What made John Ford a great director? Let’s try an experiment to help answer that question. Let’s look at a one minute, 40 second clip from Ford’s most acclaimed movie, The Searchers.

Watch every actor: eyes, hands, how they walk and stand, facial expressions and reactions. Then try to identify the meaning in these actions. The clip is the first scene of The Searchers, which was released 61 years ago today. The American Film Institute declared The Searchers the greatest western of all time and the 12th greatest movie ever made.

Let’s now go through the scene and then see what it reveals about Ford’s greatness.

First, the key action: The Searchers opens with poignant string music and a black room. Martha Edwards (played by Dorothy Jordan) opens the front porch door. She stands silhouetted in the doorway and looks out, sees something and steps expectantly onto the porch to learn what it is. She holds onto a post.

Martha watches a rider in the distance heading for the ranch and stares at him. She is joined by her husband, Aaron (Walter Coy), who asks, “Ethan?” Martha reacts anxiously and can’t reply. Their daughters, Lucy and Debbie, and their son, Ben, come to the porch. All watch the rider. Lucy announces to Ben, “It’s your uncle Ethan.” Ben is excited.

Ethan (John Wayne) slowly dismounts and steps toward his brother Aaron, who has stepped toward him. Ethan stares at Aaron, who extends his hand. Ethan looks down at the hand then shakes it. Ethan then quickly looks to Martha.

Martha stares at Ethan. Doffing his hat, Ethan strides to Martha. As they stare into each other’s eyes, Martha places her hands on Ethan’s upper arms, as if to hold him but also to keep him back. Martha says, “Welcome home, Ethan.” As Ethan kisses her on the forehead, Martha closes her eyes and he stares at her silently. Martha stares at Ethan, lowers her eyes and leads him towards the entrance of her home.

On the porch, Martha turns to look at Ethan then enters the doorway backwards, staring up at him. End of scene one.

Let’s now identify the meanings of some of these key actions.

Martha is the key to protagonist Ethan’s motivation, so it is she who opens the story. Martha can’t answer when her husband says, “Ethan,” because she is too overcome with feeling. Ethan stares at Aaron, not sure how his brother will welcome him and is a little surprised at Aaron’s proffered hand. Ethan is pleased to shake Aaron’s hand. During the kiss, Martha closes her eyes because the kiss has great meaning to her, a romantic love. When Martha walks backwards while staring up at Ethan, it is an act of reverence.

What major idea did you identify? Was it that Ethan Edwards and his sister-in-law are deeply and secretly in love with each other?

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards and Dorothy Jordan as Martha Edwards in The Searchers. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

The first scene of The Searchers is one of most subtle scenes in movies. Ethan and Martha’s love is expressed without any dialogue or explicit act of romantic love. In this scene, John Ford perfected the most sophisticated and intellectual directing technique: visual implication. Implication is the conveying of ideas indirectly, that is, where they are not explicitly stated but suggested in concretes. In film, implication has two main attributes: deeper meanings conveyed in dialogue, and suggested meanings expressed in actions of the actors. These suggestions are often presented in a specific pattern. Ford used both forms of implication but had a great preference for revealing his characters and telling his stories through the suggestive actions of his characters, especially through their eyes. Ford’s preference for static shots was so powerful because it gave his audience the time to read his actors’ reactions.

Implication is a challenging technique for directors because it takes great imagination to devise the many suggestive actions a good film demands. A director especially needs to integrate all these implications so that the ideas they express are totally consistent. And implication is challenging for the viewer, because he or she needs to be fully focused to see all the subtle suggestions. And even harder, he must then do mental work on these implications to reach the conclusion that the director and story want him to make. These above points are not meant to imply that implication is the only important skill of a great director. All brilliant directors have a good story sense and are able to create multilayered and captivating characters. A director who is a genius at implication cannot overcome a mediocre script or bad acting.

