When The Searchers (1956) was released, director John Ford probably knew he’d directed a pretty decent picture, but could he have known his movie would become one of the most respected films of all time? Further, could he have known his Western would influence future films about a taxi-driving lunatic, a drug-dealing high school teacher, and an interstellar farm boy who lived a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
Most likely not. Indeed, John Ford might be a little taken aback by the ripple effect stirred up by his beloved Western starring John Wayne. After all, Ford wasn’t a self-important cinephile trying to wow arthouse audiences with flashy camerawork. This down-to-earth eye-patched Irishman saw filmmaking as a job, plain and simple, and once downplayed his own work, saying, “I am not a poet, and I don’t even know what a Western saga is.”
Regardless of Ford’s anti-elitist attitude, The Searchers is generally hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made. In 2007, the American Film Institute dubbed The Searchers the 12th greatest American movie. It was one of the first films inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989. Roger Ebert added it to his “Great Movies” collection in 2001, and in 2012 this Western earned the number seven spot in the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll.
In other words, The Searchers is kind of a big deal.
The Searchers (1956)
Of course, just because a movie wins critical praise, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to impact the next fifty-some-odd-years of filmmaking. Sure, it won a lot of awards (and has a remake coming out), but there aren’t a lot of directors citing Ben-Hur (1959) as a major influence on their work (and we’re just going to ignore The Phantom Menace podrace, if you don’t mind). The Searchers, on the other hand, influenced some of the biggest directors and most important filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
John Milius, Jean-Luc Goddard and Wim Wenders were all awestruck by John Ford’s classic — just compare The Searchers to Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984) and the similarities are pretty obvious — but the film’s most famous acolytes are the so-called “movie brats": Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese. According to Spielberg, he watches The Searchers every time he’s getting ready to make a new film. In fact, he watched it twice while filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and as this YouTube video points out, the scene wherein the UFO abducts little Barry is incredibly similar to the scene wherein Ethan Edwards's (John Wayne) family prepares for a Comanche attack.
When it comes to The Searchers' influence on Scorsese, look no further than Taxi Driver (1976). This 1976 film — written by Paul Schrader, whose Hardcore (1979) was also influenced by The Searchers — follows an angry, racist veteran who decides to rescue a girl from her captor, a long-haired villain who’s using her for sexual purposes. Sound familiar? Probably because it’s the exact same plot as The Searchers… and no, it’s just a coincidence. Similar to Spielberg, both Scorsese and Schrader have claimed they watch this movie once a year. It’s almost some sort of religious ritual for 1970s-era filmmakers.
The Searchers (1956)
Fast forward one year, and Star Wars (1977) was taking the world by storm. These days, it’s well known that director George Lucas was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa's samurai films, but John Ford’s American epics were also incredibly important in the making of Star Wars. After all, Star Wars is a space Western and, much like The Searchers, focuses on a bunch of settlers living out in the desert. More specifically, both films feature a key scene wherein our protagonist discovers his relatives slaughtered by enemy forces, surrounded by the burning remains of the family homestead. (See the aforementioned YouTube video for a comparison.)
Moreover, The Searchers is still influencing writers and directors to this day. In a 2013 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Vince Gilligan explained how The Searchers influenced the final episode of Breaking Bad (2008 - 2013). According to Gilligan, he was inspired by Ethan Edwards’s complex relationship with his niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). While we’re initially led to believe he wants to save Debbie, we learn Ethan really plans to murder his now "savage" niece. Everything leads up to a nail-biting climax when Wayne’s character chases after Natalie Wood — only instead of putting a bullet in her brain, he rescues her. Similarly, after the death of his brother-in-law, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is consumed with hatred for his partner, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and decides to kill him. However, when the two finally confront each other in the last episode, Walt saves Jesse’s life instead.
The ending of The Searchers (1956)
You can even feel The Searchers’ influence in recent blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). There’s one small moment when Captain America (Chris Evans) is standing on a porch, framed in a doorway, longingly looking at a family that he’ll never have. It’s a brief homage to the ending of The Searchers when Ethan Edwards — another world-weary and battle-hardened veteran who’s lost the woman he loves — stands outside his family’s home, wishing he could walk inside but knowing there’s no place for him here anymore.
But hey, at the very least, he’ll be remembered and resurrected by filmmakers to come for the foreseeable future of cinema and TV.