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

Camped by a creek, they talk about their fate - and Debbie's. Ethan reveals how long they have been searching for Debbie - five long years:

Martin: Do you think ol' Scar means to kill us?
Ethan: He's got to. We've been askin' for it for five years.
Martin: Why didn't he make his move back there?
Ethan: Hospitality, I guess, Comanch hospitality. Why? Do you want to pull out too?
Martin: Big Shoulders!

Suddenly, Debbie appears unseen behind them in a magnificent image - first on the horizon of a distant sand dune. Debbie runs down to where they are camped to join them. Martin sees her first and runs to her at the base of the sand dunes. She tells Martin in private, first speaking only in Comanche, and then in English that they should leave her with her people. However, she poignantly remembers her childhood "from always" - but she has been assimilated into the tribe and has accepted her heritage as Scar's wife ("These are my people"):

Martin: Debbie...Debbie, Debbie, don't you remember? I'm Martin, I'm Martin, your brother, remember? Debbie, remember back. Do you remember how I used to let you ride my horse? And tell you stories? Oh don't you remember me, Debbie?
Debbie: I remember, from always. At first I prayed to you to come and get me, take me home. You didn't come.
Martin: But I've come now, Debbie.
Debbie: These are my people...Go. Go, Martin, please!

Fearing for his life, Debbie warns Martin of Scar's attack and begs him to leave. Behind them, Ethan draws his pistol and orders Martin to step aside: "Stand aside, Martin." Ultimately, Ethan's first reaction is to kill his "ruined" niece rather than bring her home. In his mind, she has ceased to be white. Now that she has come of age and become an Indian's squaw, he becomes destructive and is determined to kill her. To prevent the murder, Martin shields Debbie with his body, and reaches for his own gun: "No, you don't, Ethan! Ethan, no, you don't!" Before Ethan can get any closer, he is struck in the shoulder by a poisonous arrow from the bow of a Comanche warrior. Their attempts to rescue or kill her ultimately fail, and Debbie remains with the Indians as they flee.

A war party of Comanches attack from the ridge and from alongside the river bank. Ethan and Marty barely escape on horseback with their lives, taking refuge and defending themselves from the mouth of a cave. [The cave, a framing device, is photographed from the inside out as they defend themselves - they become identified more closely together from this point on. After many years of riding together, Ethan has come to accept Martin (himself part-Indian), providing credence to Ethan's ultimate acceptance of another 'Indian' - his niece.] The attack subsides when Scar, donning a feathered war bonnet, is thrown from his horse.

Since Ethan is seriously wounded by the arrow, Marty prepares to open up the shoulder wound and "get the poison out" [a metaphor for the racist hatred in Ethan's body]. Ethan composes his last will and testament - he names his comrade Martin as his heir (and kin), but disclaims Debbie. Martin refuses to be named as Ethan's heir and condemns Ethan's avenging attitude toward Debbie, his "blood kin," even though she has been living with a Comanche "buck":

Martin (reading the will haltingly): 'I, Ethan Edwards, being of a sound mind and, without any blood kin, do hereby bequeath ("means leave") all my property of any kind to Martin Pawley.' What do you mean you don't have any blood kin? Well, Debbie's your blood kin.
Ethan: Not no more she ain't.
Martin: (throwing the will back at Ethan) Well, you can keep your will. I don't want any of your property. Besides, I ain't forgettin' you was gettin' all set to shoot her yourself. What kind of a man are you, anyway?
Ethan: She's been livin' with a buck. She's...[Again, Ethan cannot articulate his fears of miscegenation - that she is having sexual relations with an Indian]
Martin: Shut your dirty mouth. (Martin draws a knife on Ethan.) I hope you die!
Ethan: That'll be the day. (Martin throws the knife to the ground.)

The scene dissolves to the Jorgensen's homestead, where a celebration is in progress with square dancing and music (The Yellow Rose of Texas) for Laurie's wedding to Charlie. Reverend Clayton appears with Charlie McCorry, dressed in his finery with a bouquet of flowers in his hands. Clayton closes the bar and calls the assembled Texas Rangers together for the start of a wedding ceremony. To the tune of Shall We Gather at the River, the women dressed in their finery line up on one side, the well-behaved and dignified men on the other, with Reverend Clayton at the head of the procession in front of a table bearing two candlebras and an open Bible. Just then, the two searchers pull up in a buckboard, and Martin inquires self-centeredly: "Hey, you don't suppose they're throwin' a party for us, do ya?" Ethan responds characteristically, with a dismissive statement that they are outsiders: "That'll be the day." [The empty-handed arrival of the two searchers will soon interfere with and disrupt the customary wedding rituals of a family-affirming, grounded, civilized society.]

