The 50 greatest westerns

We count down the greatest westerns of all time


The Searchers (1956)

Dir John Ford (John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood)

Homer, Homer on the range

Just what is it about ‘The Searchers’ that makes it so fascinating and compelling even after all these years? Years during which – get this! – hostile intolerance toward hard-put ethnic minorities has become somehow unacceptable. Why in the name of hell’s horses does John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards have such a righteous racist hard-on for the Comanche, and why do we, as modern audiences, still find his despicable attitudes not only intriguing but mesmerising? The plot sees Wayne’s embittered Civil War veteran take up the search for a niece (Natalie Wood) who has been abducted by the Indians, who, Ford takes minor pains to inform us, are as smart, conflicted and enlightened as anyone else on the continent. So follows an obsessive, futile and disconcerting attempt to rescue and reintegrate Wood – long since ‘gone native’ – into a society to which Edwards himself has no real connection.

Both the hero and villain of the piece, Edwards is a foul, bruised wanderer; a questionable hero with no one awaiting his return. His hatred has no home and deserves none. If by the end of the film he has shifted from a state of outright fury to something approaching tolerance, then he is at least closer to humanity. It may not be much, but it’s a desperate something. When, however, at the last – and in one of the most iconic shots of all cinema – the door shuts on a lonely, wounded Ethan Edwards, it is clear that his search has only just begun. ALD