Before “The Searchers” (1956) Western films was a trite and cliche genre, with the exceptions of very few films including “Stagecoach” (1939). On a whole, the genre curbed away from serious issues which plagued the Old West and the violent racism brought between the Native Americans and the American settlers. After “The Searchers”, the western genre was reborn. Its unconscious influence brought us severally underrated westerns such as “Last Train To Gun Hill” (1959) and “Flaming Star” (1960)- both of which dealt with the racism conflict in different truly unique ways. It also paved the way for another such classic like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992).
"The Searchers" opens when Ethan and the rest of the men in the neighborhood search for their stolen cattle. They figure out it was a ruse by the Comanche Indians to take the men away from their family and property. When they return, they find that Ethan's brother's wife has been killed while his two daughters have been abducted by the Indians. During the hunt to find them, one of the daughters, "Debbie" (Natalie Wood) are taken in by the Indians as one of their own. When Debbie insists on staying with the tribe, Ethan is conflicted. He would rather see her dead than belong to the Indians.
The film dealt with characterizations that could be termed as risque for the Hays Code. In an interview, John Wayne explained that his character's motive to seek vengeance ran deeper than it is actually explored in the film. Wayne felt that Ethan and his brother's wife had a brief love affair which may or may not have resulted in the birth of his daughters, or as they are presented in the film, his nieces. When "Ethan" (Wayne) returns home, there is brief moment where "Martha" (Dorothy Jordan) kisses Ethan's head and says "Welcome home Ethan." In future generations of film goers, it was been pointed it out as the sign that something had happened between the two characters in the past.
Initially, the release of “The Searchers” did not make a lot of impact on critics and audience. But like good wine, the John Wayne picture got better with age. It also was rediscovered in the 1970s when budding filmmakers named it as their prime inspiration for wanting to be directors. Steven Spielberg’s first experiment in film making involved mimicking John Ford’s camera movements like using a bed sheet with a desert valley painted on it. To this day, Martin Scorsese claims he watches it twice a year because the rich content inspires him to explore in his own films.
“The Searchers” (1956) not only influenced filmmakers but also one of the legendary singer-songwriters Buddy Holly and his song “That’ll Be The Day.” He wrote it after seeing the film in theaters with John Wayne's famous quote as the title and repetitive phrase in the song.
By the 1980s, "The Searchers" (1956) was declared as one of director John Ford's best, if not his best film ever. The film has also made numerous lists with the American Film Institute including being titled as their No. 1 choice for their “Top Ten of Ten” for the Western genre and was rewarded the #12 spot in their “100 years. . .100 Movies” list.