Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Searchers (1956)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Searchers (1956)

In John Ford's classic and landmark epic western - it was an emotionally-complex 'psychological' Western story about a man's perilous, hate-ridden, obsessive, Homeric-style five year quest for revenge (and self-discovery), set in post-Civil War America. Following a Comanche massacre, the meandering tale examined the inner psychological turmoil of a fiercely independent, crusading man obsessed with vengeful hatred who was searching for his two nieces (Pippa Scott and Natalie Wood) among the "savages" over a five-year period.

The film's major tagline echoed the search: "he had to find her...he had to find her." The script was based on the best-selling 1954 novel by Alan Le May that was first serialized as a short story in late fall 1954 issues of the Saturday Evening Post, and first titled The Avenging Texans.

The film's complex, deeply-nuanced themes included racial prejudice, sexism, individuality, the American character, and the opposition between civilization (exemplified by homes, caves, and other domestic interiors) and the untamed frontier wilderness. This film was unquestionably Ford's finest, and featured breathtaking cinematography of Monument Valley, his most popular locale, but this exceptional film was not nominated for Academy Awards.

  • the opening credits (portrayed in a Playbill font-face) were displayed before a backdrop of an adobe brick wall, with the words of the romantic Stan Jones ballad (sung by The Sons of the Pioneers) that played during the credits, What Makes a Man to Wander? - defining the central theme of the film - one man's wanderings and obsessive search: "What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam?..."
  • as the film began in Texas of 1868, embittered loner and Civil War ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) entered on horseback; he suddenly appeared with no explanation about where he had been, to arrive at the solitary, Texas frontier farm of his estranged brother Aaron Edwards' (Walter Coy) family with a radiant frontier wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan); everyone expectantly watched and took positions on the homestead's porch, including Ethan's two nieces: young 10 year-old Debbie Edwards (Lana Wood, as 10 year old, Natalie Wood as older) and her older teenaged sister Lucy (Pippa Scott); there was an obvious tension between the two brothers, because of Ethan's long-suppressed love for Aaron's wife Martha, his sister-in-law; she greeted him: "Welcome home, Ethan"
Edwards' Family Members

Ethan's Estranged Brother Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) with Wife Martha Behind Him

Teenaged Lucy (Pippa Scott) with Brother Ben (Robert Lyden)

10 Year-Old Debbie (Lana Wood) with Family Dog
  • a strained relationship had already developed between Ethan and Aaron's half-breed adopted son, part-Cherokee (one-eighth) Martin "Marty" Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) - an orphan saved years earlier by Ethan from an Indian slaughter and raised by Aaron's family; the tension came due to Ethan's prejudiced racism against the Indians (and toward his own mixed-blood, estranged nephew)
  • the next morning, a posse of Texas Rangers led by its Captain - a preacher named Rev. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), arrived at the frontier home with a posse of local folks; a group was assembled to search for Comanche marauders or cattle rustlers that had stolen some cattle from the nearby neighboring Norwegian farmer Lars Jorgensen's (John Qualen) ranch; Aaron and Marty were deputized to help the Captain and the Texas Rangers find the cattle thieves (Ethan refused to be deputized); the group of men rode off, without Aaron, not knowing that that they were deliberately being lured away
  • soon, after riding through majestic landscapes of Monument Valley, they found the prized cattle 40 miles away, deliberately killed with feared Comanche lances; the animals were slaughtered but not eaten for food; Ethan realized that they had been tricked ("Stealin' the cattle was just to pull us out. This is a murder raid"); the victims were feared to be either the Jorgensen family (including Lars' wife and daughter Laurie) or the Edwards family; in one of the film's few closeups of Ethan's face, he stood over his horse, agonizing and realizing that his brother's home (with Martha) could be attacked

Marty Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan with Posse On Search for Cattle Rustlers

