John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’: The Essential Film of American Culture and Identity


By Sven Mikulec

Respected filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence), an intelligent, educated and well-spoken man, was giving a lecture in Zagreb, Croatia a couple of months ago, when he said something that resonated in our minds for quite some time. His statement was simple and logical, and yet left an impact as rather refreshing. Oppenheimer said that the whole Western genre was based on genocide. This realization sheds a different light on all those movies we enjoyed over the years, as simplistic, black-and-white a part of them might be. It’s the very same realization that makes John Ford’s The Searchers, one of the most significant American films of all time, stand out even more. With John Wayne’s arguably greatest performance ever—as magnificent as he was in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—and with one of the most impressively written characters in the history of the genre, The Searchers features a story of a troubled, lonely and unapologetically racist ex-Confederate soldier who undergoes an exhausting quest of locating his niece, kidnapped by the Comanche upon butchering her family. In some less ambitious and far less complex film, our protagonist Ethan would go through hell and back to save his beloved niece. In John Ford’s masterpiece, Ethan labors tirelessly to find the girl, but driven by an unflinching wish to kill her. In his eyes, she’s been tainted by being adopted by the Natives. “Living with the Comanche ain’t living,” he explains. The extent of his hatred towards Indians is presented on more than several occasions throughout the film. At one especially memorable moment, Ethan shoots the eyes out of an Indian corpse, so as to force his soul to endlessly wander the desert. He doesn’t only hate the Indians—he despises them to the degree of taking the trouble of learning about their beliefs in order to hurt them more deeply.

The film, based on Alan Le May’s 1954 novel and written by Ford’s frequent collaborator Frank S. Nugent, owes a part of its greatness to the bravery exhibited by the creation of the morally controversial central character. Ford has been considered a master at cinematically confronting periods and aspects of American history. As uncomfortable and haunting as it is, this film is an intelligent reflection on an issue deeply ingrained in American identity, an issue that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. Ford knew that, and by breathing realism into the story, he made a thoroughly moving picture of instrumental value for the American cinema. It’s enough to observe the impact the film had on a whole generation of filmmakers in the seventies. Psychologically deep and self-reflexive, intriguing and abounding in some of the most visually captivating shots ever seen, The Searchers is, without a doubt, the essential film of American culture.

Here’s a rarity: Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay for The Searchers [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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As part of its promotion of Searchers in 1956, Warner Bros. produced and broadcast one of the very first behind-the-scenes, “making-of” programs in movie history—The Making Of The Searchers—which aired as an episode of its ongoing Warner Bros. Presents TV series.



Psychological epic: the director John Ford during the filming of The Searchers.



The Searchers has been more or less officially recognized as a great American classic. But I have to admit that I never really know what that kind of recognition amounts to. The film turns up on many 10-greatest-films-of-all-time lists, including my own. At least two moments from the picture—John Wayne lifting up Natalie Wood and then cradling her in his arms and the final shot—are commonly included in clip reels. Film lovers know it by heart. But what about average movie watchers? Is it as well known as It’s a Wonderful Life or Casablanca or Breakfast at Tiffany‘s? What place does John Ford’s masterpiece occupy in our national consciousness? As Glenn Frankel puts it in The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, his fascinating new book about the picture and the history behind it, “The Searchers is perhaps the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen.” —Martin Scorsese on The Searchers

“There’s a lot of pictures I’m going to talk about. Certainly one of my favorites is The Searchers, John Ford’s The Searchers. Up to that point, I’d become aware of certain names on films, and one of the key names was John Ford. I saw his name usually on the films I enjoyed, and then I began to realize what a director did and that is translate ideas into images, using the lens like a pen, and that’s the key… it’s forcing the audience to see something a certain way that you want them to see it.” —Martin Scorsese



The legendary John Milius on John Ford and Akira Kurosawa’s biggest hero.

