A lone rider, dust-caked and grizzled, approaches a ranch house in the distant reaches of West Texas. Ethan Edwards — played by John Wayne in perhaps his most powerful role — is a former Confederate soldier returning to the home of his brother Aaron three years after the Civil War has ended. Where he has been and what he has done is not clear, but his saddlebags are stuffed with freshly minted Yankee dollars.
His arrival precedes a series of tragic and traumatic events. His brother and beloved sister-in-law and two of their children will be slaughtered in a brutal Comanche raid, and his 9-year-old niece, Debbie, abducted by their killers. Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin Pauley, will launch a five-year search to get her back.
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.) - Jeffrey Hunter (left) and John Wayne in the film THE SEARCHERS (1956).
“The Searchers,” which will be shown again to Washington audiences on the big screen at AFI Silver Theatre on Saturday afternoon, is set in the waning days of the 40-year struggle between Texans and Comanches — the longest war ever fought on American soil — and it unflinchingly depicts the terrible price that each side inflicted on the other. But the 1956 movie is anything but a museum piece. It explores themes of gender, race and sexual violence that are stunningly modern.
Despite the best efforts of Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and a handful of other Hollywood directors and stars, the Western is largely a forgotten genre in these morally tangled times, its narrative simplicity and black-and-white verities elbowed aside by 150 shades of gray. Yet the taming of the frontier, even as portrayed in the Western, was never as morally straightforward as it seemed. We’re still wrestling with its legacy in the controversies over the Washington Redskins and Johnny Depp’s portrait of Tonto.
Directed by John Ford, “The Searchers” is widely recognized not only as the greatest American Western but as one of the best Hollywood films of all-time. It is beloved by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, all of whom saw it when they were aspiring young filmmakers and were deeply influenced by it. Largely overlooked in its time — it got no Academy Award nominations — it has captivated three generations of filmgoers.
Just as Ernest Hemingway noted that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” film critic Stuart Byron once declared, “in the same broad sense it can be said that all recent American cinema derives from John Ford’s ‘The Searchers.’ ” The film’s images — the door of a frontier cabin swinging open to reveal the vast grandeur of Monument Valley in the film’s opening moment, and closing again at the end; Indians stalking a small band of Texas Rangers on a vast horizon; two lone riders set against a blazing evening sunset — are among the most majestic in all of American cinema and the most copied. The emotions of sadness, grief, lost love, terror and defiance that it captures are among the most resonant. Set against its poetry, power and passion, films like “Django Unchained” and “The Lone Ranger” feel like Happy Meals or kids’ toys.