American Icons: ‘The Searchers’

Studio 360

John Ford was over a hundred films deep in a directing career that had begun in the silent era when he set out to create a “psychological epic.” The resulting film, “The Searchers,”  was a Western set against the bloody conflict between the native Comanche and Texas settlers after the Civil War.

A poster for the 1956 film “The Searchers.”

A poster for the 1956 film “The Searchers.”


Album/Alamy Stock Photo

“The Searchers” showcased John Wayne, turning his archetypal strength and stoicism into viciousness as a returned soldier hell-bent on revenge against the Comanche who killed his family in a raid. The plot invokes the centuries-old captivity narrative in the figure of his niece, played by Natalie Wood, who has been assimilated in the tribe; Wayne’s character considers killing her rather than allow her to live “corrupted."

Race hatred this blatant had rarely been seen on film. However, in a society still steeped in segregation, critics and viewers barely noted the film’s overtones of racial violence when it was first released.

Today, many film critics call “The Searchers” awkward and unwatchable. Yet a generation of American directors has taken cues from Ford’s cinematography and stark psychological portraiture, including Steven Spielberg, Michael Cimino and Martin Scorcese, who called Wayne’s character “John Ford’s Ahab,” and claims to re-watch “The Searchers” up to twice a year. The figure of an honorable man demented by violence and revenge took its place as a new type of American anti-hero.

John Wayne, Beulah Archuletta and Jeffrey Hunter in “The Searchers.”

John Wayne, Beulah Archuletta and Jeffrey Hunter in “The Searchers.”


United Archives GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

This installment of our American Icons series looks at “The Searchers” and its complicated legacy.

American Icons is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

(Originally aired December 20, 2018)

Will you support The World today?

The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you relevant, fact-based and human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year. 

Make your gift of $100 or pledge $10 monthly, and we’ll thank you on The World’s podcast in early 2023. And every gift will get us one step closer to our goal.