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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

After 55 Years, ‘The Searchers’ Legacy Still Up For Debate

Actor John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in the 1956 film "The Searchers." (AP/Warner Bros.)

Actor John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in the 1956 film "The Searchers." (AP/Warner Bros.)

This month marks the 55th anniversary of director John Ford’s classic western, “The Searchers.” The movie is a favorite of directors like Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola.  But Robert Ebert said it was flawed, and Slate calls it “the worst best movie.”

We revisit our conversation about “the Searchers” with Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr. Burr calls the film ahead of its time in its depictions of race and the American West.

When our story originally aired, listener Bill R. had this to say about “the Searchers:”

I’ve always like The Searchers. John Ford did a wonderful job directing John Wayne and the other cast members in grueling heat and difficult geography to create a masterpiece. I think the continuity between the opening scenes when John Wayne comes through the cabin door, alone, and the last scene when the Duke exits through the door, quite alone, provides an extraordinary viewing experience. You can watch this movie over and over and never get tired of the dialog, scenery and action. Sure some of the dialog is dated and corny, but that, in my opinion, only adds to the greatness of this film.

Listener Patrick McCord also stood up for the film:

When Ethan (John Wayne) returns to Brad and Marty from finding Lucy in the canyon, he digs his knife in the dirt. In a hunting culture, this is how you clean blood from the blade. The reason Wayne was able to “lose it” when he demands Marty never ask about what happened, is because he has killed Lucy after the Comanche had gang raped and abandoned her. He then buried her in his Johnny Reb coat. This point has been missed in the academic discourse, but was certainly part of Ford’s (a hunter of some repute) direction for Wayne. Of the two girls, it seems more likely that Debbie is Ethan’s daughter, a product of the affair he had just before going to war. In any case, a great film with complex and subtle plot.

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  • Skeptic

    how is this news?????

    • Anonymous

      What, the arts don’t qualify as a subject worthy of analysis?

  • Robin Young

    hi Skeptic!

    Just a note, in case you’re new to us. We often lose the show with the arts, or popular culture. Maybe a good novel! It’s a big tent. And as you can see, we didn’t skimp on the news today!


    • Anonymous

      Exactly. The events of the day do matter, but we also need to attend to questions of universal import as well.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve always figured that Edwards found his older niece raped and left to die in the canyon and killed her because he believed her to have been ruined. That’s why he won’t answer the question about what happened.

    Greg Camp
    Springdale, AR

  • Gordon Clanton

    Thanks for the piece on THE SEARCHERS,
    a favorite film of mine.

    But the Jeffrey Hunter character is named “Martin” not “Matthew.”

    Perhaps you were thinking of Matthew Garth, the Montgomery Clift character in RED RIVER.

  • Hannah

    There’s an excellent account of the comanches, kidnapping, and the (real life) fate of Lucy…. Empire of the Summer Moon. It’s an amazing account – better than John Ford.

  • Dan Close

    Your reviewer spoke of several ‘mistakes’ in the movie. Among those ‘mistakes’ he notes that the Comanche chief is played by a white man with blue eyes, and says that movie audiences of today would never accept such a blatant misrepresentation of a Native American. Well, maybe John Ford knew something your reviewer didn’t: namely, he knew of the greatest of the Comanche chiefs, a man named Quanah Parker. His mother, Cynthia, was a captive of the Comanche who grew to love them, chose to remain with them, and married an important Comanche chief. Her son, Quanah, was born with eyes that were described as ‘gray-blue’. In all other respects he was seen as Native American. He was never defeared in battle, led his people onto their reservation, and became wealthy before dying in 1911. Tell your reviewer!

  • Hpylori

    Thanks for archiving this segment. I was in my car when I encountered the tail end of the interview. John Wayne should have earned two academy awards for best actor, one for the portrayal of Ethan Edwards, and the other for Red River, where he portrayed both a young man and an older man. Both had great lines, scenery, and supporting actors. The camera angles in the Searchers were great… starting and ending with Ethan outside the door frame (indicating that his character could not embrace a civilized existence and prefered to remain outside, on the fringes of society), and the first encounter with the Comanches, with the rangers flanked on both sides by the Comanches…you could feel the intensity of that scene. Having read the book by LeMay and seen the movie so many times that I can quote most of the dialog, I feel that implications that his brother’s children were Ethan’s is a little contrived (by the way, there were three and not two offspring, as your critic left out the brother). I had not entertained the fact that the knife in the sand might have implied that Ethan had to do a mercy killing of the dying Lucy back in that canyon, but this seems reasonable. I had long ago picked up on the sentiment between Martha (the borther’s wife) and Ethan, and note that when he arrived at the burned out ranch he called for Martha first! Marhta had chosen the brother over Ethan since the brother represented stability. Ethan was always going off somewhere (left his share of cattle to be managed by his brother). I am fully aware that movie goers of today want car chases and sex scenes rather than just great motion picture drama, with outstanding supporting actors, and directing. Great sement, do more!

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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