"Injun will chase a thing until he thinks he's chased it enough, then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that will just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth."—Ethan Edwards
"Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He'll put a bullet in her brain. And I tell you Martha would want him to."—Laurie Jorgenson
Three years after the end of the American Civil War, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) rides back to his brother's family homestead in Texas. Ethan is wearing the jacket of a Confederate, and he's reticent about what he did after the war, or where he obtained the money he's carrying. He intends to settle down, and to exchange long glances with his sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan), but fate has other plans in store for him.
When Ethan rides out with the Texas Rangers to apprehend some cattle rustlers, a Comanche war party attacks the homestead, kidnapping young Debbie (Natalie Wood) and murdering the rest of the family. Ethan sets off in pursuit, accompanied by his nephew-by-adoption Martin Pawley (Hunter).
The search drags on for years. Martin decides that he wants to start going steady with his childhood friend Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles); naturally, the fact that he won't give up the search for his sister complicates the relationship. Meanwhile, Ethan and Martin find that they don't quite see eye-to-eye on the nature of their real mission: Martin wants to rescue his sister; Ethan wants to kill some Comanche. And as far as Ethan's concerned, if Debbie's been married to one of those "bucks", she's no better than a Comanche...
This film is also a subversion of John Wayne's usual persona: rather than a gruff but ultimately kind-hearted cowboy, Ethan Edwards is a conflicted Anti-Hero with a genuinely nasty streak, a man who desecrates Comanche corpses on the off-chance that it will hurt them in the afterlife, and who enjoys firing on retreating enemies a little too much. Between unfulfilled love and fighting on the losing side of the Civil War, he's become so jaded that he seeks solace in abandoning his humanity—but finds in the end that he can't do it. Wayne's performance as this character is widely considered the best of his career.
The film is widely influential and highly regarded: the American Film Institute ranked it #12 on their 2007 list of the 100 greatest movies; and #1 on their 2008 list of the ten greatest westerns. If you name any famous director born in 1940s (not that there aren't others), they almost certainly have an Homage to this film somewhere in one (if not more) of theirs.
- Abhorrent Admirer: Look. Just....Look.
- And when Ethan and Martin stop off at a Mexican cantina while looking for Scar's party, there is a rather....vivacious Mexican senorita who wildly clacks her castanets in Martin's face while he's trying to eat (though, to be fair, she's more of an Annoying Admirer).
- Accidental Marriage: Martin and Look.
- Anti-Hero: Ethan is initially, or at least very close to a Type V. Mellows out to a Type IV or III.
- Arizona Doubling: Monument Valley is not in Texas! But who cares, it's Monument Valley!
- Bilingual Bonus: Quite a bit, with both Comanche and Spanish. For instance, Marty at first does not realize that Chief Cicatriz = Chief Scar.
- Mocked in dialogue to hilarious effect.
- Bittersweet Ending: Debbie is safe and Martin and Laurie are presumed to live Happily Ever After, but according to Wayne biographer Gary Wills, the reason Ethan stays outside the closing door at the end of the movie is not because he feels more at home in the wilderness, but because he knows that the primal rage that has sustained him all his life and yet has driven him to madness and alienation will never go away. Realizing that he has reached a psychological dead end, Ethan has decided to go off into the desert to die.
- Book Ends: The film opens and closes with a door.
- Cavalry Officer: Pat Wayne as the green Lieutenant Greenhill.
- Chekhov's Knife: Lieutenant Greenhill's sabre.
- Catch Phrase: Ethan's "That'll be the day."
- With a dose of Memetic Mutation: it directly inspired Buddy Holly's song of the same name, for example. This also happens to be the first song John, Paul and George of some British rock band you might have heard of ever recorded.
- Cloudcuckoolander / The Fool: Mose Harper. Though it's hinted he might not be quite as out there as he appears to be.
- Death of the Hypotenuse: Poor, poor Look.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The racism endemic in white Texan society in the 1860s and 1870s, where someone being 1/8th Cherokee was still a big deal, is not airbrushed out - even Laurie, one of the most sympathetic characters of the movie, is affected by it.
- Determinator: Both Ethan and Martin.
- Determined Homesteader's Wife: Mrs. Jorgensen, especially in her rousing speech of how this country (which her husband just blamed for the death of his son) will become a good place to live, even if it may take their bones in the ground to achieve it.
- Don't Call Me "Sir"!: Or Uncle Ethan. Or Methusalah.
- Due to the Dead: Ethan desecrates a Comanche corpse to drive home the point that he's not a nice guy.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Look. Her real name is Wild Ghost Flying in the Night Sky.
- Eye Scream: Ethan shoots out the eyes of a Comanche corpse, just on the offchance that the Comanche religion is correct about people being unable to enter paradise without eyes.
- Freudian Excuse: Chief Scar.
- Good Shepherd: Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton
- Gory Discretion Shot
- Halfbreed: Martin Pawley is 1/8th Cherokee. Ethan mocks him for this, but ultimately comes to regard him as a son regardless.