Ethan Realizing They Had Been Purposely Lured Away from the Ranch

Close-Up of Ethan - Fearing the Loss of Martha
  • before the dusk massacre of members of the Edwards frontier family by retaliatory, raiding Comanche Indians in a war party, there were some startling images: an hysterical close-up of Lucy screaming after realizing a deadly Indian attack was imminent and that they were in grave danger, and the sight of menacing renegade Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) casting his dark shadow while standing over young Debbie hiding out in a small family graveyard, before kidnapping her
  • the posse returned to the burning, smoldering frontier home, where they shockingly discovered that most of the Edwards family (Ethan's brother Aaron, sister-in-law Martha and teenaged nephew Ben (Robert Lyden)) were brutally butchered and tragically murdered in the posse's absence by warring, blood-thirsty Comanche Indians; Scar had kidnapped both of Ethan's two nieces, Debbie and Lucy, ultimately making one of them - Debbie - his 'squaw'
  • 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 was impatient to end the community's ceremony and anxious to begin the search; Ethan was intent on taking the law into his own hands during the vengeful search for his kidnapped kin; a search party was reassembled and gave chase following the Comanche's trail, composed of Ethan, Marty, teenaged Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) - Lucy's sweetheart and fiancee, Captain Clayton, and other rangers
  • along the way, the searchers found a fresh Comanche grave - the body was buried under a large sandstone rock; Ethan reacted by shooting out of the eyes of the Comanche body to prevent it from entering the spirit world - and then explained how his defilement of the Indian had thwarted the spiritual belief of the Comanche, causing his spirit to wander forevermore: ("...but what that Comanche believes. Ain't got no eyes, he can't enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds")

Comanche Corpse Discovered in Makeshift Grave

Ethan Shooting at the Corpse to Defile the Indian
  • the group's plan was to find and ransom the girls alive rather than attack the Comanches and provoke retaliation against the two hostages; however, the racially-hateful Ethan was more interested in vengeance than in finding the girls alive; when asked by the Reverend whether he wanted to quit his vengeful search, the invulnerable, assertive Ethan replied with his favorite trademark retort: "That'll be the day"
  • Ethan announced to the other searchers in the posse that he wanted to continue on alone without interference: "All of ya. I don't want you with me. I don't need ya for what I gotta do"; however, Ethan reluctantly agreed to be accompanied by Brad Jorgensen (Lucy's beau) and his nephew Marty
  • early during their hunt, Ethan delivered an ominous statement to them after finding Lucy's mutilated and raped body; he told Lucy's mistaken fiancee Brad Jorgensen, who believed that Lucy was still alive: "What you saw was a buck wearin' Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands. I thought it best to keep it from ya....What do you want me to do? Draw ya a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more"; crazed with grief and believing that Lucy was still alive, Brad rode into the Indian camp and was shot to death
  • Ethan's perilous, extensive, relentless, maniacal and grim search for his kidnapped niece (conveyed by a series of flashbacks) extended for five long years; during his quest, Ethan often conflicted with his nephew - Aaron's adopted son Martin Pawley, who was equally determined to save the girl'
  • in a continuing sub-plot, Marty was in a relationship wiith loyal, tomboyish, aggressive and expectant girlfriend Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), who wanted him to settle down with her; however, Marty felt compelled to continue with Ethan on his search for Debbie; he began to suspect that Ethan's intentions were to kill the Chief who abducted her AND to kill his corrupted, tainted, disgraced niece to 'save' her from her savage captors; in Marty's absence, Laurie was courted by Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis), an oafish, dim-witted country bumpkin/cowboy; for a short while, while on the search with Ethan, Marty accidentally married an Indian bride (Beulah Archuletta) who was re-named 'Look'; tragically shortly later, 'Look' ran away and was murdered in an Indian camp by troops from the Seventh Cavalry; in a similar situation, the exasperated and impatient Laurie was about to marry Charlie when Ethan and Marty arrived during their search and interrupted the ceremony; Marty fought his rival to defend his right to marry Laurie, and after an end to the fight was declared, Charlie announced that the wedding was called off
  • in the fifth year of their quest, the searchers eventually followed Scar's trail into the New Mexico territory (or somewhere south of the border); Ethan and Martin (posing as traders) were led to Scar's camp in the desert (again Monument Valley); Ethan and Scar stared each other down, only inches from each other's faces; it was revealed that Scar had four wives in his teepee, and displayed a few grisly scalps of whites he had killed (one of them was Debbie's mother!); they glanced up to their right to see an older, now-adolescent Debbie - renegade Chief Scar's Indian squaw, dressed in full native costuming (a light-brown velvet blouse held by a silver conch belt, and a purple skirt), with braided hair and a beaded necklace
  • as Ethan and Marty were camped by a creek, Debbie appeared unseen behind them in a magnificent image - first on the horizon of a distant sand dune; she ran down and spoke privately to Marty, telling him that they should leave her with her people; however, she poignantly remembered her childhood ("I remember from always") - but she had been assimilated into the tribe and had accepted her heritage as Scar's wife ("These are my people")
  • Ethan appeared with his pistol drawn - his first reaction was to kill his "ruined" niece rather than bring her home, and he ordered Martin: "STAND ASIDE!"; Martin shielded Debbie with his body, and reached for his own gun to protect her; suddenly, Ethan was struck in the shoulder by a poisonous arrow from the bow of a nearby Comanche warrior, while Debbie ran back to her tribe; the two fled on horseback to the mouth of a cave, where they briefly defended themselves against a menacing war party - an attack that subsided when Scar fell off his horse
  • as Marty helped to treat Ethan's wound, Ethan composed his last will and testament - he named his comrade Martin as his heir (and kin), but disclaimed Debbie; Martin refused to be named as Ethan's heir and condemned Ethan's avenging attitude toward Debbie, his "blood kin," even though she had been living with a Comanche "buck"
  • after being sidetracked, Marty and Ethan learned that Debbie was likely to be located at Seven Fingers of Brazos in NW Texas - the new encampment of Scar's band; in the pre-dawn hours before an all-out cavalry assault on the Indians, Marty volunteered to attempt to rescue Debbie sleeping in Scar's teepee; he told her: "I'm gonna take you away. I'm gonna get you out of here, Debbie," and she seemed pleased; during the daring effort, he shot and killed the Indian chief and escaped with Debbie; Ethan rode into the camp with the cavalry, found Scar's corpse in the tent, drew his bowie knife, and scalped the dead chief
  • in the next dramatic scene, Ethan set his sights on capturing Debbie; when she noticed him and knowing of his hatred, she ran from Martin and Ethan toward some rocks to escape; he chased on horseback after Debbie down a steep rocky slope and toward a cave opening - ostensibly to kill her, as Martin yelled out: "No, no, Ethan!"; she tripped and fell as he called out to her: "Debbie!"
  • in a marvelous gesture, he forcefully grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted his terrified, Indianized niece aloft into the air in one motion and told her: "Let's go home, Debbie"