Notice in this Searchers clip how Ford creates a logical series of implications. First, all the actions are realistic to a man returning home after many years. Further, notice that these actions and their implicit ideas escalate during the scene. Ford doesn’t start the scene with the kiss between Ethan and Martha, nor with her look of reverence. Ford begins slowly with Martha looking outside, then her seeing Ethan and holding the post, and so forth. With each successive beat in the scene, Ford adds a bigger clue, building to and climaxing with Martha’s act of reverence. By the time the family enters the house we can know what the essential meaning of the scene is. What is rare is that Ford makes all these implications totally consistent, with no false touches or contradictions.

Ethan (John Wayne) and Martha (Dorothy Jordan) share coffee in The Searchers

Understanding the generalization drawn from these clues (that Ethan and Martha love each other) is the key to being emotionally involved in the film. Knowing this generalization we understand Ethan’s deepest reason for taking his five year odyssey to find Scar’s band, the main storyline of the film. The greatness of The Searchers is not in this motive itself but in the way that Ford reveals it to us. Ford never once has any actor tells us about Ethan’s love for Martha but implies it in sensitive ways that force the audience to understand it on their own. The more of these implications a viewer observes (and the greater the ideas and implications in the film itself), the greater will be the viewer’s emotional reaction. That is, the more a viewer thinks for himself to understand a story and its characters, the more he is drawn into the drama and the more he will feel. If a viewer sees all the implications that Ford lays out in the opening of The Searchers, he will be able to fully experience all of its intended drama.

The viewer who does not see these implications has merely watched a brother returning home to his family. Nicely shot and sweet music, but nothing important. He will not understand Ethan Edwards’ deepest motivation, so will not empathize with Ethan’s later trek to find and kill Scar. Nor will he fathom Ethan’s reason for wanting to kill Debbie. This viewer will be watching the film half deaf and blind.

Let’s imagine the directing method opposite to Ford’s, where the audience is spoon-fed ideas. For instance, when Aaron isn’t watching, Ethan steps to Martha, throws his arms around her and declares his loneliness and love. This approach would reveal to the audience the story’s main idea but would break the tension created by Ethan and Martha (and us) having a secret. Such an approach would make the film a soap opera, where the audience is not mentally involved in the drama but a passive viewer of it. Because the viewer is being told what to think, he feels less emotion.

Let’s now look at some key examples in the rest of the first act that show further Ford’s masterful use of implication. These examples will deepen our understanding of Ethan and Martha.

In the main room of the Edwards home, Aaron asks Ethan about his actions prior to the Civil War, when “You wanted to clear out. You stayed beyond all reason. Why?” Martha interrupts: “Aaron…” Ethan stops Martha by asking Aaron, “Are you asking me to clear out now?” Aaron tells Ethan he can “stay as long as you have a mind to.” Then Aaron adds, “That right, Martha?”

When Martha reaches for a lamp, Ethan helps her, keeping his hand on hers.

In sequence two, the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) arrives with several Texas Rangers to enlist help to chase Indian cattle thieves. When Ethan is preparing to leave, Clayton watches Martha take out Ethan’s coat and caress it lovingly. Clayton stares away as Ethan and Martha say goodbye silently. As Martha gives Ethan his coat, they stare into each other’s eyes, and he kisses her on the forehead. From the doorway where Martha saw Ethan coming, she now watches him leaving.

During the search for the Indians, Ethan tells Clayton and Marty (Martha and Aaron’s adopted son) that the Indians are on a “murder raid” against either the Jorgensen or Edwards ranch. The Rangers dash for the closer Jorgensen home. Ethan tells Marty that it’s forty miles to their home and that “These horses need rest and grain.” Marty charges off. Knowing his horse would die if he now rode it, Ethan stays to tend his horse. Then, in one of the most poignant shots in the film, Ethan’s tortured eyes stare over his saddle towards the Edwards ranch. The effect of this shot is magnified greatly if the viewer understands that Ethan’s thoughts are not of Aaron but of Martha. And consider how less involving this shot would be if Ethan sighed, “Martha.” Such explicitness would have stopped the viewer from making an important integration on his own, which would have distanced him from Ethan.

