The Searchers: The Book
The Searchers was the 13th published novel of Alan LeMay, and one of four adapted for the cinema (1944’s Useless Cowboy was released in 1945 as Along Came Jones, 1934’s Thunder in the Dust was released in 1950 as The Sundowners, 1954’s The Searchers was released as The Searchers in 1956, and 1957’s The Unforgiven was released as The Unforgiven in 1960).
Alan LeMay dedicated The Searchers to his Kansas ancestors.
In his November 3, 1953 review for the New York Times, Orville Prescott declared The Searchers to be “the best novel about the Old West that I had read in the last fifteen years.” He declared it a “tightly written, artistically organized, professionally conceived work of fiction” told with “subtle … suggestive … charged with emotion” prose.
The United Press Review published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 14, 1954 stated that LeMay, “an old master of the sagebrush school,” wrote a novel that was “at once a stirring tale of cowboy-and-Indian adventure and an indictment of the folly that leads America recurrently to coddle her enemies—specifically the misguided ‘peace policy’ that gave the Comanche a virtual license to murder, plunder, and burn the Texas frontier in the years just after the Civil War.”
Hardcover edition of The Searchers sold like hotcakes –14,000 copies; Reader’s Digest bought the magazine rights for $50,000—it was spilt 50%/50% between LeMay and his agent.
Hollywood’s Western Renaissance
By 1954, westerns had become Hollywood’s bread-and-butter: accounted for 1/3rd output of major studios and half of the smaller ones. Many stars and directors were able to put an end to their fallow years and experience a career Renaissance—they were truly, back in the saddle again. High Noon grossed $18 million and won four Academy Awards. Shane grossed $20 million stateside alone. Out of the estimated 300 million paperbacks sold in 1956, 1/3rd were Westerns.
Hollywood goes wild for The Searchers
For $60,000 Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, heir to the Vanderbilt-Whitney fortune, bought the movie rights from LeMay for C. V. Whitney Productions, his newly formed film company. Between 1956 and 1956, Whitney produced a total of three feature films: The Searchers, 1956, The Missouri Traveler, 1958, and The Young Land, 1959.
LeMay had made one stipulation to the deal: having written 18 screenplays, he was burned out, particularly with all the fighting and arguing it entailed with the directors. LeMay had absolutely no desire to screen write again, least of all for a renowned martinet like John Ford.
A studio bidding war then ensued between MGM, Colombia, and Warner Brothers’: Jack Warner won the contest—he made the same offer as Columbia, 65% of the profits to Whitney Productions, 35% for the studio, but sweetened the deal by charging less than Columbia would for studio overhead; he also pledged to finance up to 1/3rd of the production’s budget. Six months were set aside in which to make the film.
John Ford’s son, Patrick, had read, knew, and understood the novel just as intimately as LeMay did himself. He helped Nugent and his father bring the story to the screen by analyzing the characters and scout for locations. He picked out the location of Gunnison, Colorado where the winter scenes were filmed; he selected Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to film the buffalo herd. The shooting schedule he planned helped to give his father the length of time required to film in Monument Valley.
The Comanche were depicted on film by 5,000 Dine Indians whom Ford had hired: the Euro-American members of the cast and crew numbered just 300.
The film was shot on Navajo land (i.e. Monument Valley); the blankets, velvet clothes, hair buns of the Navajos were mixed with the tepees and clothes of the Comanche. The textiles would have struck a chord with audiences due to the Indian Arts and Crafts movement then being at its height.
Identifying some of the fundamental differences between Le May’s “Amos” and Ford and Nugent’s “Ethan”
“Amos” was not a law breaker (LeMay gave no suggestion that he was a notorious criminal, a fugitive on the run); “Ethan” is a felon of pedigree with an extensive RAP sheet.
Between 1865 and his return to the family ranch, Amos’ activities are documented by LeMay; with regard to “Ethan,” it is implied that between 1865 and 1869 he had become a mercenary for Emperor Maximillian of Mexico then an outlaw before returning to the family ranch.
Yes, the “Amos” of LeMay’s imagination is in love with Margaret, but he tries to be circumspect about it: he doesn’t confess it to her and she doesn’t sense it; confessing and broadcasting his desire for Margaret, “Ethan” threatens to wreck his brother’s marriage. When he concedes that she is beyond his reach he transfers his desires to her daughter, Debbie.
In the novel, “Amos” forecasts the “civilizing” of the Western frontier (the rule of law, justice, community, shared values and traditions), something he excitedly awaits; in the movie, the speech is assigned to Mrs. Jorgensen (and delivered tongue-in-cheek). “Ethan,” of his own volition, is an outcast whose inner nature is abetted by the lawlessness and the violence of the West—he would not welcome the changes prophesized by Amos.
“Amos” wants to rescue Debbie (particularly while she is still a child): the degradations by the Comanche that he experiences and witnesses fuel his impetuosity at the expense of stealth and caution—Martin is afraid that Amos’ need to exact vengeance will propel him to storm the Comanche camp with guns blazing, thus giving the Comanche a reason to kill Debbie; “Ethan” is desirous of Debbie’s death because having been taken by a warrior she has lost her sexual and racial purity and become loathsome, an “other.”
