Searchers, The: Cult Status of John Ford-John Wayne’s Legacy

If John Ford’s Stagecoach and Howard Hawks’ Red River have attained classic status as great Westerns, The Searchers has become a legendary cult movie, in and outside the U.S.

The Searchers was underrated by critics when it was released, enjoying only moderate success at the box-office, barely over four million dollars in domestic rentals. Nonetheless, in the last decade, the movie has gained the respect of numerous critics and filmmakers. A poll of international critics found that a majority cited the movie as one of their all-time favorite.

The Village Voice Critics

Two of the Village Voice reviewers cited The Searchers as one of their ten favorite films. Andrew Sarris rated it fourth, preceded by Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Murnau’s Sunrise, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And Tom Allen placed the film at the head of his list, followed by Vertigo and another Wayne film, Hatari! Moreover, in the l972 survey of Sight and Sound, several Wayne movies were mentioned among the best films of all times, but The Searchers was the most frequent choice.

Searchers in France: Godard and Truffaut

Mention has been made of the popularity of Ford’s and Hawks’ Westerns in France. Director Jean-Luc Godard, a leader of the French New Wave and one of the most experimental filmmakers, whose leftist politics were diametrically opposed to Wayne’s wondered: “How can I hate McNamara and adore Sergeant La Terreur, hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms,” in The Searchers. This particular scene is often mentioned as one of the most memorable and most touching sequences in film history!

Another noted French director, Francois Truffaut, liked The Searchers, but he also admired Rio Lobo, which neither Hawks nor Wayne liked, as one of the ten movies in the l970s he would like to see again, for its “magistrate direction.”

Paul Scharder’s Hardcore

The Searchers has inspired many directors and writers, including Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, all of whom have acknowledged their intellectual and cinematic debts to it. Paul Schrader, critic-turned director-screenwriter, admitted that his scenario for Hardcore (1979) was virtually a reworking of The Searchers’s plot. George C. Scott plays the Wayne role–a father obsessed with finding, then rescuing his teenage daughter from prostitution. The modern, urban scene of New York’s pornographic world substitutes for the Comanche Indians.

Spielberg’s E.T.

Steven Spielberg also paid homage to Ford and Wayne in his blockbuster E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). In a funny and moving scene, the creature from outer space is watching television and is aroused by the seduction scene between Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man. Spielberg later offered Wayne a role in his war comedy, 1941, which fortunately, he turned down; it’s one of Spielberg’s few flops.

If the current interest in the work of Ford and Hawks continues, the status of Wayne as an auteur star-actor, will become even more firmly rooted. It’s impossible to examine Ford or Hawks’s oeuvres without acknowledging Wayne’s contribution to their films. Some of their movies, Red River is a good example, were moderate achievements, critical and commercial, in their initial release, but they were somehow forgotten until the late l960s, when a new generation of film students and directors reevaluated and reacclaimed their films, raising both auteurs to semi-cult status. This re-examination assures a continuing interest in Wayne as well–both as an actor and a cultural icon.

Written in 1988 for a lecture at Wellesley College