Premiere of Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With its innovative treatment of Western conventions, director John Ford’s 115th feature film not only gave John Wayne one of the strongest roles of his career but also became one of the most influential American films ever made.

Summary of Event

The Searchers surprised its first audiences when it premiered on March 13, 1956. Most filmgoers expected another Western typical of the long and fruitful collaboration of director John Ford and screen icon John Wayne, who had produced box-office successes such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Fort Apache (1948). While this latest movie directed by Ford and starring Wayne certainly presented many of the conventions prominent in these earlier films and in Westerns in general—conflicts between settlers and Native Americans, strong male characters quick with their fists, gunfights, rugged Southwestern landscapes—almost nothing else about its characters, its themes, or its narrative style was conventional. Searchers, The (Ford) Westerns (cinema) [kw]Premier of The Searchers (Mar. 13, 1956) [kw]Searchers, Premier of The (Mar. 13, 1956) Searchers, The (Ford) Westerns (cinema) [g]North America;Mar. 13, 1956: Premier of The Searchers[05140] [g]United States;Mar. 13, 1956: Premier of The Searchers[05140] [c]Motion pictures and video;Mar. 13, 1956: Premier of The Searchers[05140] Ford, John Wayne, John Hunter, Jeffrey Miles, Vera Wood, Natalie

Based on a novel Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Searchers[Searchers] by Alan Le May Le May, Alan , the film The Searchers opens with Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returning to his brother’s homestead in Texas. The family reunion is brief, however: The next day, a band of Comanches led by a war chief called Scar slaughters the brother’s family, except for two young daughters, Lucy and Debbie, whom they abduct. Ethan, his brother’s foster son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), and Lucy’s fiancé, Brad, then become the “searchers” of the film’s title, as they set out to retrieve the missing girls. Soon, they discover that the Comanches have raped and murdered Lucy, and her fiancé dies in a frantic, suicidal gesture of retaliation. Ethan and Martin continue the search for five years, eventually killing Scar in New Mexico and bringing Debbie (Natalie Wood) back to Texas.

The bare outlines of the film’s plot, then, were typical of 1950’s Westerns. However, Ford’s presentation of the plot was far less typical. Cinema;stylistic innovation Cinema;Hollywood stylistic conventions Hollywood studio system;Westerns The most striking of Ford’s innovations involved his cast of characters: John Wayne never before or again played such a thoroughly flawed antihero, a man motivated by hatred, vengeance, and obsession with racial purity. Ethan’s search for Debbie in the film is motivated only initially by hopes of rescuing her. As the years pass, his objective becomes killing her, rather than allowing her to continue to live as a Comanche. He seems especially upset at the notion of his niece submitting sexually to Comanche “bucks” and bearing their children. Ethan’s hatred of Native Americans becomes genocidal in one disturbing scene: He begins to fire wildly into a herd of buffalo, hoping that his destruction of the animals will lead to starvation among the Comanches.

In many of the Westerns of Ford and Wayne, the Wayne character enters into a father-son relationship with a younger man, for whom he serves as initiator into the ways of the West and its code of masculine conduct. However, in The Searchers, this paradigm is subverted, with the naïve but good-hearted young Martin serving as the voice of common sense and compassion for the brash, violent Ethan. It is Martin who keeps urging Ethan to rescue Debbie rather than kill her; it is he who stops the slaughter of the buffalo. In the end, it is Martin’s viewpoint that Ethan adopts. At last in a position to kill the niece who has been living as a “Comanch” for five years, Ethan relents and embraces her. Instead of the older man teaching the younger man the ways of the West, in this duo, the younger man helps the older unlearn some of the negative attitudes that his experiences have instilled in him.

The characterization of Vera Miles’s Laurie is equally striking. The Western has been notorious for depicting women as either submissive farm wives or salacious saloon girls. Though a farm girl, Laurie is not submissive. In her first scene, she walks boldly up to Martin and kisses him passionately on the lips—and she continues to take the lead in their relationship throughout the film. She is morally upright but never prudish or demure, walking into the room where Martin is bathing and sneering at his modesty, proclaiming that it would not bother her in the slightest if men walked around naked. Although she loves Martin, she bluntly tells him that she will not wait around for him forever. Her explanation—“I ain’t cut out to be no old maid”—is a forthright statement of female sexuality and assertiveness.

