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 - a complex 'psychological' Western story about a man's obsessive five year quest for revenge, was set in post-Civil War America; it featured breathtaking cinematography of Monument Valley:

  • 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 mysterious Civil War ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) entered on horseback, and arrived at the solitary, Texas frontier farm of his estranged brother Aaron Edwards' (Walter Coy) family with radiant wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) - everyone expectantly watched and took positions on the homestead's porch, including Ethan's two nieces: young Debbie Edwards (Lana Wood) and her older 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
  • a strained relationship developed between prejudiced, racist Indian hater 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 the family
  • a posse of Texas Rangers led by its Captain, Rev. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) arrived at the frontier home; a group was assembled to search for Comanche marauders or cattle rustlers that had stolen some cattle from the neighboring Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) ranch nearby; the deputized Ethan and Martin joined them and rode off, not knowing that they were deliberately being lured away
  • before the massacre of members of the Edwards frontier family by retaliatory, raiding Comanche Indians in a war party, there were some startling images: the hysterical close-up of the scream of Lucy 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
  • the posse returned to the now-burning frontier home, where they shockingly discovered that most of the family (Ethan's sister-in-law and brother) had been butchered, and both of Ethan's young nieces had been kidnapped
  • during a burial ground scene when Ethan came upon a fresh Comanche grave, he shot out of the eyes of the Comanche corpse (buried under a large sandstone rock) to prevent him 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")

Ethan Shooting at a Comanche Corpse

Ethan with Lucy's Fiancee Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) - To Tell Him of Lucy's Fate
  • the racially-hateful Ethan began a perilous, extensive, relentless, and grim five years-long search for his kidnapped niece (conveyed by a series of flashbacks) - to kill the Chief who abducted her AND to kill his corrupted, tainted, disgraced niece to 'save' her from her savage captors; during his quest, Ethan was joined by his nephew, Aaron's adopted son Martin Pawley, who was equally determined to save the girl
  • during their hunt, Ethan delivered an ominous statement to fellow searchers after finding Lucy's mutilated and raped body, and told teenaged Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.), Lucy's sweetheart and fiancee: "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 oft-repeated the phrase: "That'll be the day" as he engaged in an obsessive, maniacal search to seek vengeance
  • much later, Martin attempted a rescue after he located now-adolescent Debbie (Natalie Wood) in a teepee - she had become one of the squaws of Comanche Chief Scar; he shot and killed the Indian chief (and Ethan then scalped him)
  • in the next dramatic scene, Ethan chased on horseback after Debbie - ostensibly to kill her, as Martin yelled out: "No, no, Ethan!" - and she ran down a hill and toward a cave, when Ethan scooped her into his arms in one motion, lifted her into the air, and told her: "Let's go home, Debbie"

Ethan Chasing After Debbie on Horseback

Ethan's Reassuring Words to His Niece: "Let's go home, Debbie"
  • the film concluded with a family reunion back at the Jorgensen frontier home where Debbie was delivered and welcomed home, and Martin was reunited with his long-suffering and patient fiancee Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles)
  • during the reunion, everyone entered the Jorgensen home but Ethan. 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, clutching one arm, but he was left out, 'cursed' and doomed to wander - and so he turned and ambled away as the door shut behind him

Martha Edwards on Her Porch Watching Brother-in-Law Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) Approaching on Horseback

Ethan's Estranged Brother Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy)

Lucy Edwards' Scream Before Indian Massacre

Menacing Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) Standing Over Young Debbie Edwards
A View of The Destruction of the Edwards' Homestead

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


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