The Searchers

Directed by John Ford 1956

Film opens with establishing shot of the view from the ranch as a lone cowboy approaches – enter Ethan Edwards to his brother and wife’s ranch.

Inside the ranch he’s shown in mid shots at the supper table to show relationships but his coldness towards Martin is evident in his phrase ‘half-breed’

Idyllic rural location – extended family, close knit.

Family’s openness is set against Ethan’s obviously shady past.

Enter Sam Clayton a preacher and Captain looking for a group to go rout the local Indians the Comanche.

Music – in the ranch during preparations for the men folk to leave – the spinet, a small high pitched piano; but as the party leave and are seen against the backdrop of the mountains and plains the music is deeper, darker, mournful strings, with a rhythmic beat like a fast heartbeat underneath. Later a single piano note repeated and held, strings reduced to one note held.

Low angle of Ethan on horseback when he sees brother’s ranch on fire.

Ethan’s character is set against the more level headed more morally responsible, Clayton and Martin. Ethan is bitter, single-minded, arrogant, vengeful and itching for a fight, which he does verbally with his fellow posse members and with a gun against the Comanche; but when he goes to shoot a last Indian as they retreat from the white men he is prevented by Clayton. Clayton represents the more modern white settler who understands the need to get along. Similarly Ethan’s purpose in chasing the two abducted girls is different to the other men’s; his is revenge theirs is rescue.

Wayne’s character, Ethan, in this film is not heroic but seen as a representative of the old and now outdated way in the West of conquest rather than …

He is often seen in a mid shot to show him restrained by those around him when in a low angle long shot he is seen as isolated and threatening in his own right.

When the Indians are introduced the music is the stereotypical music associated with Indians in films of this era, drums and rhythmic chanting, changes of key but not of refrain.

The Indians as the enemy are typically seen in low angle close up of the chief; mid shots of small groups; and wide shots of large groups: all to show their threat; often accompanied by the traditional Indian war cry or death chant.

Later the Indians are given a justification for their behaviour – it is the white man’s fault for killing their kind; they are only reacting to provocation.

When the Comanche are temporarily routed the posse break up knowing there are not enough of them to rescue the girls. Ethan, Martin and Brad set off in pursuit. Ethan at some point finds Lucy’s body and Brad storms the Indian encampment and is killed. Ethan and Martin spend years searching for Debbie.

During this time Ethan is constructed as growing ever more bitter and vengeful; he alienates Martin by his behaviour and attitudes and the audience grows ever more distant from Ethan’s character.

The women in this film are represented by Martha and Mrs Jorgensen; both homemakers seen either doing a domestic chore or in conjunction with their husbands or men folk. Laurie and Lucy are seen as young girls in chase of a bit of romance; all wear frilly long dresses, though later Laurie is seen in jeans, plaid shirt and with hair in pigtails. It seems the only purpose in being female is to find a husband worried in case as Laurie puts it they end up ‘on the shelf.’ These women are sidelined by the narrative, they are incidental and only form the motivation for the men to perform their acts of bravery.

Binary oppositions:

Civilised behaviour, code of ethics


Uncivilised; Ethan shoots Futterman in the back.

The ranch


The range

Men and power


Women, powerless at the mercy of men

Indians: uncivilised, barbaric morally and behaviourally; childish run away; pick on the weak


The white folk: civilised; moral; religious? Adult. Stand and fight; protect the weak

Planned rescue for the right reasons


Ethan’s desire for bloody revenge.

The old violent, unpredictable West


The tamed America of the future

Martin: measured, moral


Ethan: bitter, driven

Rev Sam Clayton: moral, sensible


Ethan: shady past; brutal




Men: rough, insensitive, protectors


Women: soft, need protecting

Law as represented by the rangers: Slow, rule bound, uniformed


Law: rough, ready and immediate


Music often patriotic, rich and full, representing the ‘right’ of the white man.

c/up of Ethan’s face shadowed by his hat representing his moral ambiguity.

Ethan represents the pared down traits of the original cowboys – the barest essentials for survival.

In the end he redeems himself by rescuing Debbie but elects to walk away, to be outcast from the community for its own good; his kind is out of phase with the rest of society which has moved on. As he brings Debbie home Ethan is shown in long shot there is a rising crescendo of orchestral music then as the others enter the house and Ethan turns away the strings become mournful; the end of an era.

[Facts and stats: named greatest western of all time 2008 / 12th greatest movie of all time 2007]


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