#13 – The Searchers
Scorsese wanted his students to see this film. Later, of course, Scorsese would direct what is arguably the most successful remake of The Searchers, Taxi Driver. Great art inspires other great art.
Ethan puts together a ragtag posse and vows to bring back the girls. Joining him are the Reverend Captain Sam Clayton (Ward Bond), neighbor Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) and the young and impetuous Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). They soon discover that Lucy has been tortured and killed, but Ethan vows to continue searching for Debbie. The search winds up taking years and becomes a physical manifestation of Ethan’s utter hatred for Native Americans. Will Debbie be rescued? Would Ethan rather see Debbie dead, rather than become a bride of Chief Scar? Why aren’t all Westerns this morally complex?
The Searchers is unique in that it does not simply use racism as a plot point or a clothesline upon which to hang easy platitudes, it is actually about racism and the effects its on the soul. Ethan is beyond being haunted by his irrational hatred of Native Americans, it is the only thing left that defines him and drives him. We see in The Searchers a theme that would become a favorite of countless other filmmakers (I’m looking at you, John Woo): that of the good guy and the bad guy being essentially interchangeable. They cannot stand each other because they recognize too much of themselves in each other.
1941, I asked Erik Childress and Peter Sobczynski if they thought Slim Pickens’s line, “Boy, watch that knife!” was a reference to Ward Bond’s very similar line in The Searchers. Childress said he was not sure but would not be surprised, given that Spielberg has screened The Searchers before directing every one of his films.
And of course, a young Buddy Holly sees the film during its original release, is taken with Ethan Edwards’s oft-repeated response to being challenged, and goes home to write “That’ll Be The Day.” Great art inspires other great art.
In nomine Ford, et Wayne, y spiritu Scorsese, Amen.