Famed director John Ford makes a political statement on racism and the genocide of indigenous Americans. While the white characters receive the most screen time and development, their behavior is, in many ways, more offensive than the native’s, not least because we see their worst crimes.
It is a manipulative and effective ploy. After the Comanches raid the Edwards’ farm, Ford shows us the burning house, but not the dead bodies. Compare that to White soldiers’ raid of a Native American camp, where we see destroyed structures and murdered people, one of whom we even know and like, at least a little.
Consider the characters, as well. Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) speaks softly, and remains mostly approachable, despite his attempts at intimidation.
What about Ethan Edwards (John Wayne)? He is obsessive, remorseless and coldly ruthless, all of which make him scary.
Even Lorie (Vera Miles), one of the film’s most sensible characters, tells Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) that his kidnapped sister is no longer white. Her hatred, like everyone else’s, is chilling.
In other words, director John Ford ensures we understand that European Americans victimized indigenous peoples.
Thankfully, neither he nor writer Frank Nugent sacrifice narrative for theme. Ethan, for example, is layered by intelligence, sense of humor and obvious, perhaps even inappropriate, affection for his brother’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan).
The other important characters, especially Martin, are also well developed.
Plus, Ford and Nugent pace their plot rapidly, moving their story along, ensuring we are never bored.
Likewise, Ford’s many striking visuals impress. The Searchers is downright beautiful, even sixty-plus years after its creation.
John Wayne’s nuanced performance deserves praise, as well.
Though some of the other actors, like Hunter, are less skillful.
And Nugent’s 1950s colloquialisms distract. After all, it’s unlikely nineteenth century frontiersmen used phrases like, “Go steady.” Nugent would have been wise to pattern dialogue on the period in which his characters reside.
But The Searchers’ flaws are minor. It is so well made, in fact, that it has value for all viewers, both fans and non-fans of westerns or John Wayne.