Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Searchers (1956)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

The next scene is beautifully orchestrated, a masterpiece of visual storytelling. The camera remains stationary in the main room of the cabin as the action unfolds with various characters. While Clayton drinks his last cup of coffee and eats a doughnut before leaving, he kicks the front door shut with his foot and is left alone in the room. To his left (screen right), he sees Martha through the doorway of her bedroom, taking out and gently stroking and caressing Ethan's Confederate cape in an enigmatic, semi-religious gesture. Standing in the foreground while staring straight ahead and pretending not to notice the private moment from the corner of his eye, Clayton finishes his coffee and deliberately averts his eyes. In the background behind Clayton, Martha brings out Ethan's hat and coat to him when he enters. Ethan accepts both items and chastely kisses Martha goodbye on the forehead - the second time in the film. Experiencing discomfort at witnessing and sensing their loving feelings for each other, an intimacy that is a clear violation of accepted norms, Clayton remains stoically silent and immobile as he stares ahead. [Prior to the film's story, Ethan may have loved Martha but refused to become committed or domesticated. Longing for security, she married his stable brother instead.] Ethan turns to leave - Martha follows him with an outstretched hand which never was able to caress him. Clayton puts down his cup and follows Ethan, squeezing by to walk around Martha to get through the front door.

Ethan and the posse (without Aaron) leave on horseback, as Martha watches once again (with other family members) from the front of the cabin. She hugs Debbie as Ethan rides away. Along the way, Marty calls Ethan "uncle," a close kinship term that Ethan rejects: "Don't call me Uncle. I ain't your Uncle...Don't need to call me Sir either, or Grandpa or Methuselah. I can whup you to a's Ethan."

Soon, after riding through majestic landscapes of Monument Valley, they find the prized cattle 40 miles away, deliberately killed with feared Comanche lances, not by Caddos or Kiowas (as Ethan emphasizes while scowling at Mose) - slaughtered but not eaten for food. With their voices echoing from the towering sandstone walls surrounding them, Ethan unemotionally informs everyone how they were deliberately tricked - lured and diverted away from the unprotected ranches so that the defenseless settlers would be left behind. The victims are feared to be either the Jorgensen family (including Lars' wife and daughter Laurie) or the Edwards family:

Stealin' the cattle was just to pull us out. This is a murder raid.

Lars Jorgensen's reaction is to break down, pray hysterically and ride off: "Oh please God. Please no!!"

Desperately anxious to return to defend the homestead 40 miles away, Marty fails to heed Ethan's advice to let his horse rest and gallops off in blind fear. Mose Harper remains with Ethan to rest their horses before returning. Ethan removes his own horse's saddle and rubs the sweat off the horse's back. In one of the film's few closeups of Ethan's face, he stands over his horse, agonizing and realizing that his brother's home could be attacked. His face is painfully anguished by the thought that Martha and his brother's family could be the target of an impending Comanche murder raid.

The tense, uneasy pre-massacre scene at Aaron's homestead before the Indian attack in the orange-red light of dusk is highlighted by a succession of vivid, poetic images. Aaron and Martha pretend that nothing is amiss to avoid scaring the children:

  • a covey of birds (quail?) take sudden flight after being startled
  • the family dog barks on the porch
  • a nervous Martha watches her husband as he tries to remain calm, but takes his gun with him: "I think I'll see if I can't pick off a couple of sage hens before supper"
  • teenaged son Ben shows concern to his mother: "I wish Uncle Ethan was here. Don't you Ma?"
  • a closeup of Lucy screaming when she realizes they are in grave danger and threatened by an Indian attack
  • Martha is anxious with Debbie as she is put through the window with her blanket and rag doll Topsy and told to run and hide in the family cemetery. Martha throws herself across the window sill in tears, crying out: "Baby!"