Vengeful Ethan About to Chase Debbie

Fearful Debbie Spotting The Threatening Ethan Before Running Away Toward a Cave

Debbie's Retreat Down a Rocky Slope

Ethan Chasing After Debbie on Horseback to Cave Entrance

Ethan Reaching for His Niece

"Let's go home, Debbie"
  • the film concluded with a family reunion back at the Jorgensen frontier home where Debbie was delivered to the front porch and welcomed home, and Martin was reunited with his long-suffering and patient fiancee Laurie
  • during the reunion, everyone entered the Jorgensen home but Ethan, an outsider. He was framed and isolated by the silhouetted dark doorway (in front of the harsh outdoor sunshine) and watched as reunited friends and family entered the homestead, grasping his right elbow with his left hand; Ethan was left out, 'cursed' and doomed to wander - and so he turned and ambled away as the door shut behind him, turning the screen black

Frontier Woman Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) on Her Porch Watching Brother-in-Law Ethan Edwards Approaching on Horseback

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) - Arrival at the Edwards' Farm/Ranch

Lucy Edwards' Scream Before an Anticipated Indian Massacre

Menacing Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) Standing Over Young Debbie Edwards Sitting in Graveyard

A View of The Destruction of the Edwards' Homestead

Rev. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond)

Ethan with Lucy's Fiancee Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) - Telling Him of Lucy's True Fate

Grown-Up Debbie's Appearance to Marty and Ethan as They Camped by Creek

Martin Shielding Debbie From Being Shot by Ethan

Martin and Ethan Chased Into Opening of Cave by Indians

Debbie Rescued by Marty

Ethan Preparing to Scalp Dead Chief Scar

Ethan Riding Up to the Jorgensen Homestead - Carrying Debbie to the Porch

The Film's Iconic Ending Image: Outsider Ethan Was Framed By Jorgensen Doorway


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