Lars Jorgensen warns them that they are both wanted for the murder of Futterman and that Texas Rangers are gathered inside. Laurie appears in her white bridal gown and is stunned to see Martin. Amused, Ethan understates the obvious: "Looks like you two will have a lot to talk about." Inside, Lars follows Ethan and introduces him to the gathering: "Look everybody. Look, Mama. Look who's here." The women recede into the background as Ethan steps up to the bar: "Evenin'. Bar open?" The bar is immediately opened up to him - his appearance disrupts the reverent community spirit and peacefulness of the wedding. He greets Clayton (dressed in black) for the ceremony: "Good evenin' Reverend, or should I call you Captain?" The Texas Rangers (in their wedding clothes) join him for a drink.

In front of the fireplace in another room, Laurie tells Martin how she had grown tired of waiting for him to return for the last five years:

Laurie: One letter in five years. I read it till the paper dried up and the writin' faded out.
Martin: Guess it wasn't much of a letter, was it?
Laurie: No, it wasn't. But at least say you loved me. You might have asked me to wait for ya, at least that would've been somethin'.
Martin: But I always loved ya. I thought you knew that without me havin' to say it.
Laurie: ...It isn't fair and you know it.
Martin: I wish you wouldn't cry, Laurie.
Laurie (as she blows her nose): Who's cryin'?
Martin: Well, I just reckon the best thing for me to do is go away.
Laurie: If you do Martin Pawley and I'll just die!

[Laurie's devoted love and patient waiting for Martin parallel the frustrated romance and wait that Martha must have had years earlier for the nomadic Ethan, causing her to marry Ethan's brother. Laurie's decision to take a less attractive suitor threatens to leave Martin cut off from the civilized community in much the same way. The searchers' return interrupts Laurie's wedding and prevents Martin from suffering the same fate that Ethan did with Martha.] As Laurie collapses into his arms, Charlie enters the room, wearing white gloves and a brown derby hat. He challenges Martin with a stiff and formal remark:

I'll thank you to unhand my fi-ans-see.

Incredulous that Laurie is marrying the dim-witted Charlie, Martin declares:

You don't mean you're gonna be marryin' him! Charlie McCorry?

McCorry insults Martin's character, referring to the murder charges and his Indian wife by insinuating: "I'll bet she ain't the first squaw you ever took..." Martin and McCorry prepare for a gentlemanly brawl outside as Martin fights his rival for the right to marry Laurie. Laurie is pleased by all the effort on her behalf and smiles at Martin (she still truly loves him) as the two suitors struggle together. Reverend Clayton interferes and sets the rules for the fight: "Fight fair. No bitin' or gougin', and no kickin' chokin', no gougin'." As the brawl continues, Laurie begs Ethan to stop it, but he nonchalantly replies: "Why? You started it." After an end to the fight is declared, Charlie announces that the wedding is called off: "There ain't gonna be no weddin'. (To Laurie) Not 'till we get a few things cleared up around here."

Clayton, now functioning in his role as a Captain, informs the two searchers that they are charged with murder in the Futterman ambush, and they must accompany him to Austin, the Texas state capital, to face charges:

Clayton: Ethan, I've gotta ask you and Martin to take a ride with me down to the state capital.
Ethan: Is this an invite to a necktie party, Reverend?
Clayton: No, I wouldn't say that. Likely you had your reasons for killin' Futterman. Probably needed killin'. I'm talkin' to you now as a Ranger, not as a Preacher. The fact that all three of 'em were shot in the back was the only thing that raised some question. That and a missin' gold piece that was known to have been on him, just prior to his de-mise. Ethan, I have to ask you for your gun. (Ethan hands over his revolver.)
Martin: Well, if it's all the same to you, Reverend, I ain't goin' to Austin.

At that moment, a young, greenhorn Cavalry trooper Lt. Greenhill (Patrick Wayne, John Wayne's son) from Captain Greenhill's forces asks Clayton for support ("joint punitive action") from his Texas Rangers because Scar's band is camped nearby. He recites his orders as if from a drill manual. [The Cavalry's actions are ridiculed throughout the film - they are slow, clumsy, and cruel, and Lt. Greenhill, typical of the entire force, is in command only because his "pappy" is the Colonel.] Mose has been rescued after being a prisoner of Scar:

...fully armed and equipped for joint punitive action against the Comanches...We received information about a band of Comanches under a chief named Scar...that maybe he's not far from here, holed up somewhere...Yesterday, one of our patrols picked up a man claims he was a prisoner with Scar till only two days ago. Talks kinda crazy but we brought him along. Says he lives here. Keeps mentioning a rocking chair.

