'The Searchers': 60 Years Later

Based on a novel by Alan LeMay, "The Searchers" would go on to become one of John Wayne’s most beloved films. Wayne even named one of his sons after his character in the film, Ethan. ScreenProd/Photononstop/Alamy

The Searchers was released on March 13, 1956, and with it, America was introduced to Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who returns to his brother Aaron's frontier cabin three years after the end of the Civil War. As the iconic film approaches its 60th anniversary, Newsweek explores the film that revolutionized the Western industry. This article, along with others that celebrate the life and legend of John Wayne, is excerpted from a Special Edition, John Wayne: The Unstoppable Legacy of America's Favorite Cowboy.

Signed copy of The Searchers novel by stars of the film Courtesy heritage auctions

Source Material

Actress Vera Miles played Laurie Jorgensen in The Searchers, and before the end of her time on set she had her personal copy of the novel upon which the script was based signed (above) by her co-stars, including Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr., Olive Carey, John Ford (who added "Séan O'Fienne," an alias), Jeff Hunter, Natalie Wood and John Wayne, who wrote, "Little Vera—it was a pleasure, Duke."

Ahead of the (Marketing) Curve

As part of the leadup for The Searchers, Warner Bros. created one of the first ever behind-the-scenes television specials for its foray into the TV business. Warner Brothers Presents was the beginning of what would eventually become the vast television wing of Warner Bros. Pictures and featured interviews with Hollywood personalities such as James Dean and, in the case of The Searchers' episode, John Ford. By teasing the television audience with shots of Ford directing Duke in Monument Valley, Warner Bros. created buzz for the final product.

John Wayne, Jack Pennick, Jeffrey Hunter, John Ford and Dolores Del Rio on the set of The Searchers. Hunter would go on to star in the original Star Trek pilot before passing away at age 43. ScreenProd/Photononstop/Alamy

A Strong Lead

"The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema," wrote Martin Scorsese in The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. "In a sense, he's of a piece with Wayne's persona and his body of work with Ford and other directors like Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway. It's the greatest performance of a great American actor." Wayne's unsettling portrayal of a deeply flawed man has become legendary.

A working script for The Searchers used on set. The script was written by Frank S. Nugent, who also wrote The Quiet Man; John Wayne as Ethan Edwards comes back in from the desert in an iconic shot from the film. Courtesy Heritage Auctions

Behind the Story

The story that became the greatest Western of the 1950s was the 1836 Texas kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker, a 9-year-old, by a Comanche raiding party. After living among the Comanche into adulthood, marrying and bearing children, she was forcibly "rescued."

Inspiration for a Hit

According to rock & roll lore, a young Buddy Holly saw The Searchers in Texas in 1956 with several of his friends, also known as The Crickets. They were so impressed by Duke's delivery of the line "That'll be the day" that they decided to use it as a song title.

The Film That Almost Wasn't

Because John Wayne and John Ford had such a good working relationship, Ford gave Wayne the chance to back out of The Searchers for the opportunity to star in a film called Seven Men from Now. Duke turned the offer down and stayed with his obligation to The Searchers and to his old friend, and Seven Men from Now was made, starring Randolph Scott and Gail Russell. Though the film—about a man who blames himself for his wife's death during a Wells Fargo robbery and vows revenge against the bandits—opened to strong reviews, it doesn't come close to the legendary status of The Searchers.

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards comes back in from the desert in an iconic shot from the film. WARNER BROS/KOBAL COLLECTION

In the Desert

The harsh landscapes and rich vistas of The Searchers weren't easy to capture on film. John Ford's dedication to making the film look as authentic as possible led the cast and crew to spend the summer of 1955 in the scorching heat of Monument Valley, spanning both Arizona and Utah.

The Famous Carpool

When Natalie Wood first began working on The Searchers, she was just 16 and still a student in high school. In contrast to today's reliance on private tutors, Wood was often picked up from school by her co-stars Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne.

Recognized by AFI

In 2007, the American Film Institute made a list of their 100 greatest American movies of all time. The Searchers finished in 12th place, but in the Western category it was number one, confirming the status The Searchers has long had among directors like Martin Scorsese, who based his film Taxi Driver on its plot.

Duke to the Rescue

During the filming process of The Searchers, a 2-year-old Navajo girl came down with a terrible case of double pneumonia and the measles at the same time. When it became clear that an oxygen tank 100 miles away was her only hope, Duke gave her his private plane.

This article was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition, John Wayne: The Unstoppable Legacy of America's Favoriate Cowboy, by Issue Editor Tim Baker.

Everett Collection. Digital Imaging by Eric Heintz

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