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100 Seconds of Greatness: Analyzing the First Scene of John Ford’s The Searchers

100 Seconds of Greatness: Analyzing the First Scene of John Ford’s The Searchers


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

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  1. Raammurti says:

    Well written analysis…..The form of a film makes the content to be interpreted effectively by the viewer if he/she watches each element with perception… That is the greatness of the director, though he makes the audience see from his material, he leaves them enough room to form their own impressions by his implications more so visually…..Mr. Mcconnel’s analysis breaks the scene effectively shot by shot to shed the underlying meaning and the the narrative style….films can be appreciated better if only the audience watch movies of great directors like John Ford and see them with perceptive thinking…

  2. Tom Snyder, Ph.D., Film Studies, Northwestern U. says:

    Great article and analysis.

  3. Maria Moralaes says:

    Super cool. don’t see much of this anymore… classic example of why slow cinema can be so effective.

  4. gary wilson says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Ford’s use of the static wide shot, allowing the actor(s) to work within the frame. It was not solely an establishing shot under Ford’s direction.

    • Thanks, Gary. The Searchers was originally shot in 70mm, so on that big screen the audience could really read the faces of the actors, even in a wide shot. This really helped the audience connect with the characters. Sad today that so many directors and editors over focus on whip pans, CUs, and fast cuts. Instead of adding drama, such techniques distance the audience from the characters. Scott

  5. Eric Vitelli says:

    Very good piece on a great movie!I hope our local Imax runs this folm sometime. The wide shots are amazing

    Where can I find the list of movies rated above this?

  6. Stephanie Black says:

    This is an excellent analysis. My husband introduced me to this film over 20 years ago. It stands the test of time and I can watch it over and over. Clearly one of the best films ever made. Ford was a master craftsman. Anytime I see a film that he has directed I have to watch it. No one builds tension like he does. His slow technique enables me to adapt to the tension without becoming overly anxious. I don’t know if anyone else has this problem. I don’t like the tension built up to impossible extremes quickly without care for the feelings of the viewer. Ford entices and allows the scenes that are difficult to view in a way that makes me trust him. That probably sounds dumb but that’s how I feel when watching some films as if the director wants to shock me. I don’t want to be shocked and I don’t want my nerves stretched.

    • Hi Stephanie, I think your comment are insightful. Ford knew that he had to let the audience have a catharsis, at the right time, to release its pent up feelings. One key way he did this was to bring comedy into the story, especially with Charlie and Mose. Scott

  7. Keith G says:

    Thanks Scott. I am a life long admirer of John Wayne the actor and the man. I must admit that I have not given “The Searchers” the attention that it deserves and was always a little put off by the abrupt change in Ethan’s attitude towards Debbie at the very end of the film. You have opened my eyes towards the film, and I will sit down and pay attention as if I have never watched it before – and I thank you for that! Great article!

    • Hi Keith, thanks for the kind words. Yes, it’s a great film, for me my tie favorite with Queen Christina. (On my linkedin page is a review of that film). Re the “abrupt change” to Debbie at the end of the film, I think the answer is given in the final version of the script. The script has the following action/dialog, not used in the film:


      Ethan is at the left of CAMERA and slightly closer to the
      foreground, with Debbie at the right, supine on the ground
      and the dust swirling around her. Ethan draws and raises
      his gun. The hammer goes back.

      I’m sorry, girl…Shut your eyes…

      The dust clears. The CAMERA MOVES slightly forward along
      the gun arm and HOLDS on Debbie’s face — the eyes gazing
      fearlessly, innocently into Ethan’s. We HOLD for a long
      moment and then the gun lowers. Ethan slowly holsters it
      and walks over to her.


      He looks down at her.

      You sure favor your mother…

      • Keith G says:

        Wow! That final version of the script would have really tied it all together for me. Thanks to your article I no longer need it, since knowing that Ethan loved her mom, it becomes obvious that Ethan sees her mom in Debbie and has a change of heart. Excellent! Thanks again!

        • Ethan Friend says:

          I would also add that when Ethan picks Debbie up off the ground in the film version of the scene, the blocking matches that of earlier, when Ethan picks Debbie up thinking she’s Lucy and comments on how much she’s grown. Ford leaves some ambiguity to the ending that way. Was it because of Martha? Is it because Scar is dead now? Is it because he sees Debbie as the little girl that she was?

          Another fun detail that I saw a pointed out elsewhere, which factors into Ethan’s attitude towards the Comanche. When Debbie is hiding by her grandmother’s gravestone, we can see the inscription which says that the grandmother was killed by comanches. Which adds yet another layer toward Ethan’s racism towards the Native Americans.

      • Jacqueline Madden says:

        The searchers is one of my favourite films.
        Oh how you have taken me back to a child watching this with my father…and him crying like a baby during this and the final scene.

        Whenever a John Wayne movie was on tv, He would come into my room and wake me up so we could watch it together.
        Thank you for this article and your insight.

