OPINION | FLASHBACK: 'The Searchers'

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) stands in the doorway of the Jorgensens at the end of his finest performance in “The Searchers,” arguably John Ford’s best Western.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) stands in the doorway of the Jorgensens at the end of his finest performance in “The Searchers,” arguably John Ford’s best Western.

The Warner Bros. logo flashes across a blank adobe brick wall as the music begins along with the credits. A male chorus (The Sons of the Pioneers) sings:

What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam?

What makes a man leave bed and board

and turn his back on home?

Ride away,

ride away,

ride away.

And with that, the tone is set for "The Searchers," probably the best film John Ford ever made, arguably the best Western ever filmed.

The screen goes dark, and matriarch Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) opens her front door to the gorgeous Technicolor of Monument Valley (Ford shot seven Westerns there) beyond. The camera follows her outside to show the rest of the view, in VistaVision.

Martha sees a lone rider approaching. The rest of the family steps out onto the porch as patriarch Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) asks, "Ethan?" Youngest daughter Debbie (Lana Wood) tells the family dog to stop barking.

Daughter Lucy (Pippa Scott) tells her brother Ben (Robert Lyden), "That's your Uncle Ethan." "Welcome home, Ethan!" Martha says.

Set in Texas in 1868 -- but obviously shot in Utah and Arizona -- John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man so damaged and full of rage, he can barely function in the real world. It has taken him three years to return home after the Civil War has ended.

The family takes Ethan inside and he greets Debbie, who thinks is Lucy, by lifting her up in the air.

At dinner later on, Aaron's unofficially adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter -- Fess Parker was offered the part but Walt Disney refused to loan him out. Parker was furious when he found out) returns home and Ethan only recognizes a young man he calls a half-breed. "I'm one-eighth Cherokee; the rest is Welsh and English. Least that's what they tell me," Martin says. (Ethan found Martin as a little boy stranded after his family was killed in an Indian raid and takes him home to his brother, who raises the boy as one of his own.)

Ethan's blatant hatred of American Indians is all-consuming. His mother was killed by Comanches several years before, which is revealed in a scene showing the family cemetery nearby. On one gravestone is written: "Here lies Mary Jane Edwards killed by Commanches May 12, 1852. A good wife and mother in her 41st year."

The next day, Comanches burn the homestead and kill all but the two girls. The story progresses with the search for the girls, abducted by the Comanches. A posse is formed with Ethan, Martin, Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton (Ward Bond), Charlie McCoy (Ken Curtis) and a few other Texas Rangers.

As the men mount up to start the search, Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey) says prophetically: "Ethan, those girls mean as much to me as my own. Maybe you don't know my Brad's been sitting up with Lucy. And my Laurie's been seeing Martin."

Ethan tells her to get to the point.

"It's just that I know Martha'd want you 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," Mrs. Jorgensen says.

The men ride off.

The next day the posse finds a dead Comanche buried under a big rock. Ethan shoots the corpse's eyes out. Clayton asks, "What good did that do ya?"

Ethan says, "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. You get it, Reverend. Come on, blanket-head!" he barks at Martin.

After holding off an Indian attack, most of the men decide to stop searching, as they believe Debbie is dead. Only Ethan and Martin continue their search.

A romantic subplot with Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) and Martin brings some levity to the proceedings.

In a pivotal scene that Ford could have borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock, Ethan and Martin finally get to talk with Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) in his tepee. The girl waiting on them is now-teenage Debbie (Natalie Wood), who pretends she doesn't know them. The two men recognize her but keep their cool because they know Scar would kill them all if he knew their true motives for their visit. (He actually does.)

That scene still sends shivers up and down my spine.

Later, when she sneaks away from the camp, Debbie tells them to forget about her and leave before Scar finds out. "These are my people. Go. Go, Martin, please!" Debbie says. Ethan tries to shoot her but Martin intervenes. He's about to shoot Martin when he is shot by a Comanche. Then the tribe of warriors rides down to them but the men get away and shoot it out in a cave.

The next day they return home just in time to break up Laurie and Charlie's wedding.

The cavalry arrives later to report that Scar and his band are nearby. They go off to find him. Martin asks Clayton if he can sneak into the camp and retrieve Debbie and he agrees, much to Ethan's disgust.

Martin finds Debbie in Scar's tepee just as Scar appears at the opening. Martin shoots him, and off they run. The Rangers and the cavalry attack the camp; Ethan finds Scar's body and scalps him.

Ethan chases Debbie through a canyon as Martin follows, yelling for him to stop. He catches up with her in the same cave they were in before. He lifts her up as she tries fighting him off. But in an instant -- remembering her as a little girl -- he realizes he can't let this happen. "Let's go home, Debbie," he says, and he carries her off in his arms.

The Jorgensens are waiting on the porch to welcome Debbie home. They take her into the house. Laurie embraces Martin, and they go inside. Ethan turns around, stands there a while, and walks off by himself. The door closes. Fade to black. The music starts as it did at the beginning:

What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam?

What makes a man leave bed and board

and turn his back on home?

Ride away,

ride away,

ride away.

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‘The Searchers’ (1956)

90 Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, Olive Carey, Harry Carey Jr., Henry Brandon, Hank Worden, Lana Wood, Ken Curtis, Pippa Scott, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, John Qualen, Antonio Moreno, Cliff Lyons, William Steele, Patrick Wayne and Peter Mamakos

Director: John Ford

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

Available for streaming on Amazon Plus, Netflix