The pre-massacre scene ends with the shocking view of Chief Scar (German-born Henry Brandon, a blue-eyed, non-Native American) standing menacingly over a frightened Debbie crouched by a family grave, his shadow moving over her and covering her. [Note: A quick glimpse of the tombstone that Debbie hides next to reveals the source of Ethan's glaring hatred for the Indians: "HERE LIES MARY JANE EDWARDS KILLED BY COMANCHES MAY 12, 1852 A GOOD WIFE AND MOTHER IN HER 41st YEAR." Ethan's own mother was massacred by Comanches 16 years earlier.] The scene fades out as Scar blows on his horn, signaling the start of the massacre. Most of the Edwards family (Ethan's brother Aaron, sister-in-law Martha and nephew Ben) are brutally and tragically murdered in the posse's absence by warring Comanche Indians. Scar kidnaps Ethan's two nieces, Debbie and Lucy, ultimately making one of them - Debbie - his 'squaw.'

About a mile away from the Edwards' homestead, Ethan passes Marty who is afoot and carrying his saddle - his horse died from exhaustion. Then, Ethan makes the terrible discovery. In another closeup of his face, he views the burned-out homestead from a distance. He calls out Martha's name (not Aaron's or the children's) when he gets closer to the havoc of the scene, and then sees some of her clothing - her blue dress. Framed by the remains of a smoking, burning doorway and silhouetted against the light, Ethan squats and surveys the butchered dead, and his head drops as he imagines the torture that three family members suffered, including Martha's rape. [A similar scene of Luke Skywalker's discovery of his aunt and uncle's burning home after their murder by Imperial Stormtroopers is found in George Lucas' Star Wars (1977).]

As he comes out of the house after finding Martha's body, he is crazed in his stance and expression. [He has lost his beloved Martha twice, first to his brother, and then to the savagery of the wilderness embodied in bloodthirsty Chief Scar. Scar's violation and destruction of Martha in her own home is a perverted expression of Ethan's own frustrated sexual longing - his impossible love for her. Psychically Scar-red and disfigured, his obsessed search for the killer is partially motivated by racial hatred, but mostly for revenge of Martha's sexual violation.]

He fights off Marty, keeping the horror from him: "Don't go in there, boy...Don't let him look in there, Mose. Won't do him any good." Mose rights the rocking chair and sits in it one more time outside the smoldering ruins of the Edwards home while Ethan walks off, crying out: "Lucy, Debbie." Finding Debbie's discarded blanket and rag doll in the cemetery after being alerted to look there by the barking family dog, he realizes she has been abducted along with Lucy.

At the desert funeral ceremony of the massacred Edwards family, the assembled people gathered around the graves to sing Shall We Gather at the River. Ethan attempts to hurry the proceedings along, impatient and contemptuous of the ritualistic customs that hold society together, and ready to begin the search. More interested in vengeance than ritual, he tells Reverend Clayton as he authoritatively moves away and draws other mourners with him to abruptly end the ceremony:

Put an amen to it. There's no more time for praying. Amen. Brad. Martin.

The Reverend is also wrenched away from his religious duties to assume the lead as Captain of the vengeful chase. Ethan decides to take the law into his own hands during the vengeful search for his kidnapped kin, who may either be raped or taken into Indian society and culture.

A search party is reassembled and gives chase following the Comanche's trail, composed of Ethan, Marty, teenaged Brad Jorgensen (Lucy's sweetheart and fiancee), Captain Clayton, and other rangers. Ethan sets out to find his two nieces, Lucy and Debbie, motivated by his love for Martha and a homicidal rage against the Indians, but he is unaware that his search is the start of a five-year journey. Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey, widow of Harry Carey, Sr.) pleads with an inattentive Ethan to not seek vengeance before he begins his obsessive search:

Ethan, those girls mean as much to me as though they were my own. Maybe you don't know that my Brad's been sitting up with Lucy and...It's just that I know that Martha would want ya to take care of her boys as well as her girls. And if the girls are dead, don't let the boys waste their lives in vengeance. Promise me, Ethan.