Ford’s storytelling is as iconoclastic as his characterizations. The Western genre had long been noted for simple, straightforward narrative technique, with few surprises and even fewer subtleties. However, The Searchers abounds in mysteries: Why has Ethan waited three years after the end of the war to return? What is the source of his silver coins? How did he come to find Martin as the infant survivor of an earlier massacre—and what was his relationship with Martin’s mother? Important plot points and subtexts are communicated purely through visual images and casual bits of business. For example, a past love between Ethan and his brother’s wife, Martha, is established, but only by brief moments between the two characters—a touch, a lingering look—and by the fleeting scene in which Martha, alone in a bedroom, lovingly embraces Ethan’s discarded coat. These subtle suggestions add immeasurably to viewers’ understanding of the motivation for Ethan’s vengeful quest.

In addition to these nuances, the film’s unconventional narrative keeps viewers on edge with shifts and twists. In the beginning, the film seems to be about Ethan’s reunion with his kin after a long absence, and the evidence of Martha’s fondness for her brother-in-law hints at a coming family drama. This potential story line comes to an abrupt end with the massacre. The discovery that Lucy has been slain and the death of her fiancé, Brad, are wrenching and sudden. Similarly, a Comanche maiden called Look attaches herself to Martin about halfway through the film and briefly seems positioned to become one of the titular “searchers”; however, she soon disappears from the narrative and is later found dead at one of Scar’s deserted campsites. Ethan and Martin never discover the reason for her flight or her death.


The significance of The Searchers in the history of American cinema cannot be overstated. Although Hollywood had released sophisticated Westerns before, a number of them directed by Ford himself, there had never been one as intellectually challenging and as bold in narrative experimentation Cinema;narrative techniques . With the film’s release in 1956, the Western truly came of age. The Searchers, moreover, became a model for a method by which other long-disparaged movie genres would gain critical respect in subsequent decades. For example, the disjunctive, surprise-laden style of story line found in The Searchers prefigured the quirky plots of three seminal horror films of the 1960’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Furthermore, plot elements of and visual references to The Searchers turn up in the Star Wars Trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) and the Alien series (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), movies that made science-fiction cinema profitable, popular, and respected after years of relegation to B-film status.

The Searchers is also significant on a sociopolitical level. In the mid-1950’s, the Civil Rights movement was nascent, and in the near-paranoia about communism, multiculturalism was rarely addressed. United States;postwar popular culture Americans were beginning to worry about the breakdown of the nuclear family and the proliferation of blended families as a result of a rise in divorce and remarriage. Though set ninety years earlier, Ford’s 1956 film explored these contemporary issues. At first, Wayne’s character is a hatemonger obsessed with racial purity and a strict definition of family as those related by blood. Contemptuous of Martin because of his Cherokee heritage, he insists that he is not Martin’s uncle and that Debbie is not Martin’s sister, because they are not blood kin, despite the boy’s having been part of the Edwards household since he was a baby. He would rather kill his niece than have her live as a Comanche.

However, by the end of the film, Ethan speaks to Martin of Debbie as “your sister” and writes a will leaving his possessions to Martin, as if he were truly his nephew and despite his nonwhite bloodline. Finally confronting Debbie in the film’s climax, Ethan embraces her in her Comanche attire, telling her that he is taking her “home,” though that home is with a foster family. Like much else in the film, Ethan’s progress toward greater tolerance and a broader definition of family is subtly depicted. Nevertheless, in The Searchers, John Ford dealt with important issues that most of Hollywood would not dare to explore for another decade at the least. Searchers, The (Ford) Westerns (cinema)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ford, Dan. Pappy: The Life of John Ford. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. A memoir by Ford’s grandson and therefore unique among the many biographies and retrospectives, with insightful account of the filming of The Searchers. Black-and-white illustrations from the author’s personal collection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le May, Alan. The Searchers. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954. Original novel provides look at changes Ford made in transferring story from page to screen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peary, Gerald. The John Ford Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Accessible presentation of Ford’s career—in the director’s own words.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silver, Charles. The Western Film. New York: Pyramid, 1976. Standard work on the subject, offering overview of the genre from which The Searchers emerged.

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