Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Searchers (1956)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

The trio of searchers find that the Comanches have broken their trail, with four horses cutting off into a narrow pass. Ethan follows the four horses to take a look while Brad and Martin circle around, warning them not to "fire a shot," "build bonfires, nor beat drums." In the day-for-night filmed scene, Ethan (without his "Johnny Reb" coat) gallops out and meets them on the "far side" of the sandstone rock canyons. He is bewildered, agitated and incensed, and digs at the earth with his knife - a mimicry of the rape act he has just imagined happening. [He has discovered Lucy's mutilated body - she has been ravaged and violated by rape, but he doesn't tell Brad or Marty what he has found.]

Martin: You want some water, Ethan?
Ethan: (He grabs the canteen and drinks heartily.) Oh. The trail leads over there.
Brad: Why'd they break off? Was there water in that canyon?
Ethan: Huh? No water.
Martin: You all right, Ethan?
Ethan: I'm all right.
Martin: Hey, what happened to your Johnny Reb coat? You lose it?
Ethan: Must have. But I'm not goin' back for it.

Later after riding on further in the twilight, they spot the Indian campsite about a half mile away. Brad mistakenly believes he has seen Lucy in the midst of an Indian camp ("she was wearin' that blue dress"), but Ethan corrects him with a ferocious tone [this is the second Indian murder result he has alone witnessed]:

Brad: I found 'em! I found Lucy. They're camped about a half mile over. I was just swinging back, and I seen their smoke. Bellied up a ridge, and there they was, right below me.
Martin: Did you see Debbie?
Brad: No, no. But I saw Lucy, all right. She was wearin' that blue dress that she -
Ethan: What you saw wasn't Lucy.
Brad: Oh, but it was, I tell ya.
Ethan: What you saw was a buck wearin' Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands. I thought it best to keep it from ya.
Brad: Well, did they...? W-was she....?
Ethan: What do you want me to do? Draw ya a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more.

Brad goes uncontrollably beserk and mad with anguish and grief, unable to reconcile the idea that Lucy was impurely ravaged by Indians. Single-handed, he rides wildly off into the nearby Comanche Indian camp and is killed - offscreen. Another tragedy befalls Ethan and Marty.

Later after an indeterminate amount of time has passed, evidenced by a pair of linked dissolves [riding from left to right, and then right to left across the screen], they have lost the Comanches' trail in the snow. Ethan and Marty continue their hunt, passing through different seasons, and enduring hard winters, blizzards and snow. Martin believes that their search is futile: "Well, why don't you say it? We're beat and you know it." Ethan is undaunted by bad weather and setbacks in his relentless search - fearing but unable to articulate what may happen to her once she becomes a pubescent teenager. He explains further knowledge of Indian beliefs:

Nope. Our turnin' back don't mean nothin', not in the long run. If she's alive, she's safe. For a while, they'll keep her to raise as one of their own until, till she's of an age to...[He pauses and can't finish the sentence] Injun will chase a thing till 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 who'll 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.

Over a year later, they arrive back at the Jorgensen's homestead in a beautifully picturesque scene. The homesteaders emerge from the doorway into the light of the outside when they ride into view, similar to the opening of the film. Mr. Jorgensen mentions that it's been about a year since they received Ethan's letter telling of Brad's death. [The length of time for the delivery of the letter is unspecified.] He bemoans the unspoken fact that the open frontier is unforgiving: "Oh, Ethan, this country..."

Marty is greeted by his loyal and expectant girlfriend Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) who is overjoyed to see him (they have been goin' steady since they were three years old). Carrying two buckets of water, Laurie later uninhibitedly barges into the doorway of the room where Marty is taking a bath, teasing him about his assumed bashfulness. Later, Laurie provides Martin with some of Brad's clothes to wear.

On the porch that evening, Ethan explains where they've been in the previous year or two: "Fort Richardson, Wingate, Cobb, Anadarco Agency" - from N. Texas to New Mexico, and then back to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In a memorable, optimistic speech about the rough settlement of the country, Mrs. Jorgensen expresses her pioneering hopes for better times as a populist Texican. Change will eventually come to the raw frontier through the country's optimistic belief in manifest destiny:

It just so happens we be Texicans. A Texican is nothin' but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Some day, this country's gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.

Lars comments about the firmness of his wife when she announces bedtime: "She was a schoolteacher, you know." Before they settle down that night, Ethan is given a letter to read that came during the previous winter (from a Mr. Futterman), and finds inside it a "snip of calico." The scrap of cloth is recognized by Mrs. Jorgensen as material from an apron that Debbie once wore. After Laurie is called away to prepare for bed, she boldly plants a huge kiss on Marty's lips - in Ethan's presence.

In order to dissuade Marty from continuing with him on their search together, Ethan argues with Marty over Debbie's kinship relationship to him. Ethan claims that Marty isn't blood kin to her, and therefore she is less important. And furthermore, Marty has been offered a life with the Jorgensens (and Laurie). Marty objects to making kinship strictly a matter of blood. Although there is enmity between the two, Marty still wishes to join Ethan - mostly to protect Debbie from Ethan's spiteful revenge:

Ethan: Jorgensen's been runnin' my cattle with his own.
Marty: Your cattle? You mean Debbie's cattle.
Ethan: He's agreed to take you on and split the increase in my herd while I'm gone. I'm pushin' on tomorrow.
Marty: Well, I sure ain't gonna stay here. I started out lookin' for Debbie. I intend to keep on.
Ethan: Why?
Marty: Why? Well because she's my...
Ethan: She's your nothin'. She's no kin to you at all.
Marty: Well, I always kinda thought she was. The way her folks took me in and raised me.
Ethan: That don't make ya no kin.
Marty: All right, maybe it don't. But I intend to keep on lookin' anyway.
Ethan: How? You got any horses or money to buy 'em? You ain't even got money for cartridges. Jorgensen's offerin' ya a good livin' here. Martin, there's somethin' I want ya to know -
Marty (cutting him off abruptly): Yeah, I know what ya want me to know. I got no kin, I got no money, no horses. All I got here's a bunch of dead man's clothes to wear! Well, you told me that already, so shut your mouth!