- Ironic Echo: Early in the movie the dog barks a warning as the Comanche raiders sneak up on the Edwards family farm. Near the end, another dog barks out as the rangers close in on the Comanche camp, but Chief Scar does not heed the warning. There is also this:
Ethan Edwards: You speak pretty good American. Someone teach you?
Scar: You speak good Comanche. Someone teach you?
- I Will Find You
- I Will Wait for You: Laurie Jorgensen does this for Marty. At first you can even say that "absence makes the heart grow fonder" - contrast her subdued goodbye to Martin when he first sets out after the funeral (they just shake hands) to her exuberant and (by 1870s standards) almost indecent welcome when he and Ethan first return to the Jorgensen homestead a couple of years later.
- Jerkass / Jerkass Facade: Ethan is genuinely a Jerkass, but he can't quite abandon his humanity like he wants to.
- Kick the Dog: When Ethan fires wildly into a buffalo herd, howling, "They won't feed any Comanche this winter!" Try not to cringe.
- Scar chucks a rock at a dog that won't shut up.
- Let's Fight Like Gentlemen: Subverted repeatedly in the 'fist'fight between Marty and Charlie. Which begins with a cute ritual of laying down a piece of wood and spitting over it.
- Living MacGuffin: Debbie.
- Motif / Book Ends: See the picture above. That particular blocking (the sun-drenched desert framed by the shadows of rocks or a building's interior) appears in the first and final scenes, and many times in between.
- Also the way Ethan lifts Debbie into the air in their first scene together, echoed when he lifted her in the climactic/cathartic scene near the end.
- Mood Whiplash: Especially in the 1950s it must have been quite jarring for the audience to laughing at the apparent comic-relief character Look to seeing her fear when Ethan and Marty put her under harsh questioning where Scar might be to her discovery as one of the victims of the cavalry massacre.
- Music of Note: The Max Steiner score.
- Naked People Are Funny: The scene with Martin in the bath and Laurie.
- No Place for Me There: Ethan, at the end, as he realizes he is no longer welcome with the family he saved
- Noble Bigot: Ethan is bigoted toward both Comanche's and Feds.
- Noodle Incident: Whatever happened to Ethan during the war.
- Not So Different: Ethan and Scar.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Okay, so Mose Harper is already kind of a little....not there. But he pretends to be even crazier in order to escape from his Comanche captors, even eating grass like Nebuchadnezzar.
- Obligatory War Crime Scene : They stumble across some of this done by the Comanches early in the film as well as a random Indian woman killed by the cavalry later in the movie. The general point is that on both sides, some Humans Are the Real Monsters.
- Oh Crap: Lucy Edwards Screams her head off when she realizes the Comanche are about to attack.
- Scenery Porn: Did we mention that this was filmed in Monument Valley?
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules: Figueroa returning the money Ethan gave him after he realizes why Ethan wanted to speak to Scar, because he does not want blood money. Not that he didn't know from the get-go that they were planning to kill Scar, but because it appeared that he had unwittingly led the white men to their deaths. A little later Martin refuses to become Ethan's heir because his new will cuts out Ethan's surviving blood-relative, Debbie.
- Shout-Out: Wayne's gesture in the final scene (and page picture), gripping his dangling arm, was an imitation of and a tribute to early Western star Harry Carey, whose son, Harry Carey, Jr., worked with Wayne on a number of films, including this one (he plays Brad, and his mother Olive Carey plays Brad and Laurie's mother).
- Standard Snippet: Some of the tunes that John Ford used in many of his films make a reappearance:
- The ballad Lorena, a favorite of the Confederate Army, for emotional scenes involving Ethan, his sister-in-law Martha, and Debbie.
- The Bonnie Blue Flag, a Confederate theme tune, is briefly heard at the beginning, as Ethan returns from the Civil War.
- Yes, We'll Gather by the River, John Ford's favorite hymn, is performed both at the funeral and at the wedding.
- The Yellow Rose of Texas is played at the dance before the wedding ceremony.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Ethan and Martha. It's purely Subtext in the film, but according to a John Wayne interview, John Ford hinted many times that Ethan may have been the father of Lucy and Debbie.
- Subtext: Not just Ethan and Martha, but Debbie and Martin seem almost too close when they reunite for the first time...
- Token Minority: Martin Pawley, who is an octoroon (one-eighth) Cherokee.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Searchers is loosely based on the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped by a Comanche war party at the age of nine after they massacred her family's settlement. She spent the next 24 years living among the Comanche and almost completely forgot her previous life, marrying a Comanche chieftain and starting a family. She was "rescued" by a band of Texas Rangers at the age of 34, but refused to adjust to life in white society. She escaped and returned to the Comanches at least once, only to be "rescued" again before she fell into a state of depression and died of influenza in 1870.
- Victorious Childhood Friend: Or unlucky, considering how long she has to wait - Laurie Jorgensen. When Martin suggests they started "going steady", she pointedly tells him they have been going steady since they were three years old and it was about time he found out about it.
- Wedding Smashers
- You Have Waited Long Enough: Laurie almost marries someone else, but given that Marty only sent her one letter in about five years that is understandable.