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“In the written history of film, John Ford has tended to get credit for most of Winton C. Hoch’s accomplishments. Articles and books are churned out that praise Ford’s ‘eye for color’ and ‘visual sense.’ These attributes he undoubtedly had, but it was Hoch’s ‘eye for color’—and his peerless technical expertise at putting that eye at the service of Ford’s pictorial and narrative concerns—that impart such rare visual beauty to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. Hoch never shot a film in black-and-white. His years of experience as a technician in the Technicolor laboratories gave him a unique perspective in the uses and possibilities of color cinematography. Throughout his thirty-year career, he supplied sumptuous color images to many films, but his five pictures for John Ford remain the backbone of his work. In 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (for which he won his only solo Oscar), The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts, and The Searchers, Hoch provided the director with some of his most elegant and striking images. The three westerns were shot on Ford’s favorite location—Monument Valley, a spot which has proved unusually receptive to any number of visual approaches. Winton Hoch was responsible for capturing its unworldly beauty in Technicolor that was by turns stark, luscious, symbolic, and rousing. Hoch’s seasoned eye saw the links between the red of blood and clay and the blue of sky and cavalry uniform. Monument Valley, through Hoch’s lens, could be flag, desert, hellish void, nourishing Eden. Hoch’s brilliant use of the medium should stand forever at the art’s highest plane.” —Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers


“See how John Wayne is standing there? That’s from the famous last shot of The Searchers. The pose—with the one arm holding the other—was quite distinctive, and so un-John-Wayne-like that Bogdonavich once asked him about it. “You know how you stand in the doorway in that last shot? And how you have your arms? Was that on purpose? Did you choose that pose, or…” And John Wayne’s answer is enough to bring tears to my eyes. He said, “I knew a guy who stood like that all the time. And the pose always seemed so lonely to me. I thought it would work well in that last shot.” The consciousness of his artistry, his genius… that he chose that particular pose on purpose—for that reason… Brilliant.” —Sheila O’Malley, The Searchers: John Ford Anecdotes


Paramount Theatre, San Francisco, December 3, 1955




The American West of John Ford—1971 CBS TV documentary on the career and Westerns of the legendary filmmaker. Narrated by John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda.



Peter Bogdanovich first met John Ford in 1963, when he conducted the first out of a series of interviews with the legendary filmmaker. Four years later, Bogdanovich published an interview book about Ford, and even though the director was allegedly dissatisfied with both the original Variety piece from 1963 and the “caricature” of a book from 1967, the two of them started a friendship that prompted Bogdanovich to start working on a documentary. Directed by John Ford was introduced to the world in 1971 with high praise from critics. Bogdanovich, however, wasn’t all that happy about what his passionate documentary tribute turned out to be. Since there were insufficient funds to purchase the rights to relevant inserts from Ford’s movies, the documentary was destined to be shown only in non-profit venues, meaning it was rarely seen upon its initial release. Furthermore, Bogdanovich felt he failed to explore Ford’s character and personal life in sufficient depth. After a critically successful screening of the original documentary at the 1999 Telluride Film Festival, Bogdanovich decided to make a revised version of the film that ultimately came out in 2006.

As promised to producer and friend Frank Marshall, Bogdanovich kept “all the good stuff” in the film—such as brilliant material with John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda—enriching it with additional interviews with actors Clint Eastwood, Maureen O’Hara and Harry Carey, Jr., as well as inserting his conversations with filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill and Steven Spielberg. With the new version, Bogdanovich felt he rounded up what he wanted to say about the iconic filmmaker considered by most as one of the most significant cinematic authors in American cinema. John Ford would have probably discarded the film, claiming he only endured three minutes of it before nausea started to kick in. But then again, he made similar comments on Bogdanovich’s interview book about him, only to buy 200 copies of the collection. It’s just who John Ford was, a complex man with one heck of an unprecedented talent for cinema. You can watch the documentary online at Internet Archive. The DVD of the documentary is available at Amazon and other online retailers.


“John Ford as featured director in an episode of the television series Cineastes de notre temps; author’s attempts at befriending Ford; personality and charisma of Ford; influences of other directors on Ford; making of Western movies; reason for being a director; working relationship with actors. He had conducted that one from his bed, having taunted the hapless Gaul with his own fractured French. Shortly before his death in 1973 and now living in La Quinta, Ford allowed himself to be photographed in his bed with his friends John Huston and Dennis Hopper.” —My Morning with John Ford: Through a Pilsner Glass


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Ford’s The Searchers. Photographed by Alexander Kahle © Warner Brothers/Photofest. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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