Along the way, the searchers find a Comanche buried under a large sandstone rock. [This scene of the traditional Indian burial ritual is closely juxtaposed to the previous scene of the Christian funeral.] Ethan takes his gun and shoots two bullets at the Indian corpse, aiming at its eyes. Although Reverend Clayton interprets his senseless, excessive act as vindictive and contemptuous, Ethan explains how his defilement of the Indian has thwarted the spiritual belief of the Comanche, causing his spirit to wander forevermore:

Clayton: What good did that do ya?
Ethan: By what you preach, none, but what that Comanche believes. Ain't got no eyes, he can't enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds.

[Ethan is an incensed Indian-hater, although he is very much akin to them and is knowledgeable about their way of life. He can speak the Comanche language fluently, and he is an expert in how they live - he acknowledges or accepts their belief that a dead Comanche warrior without his eyes will wander in the spirit-land forever. But he belongs to neither the Indian world or the white world - doomed forever to remain a lone son of the frontier.]

The group's plan is to find and ransom the girls alive rather than attack the Comanches and provoke retaliation against the two hostages. But Ethan is confrontational to the group and to Marty, calling him "blankethead." He is more interested in vengeance than in finding the girls alive. Asked by the Reverend whether he wants to quit his vengeful search, the invulnerable, assertive Ethan replies with his favorite trademark retort [immortalized in Buddy Holly and the Cricket's popular song released shortly afterwards, "That'll Be The Day"]:

That'll be the day.

The next day, when Comanches appear on the upper horizon and surround them by flanking them between two parallel lines, the Indians give chase after them to the river. Before they ferociously attack a second time during the skirmish, the posse takes a defensive position on the far bank of the river. Clayton (as Reverend) offers his Bible to one of the wounded men: "Hold it! It will make you feel good." Ethan (again expert in Indian ways) recognizes the chief's "death song" before the actual attack: "The war chief. He's got to, to save face." Mose (always seen as a "fool") gives thanks: "That which we are about to receive, we thank thee, O Lord." After shooting his first Indian, Martin actually cries and throws down his gun, showing more compassion for the Indians than anyone else. During the vicious attack, Ethan confidently fires away alongside Clayton.

During the withering gunfire, Bible-toting Clayton cries out triumphantly: "Hallelujah!" But when Clayton runs out of ammunition and curses: "Dad blast it!", Ethan throws him a revolver, joking: "Watch it, it's loaded!" Angered by Ethan's caustic wit, Clayton grabs the hat off his head and sails it across toward Ethan, striking him in the stomach with it. Their repetitive tossing of objects at each other conveys the delicate balance of enmity and respect that exists between them. [As Ethan is caught between two worlds, so is Clayton - a character who has no separation between roles - he switches his identity rather quickly from minister to Texas Ranger.]

When the Indians retreat and carry off their dead, Ethan persists in firing upon the retreating war party with savage blood-lust, while Clayton attempts to stop him: "Leave 'em carry off their hurt and dead." Violently snarling back and displaying sublimated emotional hatred, Ethan tells Clayton that he wants to continue on alone without interference:

Well, Reverend, that tears it! From now on, you stay out of this. All of ya. I don't want you with me. I don't need ya for what I gotta do.

The posse turns back, but Ethan reluctantly takes Brad (Lucy's beau) and Marty along with him to pursue them alone, warning: "All right, but I'm givin' the orders, hear?"

As they rest their horses and walk along, Ethan illustrates his understanding of the ways of the Native Americans who live very differently from the settlers:

Brad: They gotta stop sometime. If they're human men at all, they gotta stop.
Ethan: No, a human rides a horse until it dies, then he goes on afoot. Comanch comes along and gets that horse up, rides him twenty more miles, then eats him. (He cautions Martin to drink less from the canteen) Easy on that.
Martin: Sorry. We don't even know if Debbie and Lucy's in this bunch. Maybe they split up?
Ethan: They're with 'em all right - if they're still alive.
Brad: You said that enough! Maybe Lucy's dead, maybe they're both dead. But if I hear that from you again, I'll fight ya, Mr. Edwards!
Ethan: That'll be the day. (He mounts his horse.) Spread out....

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