When Ethan reaches the Edwards ranch, we see the horror on his face as he looks down at the burning home. Ethan runs into the burning house screaming, “Martha?! Martha?!” He exits and finds Martha’s bloody dress and then (unshown) her naked, raped, dismembered and scalped body. Ethan’s head falls to his chest. When the viewer sees Ethan lower his head, he integrates the meaning of this with the long series of integrations he has made during the first act. This climactic integration allows the viewer to understand what is silently tearing through Ethan’s soul. We understand that his world has been destroyed. We understand why Ethan Edwards will now seek his terrible vengeance.

All of these implications add up to how much Ethan loved Martha and what her loss means to him. We now understand why Ethan hates Scar and the Comanches, takes five years of hardship to find Scar and is so disturbed at Debbie becoming a Comanche. By forcing us to think about all these implications, John Ford brings us deeply into Ethan’s soul so we greatly empathize with him.

Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) clutches her brother-in-law Ethan (John Wayne) lovingly in The Searchers

Let’s summarize the mental process underlying implication. The opening to The Searchers works like this: Once you have observed the key implications and inductively drawn them into the essential idea—that Ethan and Martha love each other—you understand the deepest meaning of the story and its events. You will, consequently, feel stronger emotions watching them. You can now feel disgust and fury at Martha’s rape and murder, you can feel pity and dread at the fate of Lucy and Debbie. You are now sitting on Ethan’s saddle, feeling his torment and loss while cheering him on to kill Scar and rescue Debbie.

The opening 22 minutes of The Searchers is among the best first acts you’ll see in movies. Yes, the writing is excellent. Yes, the story and characters are captivating and deep. Yes, the locations, costumes, music are all superlative. But what most of all lifts this story to film art at the highest level is the brilliant use of suggestion and implication by Ford and his cast.

Yes, The Searchers brilliantly uses implication. But, and this is an important “but,” a movie cannot just be clever subtlety and artful implications that add up to very little. Using only creative implications, John Ford could not make Ethan an engaging protagonist. In fact, he could not rationally devise creative implications for a one dimensional character. Creative implications have to reveal something important, especially complex characters and deep conflicts. The “what” of the characters and story is the cause of the “how.” For instance, Ethan Edwards was written as a complex and heroic man torn by high value conflicts. Ethan’s complexity includes his love for Martha and his brother, his desire for justice for his nieces, his mistrust of Marty, as well as his attitudes to Indians and sex and contempt for religion. These values and beliefs make Ethan a three dimensional character and are what the visual implications dramatize.

Ford’s greatest power to induce emotion comes from the values and personal conflicts that his stories dramatize. Ford was, arguably, Hollywood’s greatest dramatizer of American values and most important creator of American Western mythology. Ford was the creator of many other famous westerns, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Stagecoach. The ideals in Ford’s Westerns greatly shaped the way the world sees the old West and America. Ford’s values were strongly aligned with his audience’s. Thus when Ford concretized his values on the screen, they had great personal meaning to his audience. The result was strong emotion in his viewers and the immense popularity of Ford’s films. Ford’s prodigious use of implication significantly heightened his audience’s emotion but could not on its own create it. Implication is the yeast that makes the excellent cake mix rise to its full height and flavor.

Film is a visual medium. In The Searchers, especially in its opening one minute and forty seconds, John Ford has taken the visual essence of telling motion picture stories to its highest level. Ford achieved this through his mastery of the art of implication. With The Searchers John Ford created The David of motion pictures. MM

Scott A. McConnell is writer/producer/script consultant in Los Angeles and Melbourne (Australia), and the writer of the western screenplay My Father’s Son. Read more of Scott’s reviews and articles here