Only by coincidence, the searchers are able to continue their quest. Ethan assists the exhausted, crazy Mose into the home. His first words are to Mrs. Jorgensen: "Good evenin', ma'am. Come for my rockin' chair," and then he collapses onto the floor. Revived in a rocking chair in front of the fire, Mose explains how he managed to escape being killed: "Made out I was crazy. Heh, heh, heh. You don't think I'm crazy, do you, ma'am?...I ate dirt, chewed grass. I fooled 'em." Ethan insists on knowing where Scar can be located - Mose sticks out his tongue defiantly: "Won't tell ya?" And then he turns with a smile toward Marty: "Tell Marty. Seven fingers, Marty" [For the second time, Mose has alerted Martin and Ethan to Debbie's location, Seven Fingers of Brazos in NW Texas, "the Caddo name for where all them canyons join under the Malapai", after her trail has been lost.]

Without waiting for the slow, regimented Cavalry (Lt. Greenhill vows: "We can't possibly take the field tomorrow, for your own protection...), Ethan and Martin are appointed as "civilian scouts - without pay," and Captain Clayton prepares his Rangers to depart immediately and confront the "passel of murderers, complete with Texican scalps and a white girl captive."

In a short goodbye scene before Martin leaves her again, Laurie (still in her white wedding dress) strongly endorses Ethan's racist desire to kill Debbie with a bullet in her brain. Voicing the prevailing attitude of most of the characters in the community (and Debbie's mother Martha), she believes it's too late to save her. Martin is determined to bring Debbie back alive:

Laurie: You're not goin', not this time.
Martin: Are you crazy?
Laurie: It's too late. She's a woman grown now.
Martin: But I gotta go, Laurie, I gotta fetch her home.
Laurie: Fetch what home? The leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own?
Martin: Laurie, shut your mouth.
Laurie: Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He'll put a bullet in her brain. I tell you, Martha would want him to.
Martin: Only if I'm dead!

In the pre-dawn hours, Ethan locates the new encampment of Scar's band, and the Rangers surround it and prepare for a charging attack at sun-up - an attack that would surely be suicidal for Debbie. To prevent any harm to her (fearing that Ethan, a self-righteous avenger, will kill her now that she has been 'soiled' by Scar), Martin volunteers to rescue her and re-establish the family. Ethan tries to persuade Martin from not rescuing Debbie, by revealing that his mother's scalp was on the pole in Scar's tepee:

Martin (to Clayton): We go chargin' in, they'll kill her and you know it.
Ethan: That's what I'm countin' on.
Martin (to Ethan): I know you are. (To Clayton) Only it ain't gonna be that way. She's alive and she's gonna stay alive.
Ethan: Livin' with Comanches ain't bein' alive.
Martin: Better she's alive and livin' with Comanches than her brains bashed out.
Clayton: Now son, I know this is a bitter thing to say. But there's more at stake here than your sister.
Ethan: There sure is. I'm gonna tell you somethin'. Didn't mean to speak of it, but I'm gonna tell ya now. You remember that scalp strung on Scar's lance, long and wavy?
Martin: Yeah, I saw it, and don't try to tell me it was Aunt Martha's or Lucy's.
Ethan: It was your mother's.
Clayton: Come on, son.
Martin: (After a long pause) But that don't change it. That don't change nothin'. (To Ethan) All I'm askin' for is a chance to sneak in there and get her out before you come chargin' in.

Captain/Reverend Clayton, in charge of the attack, begrudgingly permits Martin to slip in ahead of their assault to get Debbie out before they come charging into the camp. But Clayton warns: " the first sign of an alarm, we're comin' in, and we ain't gonna have no time to pick and choose our targets when we do." Looking to Ethan for approval, Martin hears him say: "It's your funeral."

Martin finds Debbie sleeping in Scar's tent, causing her to scream in surprise. He promises to whisk her away, fulfilling her fantasies at last: "I'm gonna take you away. I'm gonna get you out of here, Debbie." She smiles expectantly and joyfully - with a change of heart from their previous meeting: "Yes, Marty. Oh yes, Marty," and hugs him. But Scar appears in the opening of the tent, appearing from the waist down, to halt them. Marty whirls around and shoots Scar dead to defend himself and his foster-sister - the gun blasts flash directly toward the camera. Hearing the three gunshots, the Rangers (with a contingent of Greenhill's Cavalry blowing their charge bugle) believe it's a signal and begin their attack. Reverend Clayton leads the attack by beckoning his men with a Biblical phrase: "Brethren, we must go amongst them!" After Marty has killed Scar, he escapes with Debbie.

