later find fame as Jesus in KING OF KINGS (or as it was known by the critics I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS) and as the first Captain of the Enterprise in the pilot of “Star Trek” – “The Cage” ) to track down Scar and find Debbie (Natalie Wood), as the years go by Ethan becomes more determined to find Scar.
“That’ll be the day” was Ethan’s catchphrase in the film and it gave Buddy Holly and the Crickets a title for their first number one. As I said earlier the film was a success at the box office, but the critics thought it was just another John Wayne western. The film was filmed in VistaVision, a high resolution film process that was developed by Paramount to compete with 20th Century Fox’s Cinemascope, Alfred Hitchcock shot most of his films in the 50s in this format, but this is the only film released by Warner Brothers shot in the process and the last American film shot in it was Marlon Brando’s “One Eyed Jacks” in 1961.
During the early 90s , I watched this film endlessly in the normal and the full scope version (which was one of the first films released on video by Warner Bros in Widescreen) as well as at the cinema. I remember being at the Cinema when it was re-released for Warner’s 75th Birthday and the iconic ending was cut, just as Ethan walks towards the door, the film stopped, somebody in the audience shouted that they did the same two nights earlier for 42 STREET.
Despite the fact that it is set in Texas, most of the film is filmed in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, Arizona. I love Winton C Hoch’s cinematography on this film and David Lean screened the film endlessly whilst making “Lawrence Of Arabia” to get the use of landscape right. I also think Max Steiner’s score is one of his most memorable. I don’t watch THE SEARCHERS that much anymore, but when I do, I still treasure these occasions.