The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (2013)
ETHAN I got your boy killed. MRS. JORGENSEN (gently) Don't go blamin' yourself... JORGENSEN (angrily) It's this country killed my boy!... Yes, by golly! Mrs. Jorgensen stands. MRS. JORGENSEN Now Lars!...It so happens we be Texicans...We took a reachin' hold, way far out, past where any man has right or reason to hold on...Or if we didn't, our folks did...So we can't leave off without makin' them out to be fools, wastin' their lives 'n wasted in the way they died...A Texican's nothin' but a human man out on a limb...This year an' next and maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Someday this country will be a fine good place to be...Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come... The Searchers, 1956. Script by Frank Nugent.
In author Alan LeMay’s novel The Searchers (1954,) the aforereferenced dialogue from the film, with Olive Carey delivering as tough educated settler Mrs. Jorgensen, was originally voiced by Ethan Edwards. This seems odd to me —in the film John Wayne’s Edwards is a sociopath hellbent on killing the savage Comanche band that killed Martha, his brother’s wife and the woman he obviously loved. Edwards doesn’t seem to be the introspective type. Ethan lives in the now. He doesn’t reflect on the past or the future. He is so ruthless he even kills the American bison, the raw source of substinence for the Comanche. Ethan Edwards is anything but a homesteader looking towards the future. It makes sense to me that director John Ford gave the dialogue to Olive Carey (widow of Ford friend and cowboy star Harry Carey, Sr.).
In the famous final scene shot by Winton C. Hoch, Edwards is framed distantly outside, in the door frame of the Jorgensen homestead. The door swings shut and Edwards is excluded from society. Ethans future is uncertain. The final scene is extraordinary and obvious.
Musician/songwriter Bruce Springsteen has commented that The Searchers (1956) left such a latent image on his mind that it influenced his writing as exemplified by loner protagonists in Nebraska (1982) and The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). Upon first viewing on an old Pioneer laserdisc, I didn’t pick up on Ethan’s love for Martha (the departure scene with Ward Bond’s Rev. Captain Clayton acting like he doesn’t know what’s going on between Martha and Ethan is brilliant), the sexual undertones, racist depictions, and obvious suggestion that nubile as hell Debbie (Natalie Wood) was doing war chief Scar. I just thought the film was about John Wayne killing indians and hunting for his niece.
When I look at the film now I notice so many layers of fine movie making: John Ford’s direction, the widescreen cinematography, near-perfect casting and acting*, writing**, and dialogue. Only Max Steiner’s score, which was significantly trimmed by director John Ford seems off to me. I have seen The Searchers perhaps more than any other western and I believe it to be Wayne’s finest moment.
I have an even greater appreciation for the film after reading Glenn Frankel’s bestseller The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (2013, Bloomsbury). I did not know that Alan LeMay’s novel was loosely based on the true story of Texan Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped as a child by Comanches in 1836, and later found and returned to her white family. Ethane Edwards was based on the real life searcher James Parker, a hard-nosed Baptist minister and uncle of Cynthia Ann. Frankel’s book dives into Cynthia Ann’s story as well as the making of the John Ford classic. The book is broken down into the following components:
- Introduction [on John Ford]
- Cynthia Ann
- Quanah [Cynthia Ann’s only surviving child]
- Alan LeMay
- Pappy and the Duke
- Epilogue [Quanah’s Legacy]
- Reading Group and Native American Studies
Although the research is meticulous and meritable, I grew restless reading about Quanah Parker. The best portions are about Cynthia Ann’s story, John Ford and John Wayne. Pappy Ford is portrayed as a brilliant, alcoholic, sadistic son of a bitch task master that once punched Maureen O’Hara and Henry Ford in the face. I actually felt uncomfortable while reading about Ford’s belittling of John Wayne, which is well documented in filmdom. The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend is essential reading for film enthusiasts, Western and American history buffs. I found it engrossing and one of the finest books about the production of a movie. Highly recommended!
*John Wayne buddy Hank Worden is particularly fun as old tracker/scout Mose Harper. However, I dislike the Ken Curtis’ “Haw Haw….” Charlie McCorry character and romance subplot.
**Some of the comedic scenes come off dated.