John Ford’s The Searchers Reconsidered

By TC Donivan

The Searchers 1956Why review a book to movie adaptation that’s nearly 60 years old? The Searchers is considered one of the top 100 American motion pictures ever made, directed by one of the masters of film, John Ford,and starring two American film icons, John Wayne and Natalie Wood. That alone makes it worthy of consideration even after more than half a century. The other part of the fascination is how a book, now largely forgotten, could be transformed into a classic film.

After viewing The Searchers countless, maybe too many times, I’m afraid I’m finding holes in the plot, which is why I went back to the novel. The comparison is intriguing. The book is more graphic in its description of the violence than the film, though tame by comparison to today’s standards and completely humorless, which considering the subject matter, shouldn’t be surprising.

The author, Alan Le May was no stranger to film when he wrote The Searchers. A veteran of the First World War, Le May had published his first novel, Painted Ponies, a Western, in 1927 at the age of 28. Moving to Hollywood he became a successful screenwriter in the 1940s including among his credits Cecil. B. DeMille’s Reap The Wild Wind 1942 and the 1945 Gary Cooper vehicle, Along Came Jones.

The Searchers was published in 1954 and filmed in 1956, not an unusual turnaround for a popular novel in that era, especially for a writer who was already plugged into the Hollywood grapevine who had at this point in time also directed a Western. But the Searchers was Le May’s first novel to be turned into a major motion picture and it illustrates how a solid, if unspectacular novel, is turned into a classic movie. Despite Le May’s experience, the screenplay was turned over to Frank Nugent who had already worked on several of Ford’s films.

As stated in Scott Eyman’s biography of John Ford, Print The Legend, John Hopkins University Press 1999, page 442, Ford and Nugent crafted what was essentially a simple story into a far more complex exploration of racial and sexual tensions.

Among the basic changes was the shifting of the protagonist from Martin Pauley to Ethan Edwards, or Amos as he was called in the book.In the original, Martin is the hero; it’s his story, told from his viewpoint, the workings inside his head that tell the tale, not Ethan’s. And in the book, Martin loses his love, Laurie, who does not wait for him and marries Charlie McCorry, played brilliantly and comically by the wonderful Ken Curtis in the film. Another variance between book and movie; in the film Debbie is portrayed as being married to Chief Scar her abductor, while in the book, she is raised by Scar as his daughter and is about to be sold into marriage by him when she is rescued. An interesting contrast considering 1950s morality, that in the book she is still virginal, while in the film she’s the 14 year old wife of the villain. An edit made no doubt to sharpen the perfidy of Scar for the movie and heighten the racial and sexual traumas being exploited.

But much of the film’s dialog is lifted directly from the book, a sure sign of the skill of the author. You’ll find much the same in adaptations of Larry McMurtry’s works. But the most notable difference is the John Ford touch. Ford both invented and was a student of the old school of filmmaking and the use of humor was one of its major ingredients no matter the subject at hand. John Ford improved on the original by using his trademark humor, which if you consider the nature the story, is inappropriate at times, but is necessary to keep the story from becoming an unrelenting tragedy as it is in the book.

One major flaw in the film: Debbie is played to 1950s scrubbed Hollywood perfection by Natalie Wood speaking faultless English and looking like she’s on her way to a high school drama class in her Indian Princess costume. In the book Debbie has forgotten most of her English and been traumatized so terribly she’s blocked out much of the memory of her former life. But she is restored in the end by her fierce love for her brother Martin, not Amos/Ethan as it should be. John Ford makes what is essentially a grim, unforgiving tale, into a highly entertaining film with frequent comic interludes. The casting of John Wayne lends Ethan an instant likeability. The audience is on his side because he is ‘John Wayne’ no matter how abominably he behaves. And in the end he’s redeemed by being given Martin’s rightful role as rescuer, whereas in the book’s finale, Amos/Ethan, is killed in the raid on the Indian village and it is, appropriately, Martin who rescues Debbie.

Read these excepts:

Chapter 39 Ethan/Amos’ Death:

Mart believed he saw Debbie again. A young squaw, slim and shawl-headed, ran like a deer, dodging among the horses. She might have got away, but she checked, and retraced two steps, to snatch up a dead man’s pistol; and in that moment Amos saw her. The whole set of his laboring body changed, and he pointed like a bird dog as he charged his horse upon her. The lithe figure twisted from under the hoofs, and ran between the lodges. Amos whirled his horse at the top of its stride, turning it as it did not know how to turn; it lost footing, almost went down, but he dragged it up by the same strength with which he rode. Its long bounds closed upon the slim runner, and Amos leaned low, his pistol reaching. Mart yelled, “Amos—no!” He fired wild at Amos’ back, missing from a distance at which he never missed. Then, unexpectedly, Amos raised his pistol without firing, and shifted it to his rein hand. He reached down to grab the girl as if to lift her onto his saddle. The girl turned upon the rider, and Mart saw the broad brown face of a young Comanche woman, who could never possibly have been Debbie. Her teeth showed as she fired upward at Amos, the muzzle of her pistol almost against his jacket. He fell heavily; his body crumpled as it hit, and rolled over once, as shot game rolls, before it lay still.

 The Searchers - Martin and Debbie

Chapter 40 Martin’s Rescue of Debbie:

She lifted her head to stare at him—wildly, he thought. He was frightened by what he took to be a light of madness in her eyes, before she lowered them. He said, “You used to like the ranch. Don’t you remember it?” She was perfectly still. He said desperately, “Have you forgotten? Don’t you remember anything about when you were a little girl, at all?” Tears squeezed from her shut eyes, and she began to shiver again, hard, in the racking shake they called the ague. He had no doubt she was taking one of the dangerous fevers; perhaps pneumonia, or if the chill was from weakness alone, he feared that the most. The open prairie had ways to bite down hard and sure on any warm-blooded thing when its strength failed. Panic touched him as he realized he could lose her yet. He thought she was asleep, until she spoke, a whisper against his chest. “I remember,” she said in a strangely mixed tongue of Indian-English: “I remember it all. But you the most. I remember how hard I loved you.” She held onto him with what strength she had left; but she seemed all right, he thought, as she went to sleep. Book to Movie. It’s an entertaining comparison which usually concludes with the standard, they sure wrecked that book, or they sure left out a lot. In the case of The Searchers, the original was greatly improved upon as far creating a cinematic masterpiece. But in the same instance, the interaction between a brother and sister and the necessity of their redeeming love to close a traumatic wound, is replaced by what is essentially a plot twist in which the savage/racist Ethan Edwards is forgiven for a lifetime of viciousness by a single act whose redemption he ultimately cannot share in. Both endings are valid. The literary one is more authentic, the celluloid one more entertaining.

Notes: Read about the Life of Alan LeMay in this book by his son

Read The Searchers now available in Kindle

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