Unaware that Debbie is still alive, “Amos,” in his will, bequeaths his estate to Martin—had he known that she was still alive, he would certainly have willed it to her; having seen her alive—in the Comanche camp as Scar’s wife—“Ethan” regards her as being dead (deader than dead) and purposefully excludes her from his will.
In LeMay’s novel, Scar takes Debbie as his daughter; in the movie, Scar takes Debbie as his wife.
In the novel, Debbie openly declares her love for her stepbrother, Martin, and they live together as husband and wife; in the film, “Ethan” wants more than anything to be able to take his niece, Debbie, as his wife (a desire strengthened by her uncanny resemblance to her mother, Martha).
In the novel, it is Martin who gives Debbie the gold locket; in the film, it is “Ethan”—the act of which illustrates his desire for Martha.
In the novel, Martin is 100% white; in the movie, Martin is 1/8th Cherokee.
John Ford demonstrates his hatred for George Armstrong Custer in The Searchers
Initially, Nugent’s screenplay featured an extended encounter between “Ethan” and General George Armstrong Custer which was filmed but trimmed at a late stage in the film’s production.
The portion of the sequence that was cut featured “Ethan” entering a room where General Custer is recounting his recent exploits against the Indians to a bevy of newspaper reporters. In front of everyone, “Ethan” questions Custer’s manhood and courage: at the time that his troops stormed the Indian encampment the majority of those present were women and children. A few of the white captives were accidentally killed by the soldiers on account of their indiscriminate shooting.
This moment was exciting to Ford because, firstly, having “Ethan” confront Custer gave The Searchers an inherently and visually dramatic sequence. Secondly, Ford personally disliked Custer and would have relished the opportunity to deliver unto him a second rebuke: his first was in his own 1948 film, Fort Apache: the character of the loathsome General Owen Thursday was based on Custer. Coincidentally, Fort Apache represented the first time that an attack was made upon Custer’s memory in cinema.
As to why the approximately two minute scene was excised from the final film, Ford realized that its inclusion would have made “Ethan” a sympathetic character, a man of moral fiber who could never countenance killing his own innocent niece.
Custer is further mocked by Nugent and Ford with the introduction of an Indian bride. The scene is an illusion to a boast attributed to Custer that after the Seventh Calvary attack against Cheyenne chief Black Kettle and his village on November 7, 1868 the chief’s sister offered Custer an Indian maiden to become his wife.
The dueling masculinities projected onscreen by Martin and Ethan are held up to that of the Comanche. As recognized by Peter Bogdanovich, “it is the Indian, Martin, who is the only voice of reason and compassion before the Rangers’ final attack on the Comanche:” others have noticed that it is an Indian’s arrow that saves Debbie’s life from Ethan’s stoning.
In his transformation from Amos Edwards to Ethan Edwards, the character became far more complex than intended—so much so that the role was “probably the most difficult that Wayne ever undertook.” Ethan is a “much more virulent racist” than Amos at his worst: he finds Martin’s equating them as kin to be repugnant (as Martin, in the film, is one-part Indian); he slaughters buffalo for the sole purpose of depriving the Indians of food to sustain themselves over the winter; he loathes the women captives for to him they have become contaminated by the Comanche.
Also invented by Nugent is the depth of the “unspoken” love between Martha and Ethan, and the fact that it is recognized not by Martin but by the Reverend Clayton. Rather than starting a new life with Debbie as a married couple, Martin weds Laurie Jorgenson.
Debbie is, plainly, Scar’s wife (or squaw), and despite the severity of the life on the terrain has been well treated- she is unscarred. But there must have been sexual relations (never mind affection); there surely would have been children. But such things are not shown or directly referred to. And Debbie declares that urge to stay with her people, the Comanche.
At the end of the film, two different families are blended together to form a new, unique, integrated unit: Martin, who has Indian blood, and Debbie (his non-biological step-sister) who has spent years among the Comanche, are adopted by the Jorgensons. Ethan, being a racist, is incapable of integration (adapting, maturing) and therefore must remain a loner: when the door is shut upon Ethan it is meant to be a signal that society is changing (evolving) and to be a part of it one must change with the times—or be left out in the cold, like Ethan. Being a loner, staying put in one place for too long would be more than Ethan could possibly endure. There is also a suggestion that Ethan—despite being her uncle—would take Debbie (who looks so uncannily like her mother, Margaret) as his wife, given half a chance and an ounce of encouragement.
Card, James Van Dyck. “The Searchers: By Alan LeMay and by John Ford.” Literature Film Quarterly 16, no. 1 (1988). 2. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=aph&AN=6898497&site=ehost-live.
Eckstein, Arthur M. “Darkening Ethan: John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ (1956) from Novel to Screenplay to Screen.” Cinema Journal, 38, no. 1. (1998). 3-24. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1225733
Frankel, Glenn. The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013
LeMay, Alan. The Searchers. New York: Leisure Books, 2009.
Prescott, Orville. “Books of the Times.” New York Times. November 3, 1954.
Soliz, Christine. “The Searchers and Navajos: John Ford’s Retake on the Hollywood Indian.” Wicazo Sa Review 23, no. 1 (2008). 73-95. https://muse.jhu.edu.
Thomson, David. “Open and Shut: A Fresh Look at The Searchers.” Film Comment 33, no. 4 (1997). 28-31. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43454487.
United Press Reviews. “Books New and Noticeable.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. November 14, 1954.