After only a short overnight stay, Ethan rides off without Marty, away from the settlements and civilization. However, Marty has gradually realized that the racist, Indian-hating Ethan will not rescue but kill his blood-kin relation Debbie once he finds her. Marty must reluctantly leave his faithful, tomboyish sweetheart behind again, fleeing once more from her aggressive advances. When he first sees her in the morning, he suddenly grabs and kisses her (to repay her kiss from the night before), and she enthusiastically returns the favor:

Laurie: I'll get your coffee.
Marty: You know, Laurie, I was just thinking, that maybe it's about time you and me started going steady, huh?
Laurie: Well, Martin Pawley, you and me been going steady since we was three years old.
Marty: We have?
Laurie: About time you found out about it.
Marty: Well, gosh, Laurie, I've always been fond of you, but, what with all this trouble with Debbie and Ethan, I...
Laurie: Ethan rode on an hour ago. Now Martin, I don't know what you can do about findin' Debbie that he can't. He'll find her now, Martin, honest he will.
Marty: That's what I'm afraid of, Laurie, him findin' her. Oh, I've seen his eyes at the very word Comanch. I've seen him take his knife...Never mind, he's a man that can go crazy wild. And I intend to be there to stop him in case he does.
Laurie: I was hopin' I could hold ya here, but I guess I knew better.

Smitten with Marty, Laurie reveals the letter that Ethan had received the day before, from trader Futterman - with news of Debbie. Marty begins to read the letter with great difficulty, due to his near-illiteracy, until Laurie impatiently grabs it away, and reads it to him:

I bought a small-size dress off an Injun. 'If this here's a piece of your child's dress, bring reward. I know where they gone.' Jerem Futterman.

Futterman has a small trading post on the south fork of the Brazos River, and Marty knows he can catch up to Ethan there. An exasperated Laurie gives Marty her own horse, again providing for his needs, but expresses how heartbroken she feels. She won't wait around for him any longer [later in the film, she actually accepts another suitor's proposal of marriage]:

But don't you count on findin' me here when you get back. I've been hangin' around this God-forsaken windscow for two long years waitin' for ya. I ain't cut out to be no old maid!

In medium close-up, Laurie grasps a fencepost at chest-height, as Marty gallops away behind her.

After Martin catches up to Ethan, the two searchers at Futterman's trading post ask the treacherous and greedy trader (Peter Mamakos) what he knows about Debbie's dress and whereabouts, but he first demands a $1,000 reward. Ethan reimburses Futterman for the postage for the letter, the dress, and his time with some of his gold-coin "Yankee dollars," promising the remainder later: "You'll get the reward when I find her and if she's still alive." Futterman reveals what he knows about the dress:

A young buck fetched it in late last summer. Said it belonged to a captive child of Chief Scar...This buck claimed he was a big warchief with the Nawyecka Comanche [later translated by Ethan as 'roundabout' - 'goin' one place, means to go to'other,' or wanders]...Scar's band was headed north, to winter in at Fort Wingate eatin' agency beef. That's what this buck said. Maybe he lied.

That night at their campfire, Marty senses that they are being followed and are about to be ambushed for the reward money, although Ethan dismisses Marty's idea: "That's the Injun in ya." But using an unknowing Martin as bait, Ethan disguises his own bedroll and waits for the impending attack, and then shoots all three of Futterman's gang when their campsite is assaulted.

Letter Scene:

A "letter scene" is inserted in the film to bring Laurie and the Jorgensens up to date on two years of their search. [This cinematic, flashback device telescopes time and conveys its passage while reminding the viewer of the main theme of the film - Ethan's obsessive search for Debbie.] A letter from Marty is delivered to Laurie by Charlie McCorry, an oafish country bumpkin/cowboy interested in courting her. In a comical sequence, Laurie is coerced to read it aloud in front of Charlie and her parents:

Dear Miss Laury: ("He spelled it with a 'y' instead of an 'ie.' You'd think he'd know better...")
I take pencil in hand to let you know Ethan and me still are tryin' to catch up with them Comanches the late Mr. Futterman told us about. (She quizzically asks: "The 'late' Mr. Futterman?") We cut North through Indian Territory and did not have no trouble finding Kiowas and Wichitas and even some Comanches camped by one of the agencies. But none of them was Nawyeckas or claim to know a war chief called Scar...He's the one the late Mr. Futterman said had Debbie. At one of the agencies, we outfitted with all kind and manner of trade goods figurin' that would make it easier for us to come and go. You'd laugh if I told you what was our biggest seller...

The letter - as it is read - contains Marty's account of Ethan's activities, Laurie's reactions to her boyfriend's uncaring attitudes toward her, and her parents' and Charlie's responses to her.

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