The Searchers (1956)

I’ve read the screenplay and the novel, as well as seeing the film for the umpteenth time. The novel is good, and it has the events and some of the lines. (But Ethan is called Amos! You couldn’t see John Wayne as an Amos…) But the screenplay is SO much better…
It was written by Frank S Nugent, who I confess I’d never heard of. But he wrote 11 screenplays for John Ford, having been the film reviewer for the New York Times. This is the best. He wrote them WITH Ford, like screenwriters did with Hitchcock, so it’s impossible to say who came up with what. But it was clearly a good collaboration.
I watched The Searchers as a 10-year-old, and thought it brilliant, if a little incomprehensible. Then I watched it again as a 20-year-old – and all became clear. And it grows richer with every viewing. The hidden romance between Ethan Edwards and Martha, his sister-in-law, is played up in the screenplay, but in the film all you need is looks. And Ethan’s avenging her – by tracking down her daughter and planning to kill her for having been ‘defiled’ by the Comanches – kind-of makes sense. It’s just because NOTHING is explained that the film rewards so many viewings…
Ethan is actually worse in the screenplay, e.g. he scalps the Indian he finds dead – instead of shooting his eyes out in the film. Whether that was a John Ford or Wayne (or studio?) change, it’s – marginally – better.
Something else which isn’t in the screenplay is the fact that Chief Scar has BLUE eyes, surely not a mistake. Instead (according to an article I read ages ago in the LRB) it’s a reference to Quanah Parker, the half-Native American/half-white offspring of the actual woman Alan LeMay based his novel on, who ended up a chief.
The producer, incidentally, was Merian C Cooper, who produced 10 of Ford’s films and – in an earlier life – directed half of King Kong…
(To make a niche, niche point, if you’ve read 40s and 50s screenplays, you’ll have noticed that each shot is marked as a different scene. I always wrote this off as an old, arcane practice. But I think I’ve worked it out. Most of the film would have been shot on location. But a ‘close shot’ might well have been shot in the studio, two months later. So making each shot a scene had its purpose…)


Published by


I had a stroke on July 26th, 2013. I was a screenwriter. Don’t do that anymore. But have found another way to write.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s