  8. Peter Sutich says:

    This is a great evaluation. I always considered the last sequence of Ethan walking out of the house as one of the great scenes in history. I could feel his loneliness and his understanding that he just doesn’t fit into the new family life Debbie will begin. His purpose in life is over and now he sets off by himself. At least, that is what I thought it meant.

  9. Colin says:

    Ethan also has another motivation….guilt. He has a bag of gold that Aaron asks “where did u get that”? Later he knows scar is on a murder raid on one of the homesteaders…somehow the gold and scar are intertwined

  10. Robert G Walker says:

    A good friend of mine(Max)that has passed away had a ice house in Amazonia where The Searchers was filmed. The film company contracted with him for ice, beer, sodas, bread, & perishable groceries. Max kept a 1/2 gal of Wild Turkey Bourbon in a refrigerator in the back of his business for himself & special guest. Every evening the cast & workers would come over to his icehouse and set at the picnic tables to drink a beer. John Wayne was often with them so Max ask him what he used to chase his Turkey and Wayne Said “More Turkey”. This happen several times during the filming, then when the company was ready to move John Wayne showed up with a gal of Wild Turkey and A framed, Audio graphed picture of himself in the searchers costume; with “To Max the Man that serves the best Turkey in Arizona”. Max had the picture where you could not get into his house without seeing it.

  11. David Cowart says:

    I have always gave thought to whether Debbie is Ethan’s child? The stare and hesitation between brothers. The thought of his child being with those “bucks”, that he hates. When confronted with her, his buried love/feelings for her explodes and he takes her in his arms “lets go home…”
    The final scene is just as deep as the opening, watching everyone he loves at home and in peace, the loner just turns to an equally lonely and empty desert.
    I saw this movie when I was ten (1979) and told my parents that I would name my son after him. Ethan Scott Cowart will turn 19 this summer

    • Very good points, David, and great you named your son Ethan. Incredible you could be so moved by Ethan at age ten to make that choice. John Wayne also named one of his sons Ethan, after this great character. Scott

      PS Some critics have also raised the point that Debbie is Ethan’s child. It’s very interesting but I don’t think so as the love between Ethan and Martha, to my eyes, is totally frustrated and not acted upon.

      • David Cowart says:

        I understand what you’re saying. Another point is her age would line up with when Ethan left and Aaron mentioning whether he would stay. “I saw it in you before the war, you wanted to clear out but stayed beyond…”
        It’s fun to discuss such a great movie.

  12. Steven Eames says:

    Excellent article. Add this to it, the music playing over the scene is “Lorena” … a 19th century song about a lost love, a love that married another. So the music itself is part of the implication.

  13. Joe says:

    Something you left out that will become of great importance later in the film; Ethan wears a Confederate greatcoat. Is Ford implying a justification for Ethan’s racial intolerance that manifests later in the film?

    • Keith G says:

      I would think that the fact that the Indians have taken or killed everyone he cares about would be ample justification for Ethan’s intolerance. These were brutal times for everyone on all sides.

    • Mutaman says:

      The last scene tells you how Ford feels about Ethan’s racial issues- he is foreclosed from joining the community as a punishment for his racism. he is turned away. He is doomed to wander forever between the winds.

  14. Max Cunillera says:

    Great analysis thanks for sharing

  15. John Reagan says:

    This is fine stuff, helping readers understand how to see more in good movies. You did leave out the final piece of evidence that Martha still deeply loves Ethan. After the Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) has deputized a number of men to be in a posse to go after Debbie and her sister Laura, he stands by the dining table to finish a cup of coffee. He glances into an adjacent room where Martha has gone to fetch Ethan’s coat for him. Ford shows Martha holding the coat in one arm and briefly, softly, carressing the sleeve of it. Ford then cuts back to Bond and his face emphatically registers his digesting of the meaning of what he has just seen. Martha’s near reverential caress of Ethan’s coat has told Bond, and therefore us, “You think she used to love her husband’s brother? It’s worse than that. She very deeply loves him still.” Again, as you point out, no dialogue. We should remember that Ford started making westerns in 1917, silent films of course, and by 1924 when he made “Iron Horse” he was already famous within the film business. By 1955 when he made “The Searchers” he had made something over 100 feature films. I mean to emphasize here that he possessed a mastery of just about every aspect of picture making by 1939, the year that he began his phenomenal run of “Stagecoach”, “Your Mr. Lincoln”, “Drums Along the Mohawk”, then “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Long Voyage Home” in 1940, and finally in 1941 perhaps the greatest family film of all time: “How Green Was My Valley” (Academy Award for Best Picture, and Director to Ford). He taught John Wayne as a young actor that film performing is reacting, not acting, and taught a whole generation of filmmakers that directing a film is a matter mostly of shooting the actors’ eyes. Again. thanks for your piece.

  16. Annie says:

    I love the relationship between Ethan and Marty , Ethan helping Marty become a man, maybe the sort of man Ethan was before the war and lifes experiences made him so bitter. I always think of Debbie and her life after returning, it would not be easy, in a way she will be like Ethan, between 2 worlds, this film has so many layers, a real joy to watch.

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