Ethan rides into the camp and finds Scar's corpse in the tent. After drawing his bowie knife, he scalps the dead chief, the only vengeful alternative left to him. [The scalping is the single-most savage act in the film, a senseless atrocity worse than any other committed by the Indians. It again illustrates Ethan's alignment with Indian ways. By mutilating Scar, a symbolic act of castration, Ethan is able to destroy his own unacceptable impulses, seek reconciliation with Debbie, and bring her home alive.] Then with the bloody scalp in his hand, he remounts his horse and emerges from the tepee, looking for Debbie. The attack results in few (if any) casualties, although it successfully runs off the Comanches' horses.

Debbie has noticed Ethan and knowing of his hatred, runs from Martin and Ethan toward some rocks to escape. After overpowering Martin who attempts to stop him, Ethan finally confronts Debbie after chasing her down a sloping embankment as she runs toward the safety of a cave. She trips and falls as he calls out to her: "Debbie!" He rides her down and then comes face to face with her, standing over her in the mouth of a cave entrance [another framing device to accentuate the action], with the sand swirling around them.

In a marvelous gesture, he forcefully grabs her by the shoulders and lifts his terrified, Indianized niece aloft into the air, his first physical contact with her in many years. [His memory is jarred as he remembers lifting her five years earlier - the night before the massacre.] With every appearance of ferocity and racial bigotry, the defenseless girl expects him to kill her. But he realizes in that instant when he looks into her eyes and touches her as he would a child that she is his own blood kin. All his brutal hatred, intolerance and racist prejudice disappear as he expresses a longing for home and family. He lowers her and sweeps her into his cradling, outstretched arms with the ironic words:

Let's go home, Debbie.

[In an instant, he may have sensed that she could just as well have been his own daughter - if he had married Martha instead of his brother. He is reminded that Debbie is still the daughter of the woman he loved and his mercy for her purges his hate.]

Responding to his compassionate embrace and gesture, she extends her right arm around his neck, and buries her head in his right shoulder. The next scene is awkwardly juxtaposed - Clayton - bent over and in pain, is being treated for a saber cut to his bare hindside following the Indian attack.

In the final, well-celebrated scene located in front of the Jorgensen's pioneer home, Mose is peacefully sitting on the porch rocking chair, rewarded for his persistence, and having found the answer to his persistent dream to find civilization and never wander again. The Jorgensens see five approaching riders. Laurie rushes off the porch, running to the second rider - Martin. In the lead, Ethan carries Debbie on his horse up to the front door of the Jorgensen's pioneer home. He dismounts, carries her in his arms to Jorgensen and his wife, and deposits her on the porch doorstep - she has her arms wrapped childishly around his neck.

The soundtrack reprises the opening song for the remainder of the scene:

A man will search his heart and soul
Go searchin' way out there
His peace of mind he knows he'll find
But where, O Lord, Lord where?
Ride away, ride away.

The Jorgensens embrace and welcome Debbie (still wearing her Comanche clothing) and take her into the home to provide a new family for her. [The family/marriage motifs appear very abundantly in the film in pairings, potential pairings, and families: Martha and Aaron Edwards, Mr. and Mrs. Jorgensen, Lucy Edwards and Brad Jorgensen, Laurie Jorgensen and Martin Pawley, Laurie Jorgensen and Charlie McCorry, Martin Pawley and 'Look', and Debbie and 'Scar.']

The tragic outsider, Ethan stands for a few moments, lingering outside as the camera pulls back into the darkened inside of the home, the doorway framing the scene. Ethan steps up onto the porch, then hesitates and steps to one side as Laurie and Martin cross behind him and enter, reunited once and for all - unlike Ethan who is fated to wander and cannot live in a civilized, family-based community. [Marty and Laurie function as surrogates for Ethan and Martha's love - the young couple are put back into the functioning, rebuilt remnants of the family that was so split apart by Scar's savagery.] Neurotically split and isolated, he belongs neither to the civilized settlers nor with the native Indians.

Still standing with his feet astride in a wide stance within the framing of the doorway, Ethan grasps his right elbow with his left hand. [This has been acknowledged as Wayne's subtle, tribute-remembrance of cowboy actor Harry Carey, Sr.'s familiar stance in silent western films.] He then decides to remain behind, looking after them. Then he turns away, his silhouette continuing to be framed in the open doorway, and walks into the swirling dust. The eternally-excluded loner, he wanders alone (like the fate of the dead Indian whose eyes he shot out) back into the alien, desert wilderness, similar to how he entered the picture so many years before, but now reversed. The Jorgensen's door, the door to civilization and the family hearthside, swings shut on him, making the screen black.

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