Directed by John Ford
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family three years after the Civil War. One day while going to investigate an Indian gathering his family is murdered and his nieces Debbie (Lana Wood young/Natali Wood older) and her older sister Lucy (Pippa Scott) are kidnapped and now he and the families adopted child Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) go to find the missing children.
A fantastic Western and one of the few times John Wayne does not play the most moral and upright person in the entire film. He’s a former Confederate soldier which isn’t too out of the normal for Westerns but what is unusual, at least for a John Wayne character, is the tinge of dishonesty in him and his open bigotry towards Martin who is a quarter Native American. Martin obviously thinks of Ethan as an uncle but because of his bigotry Ethan cannot reciprocate.
There is bigotry and racism in this movie. None of the characters are saints. The longer the hunt goes on, the more it seems to surface. This does not necessarily justify any of their actions, but it does serve to explain them. Ethan is an imperfect characters carrying out a mission.
Ethan does not like Martin because of his heritage and his pursuit of Debbie is as much to rescue her as it is to keep her from living in the captivity of people he views as savages. And this turns to a desire for bloody vengeance when he finds his eldest niece Lucy dead for reasons that are never clearly elaborated upon.
Ethan may even be a bit of a criminal from the start of the film. Aside from refusing to swear allegiance to the Union as all former Confederate soldiers had to, he returns to the family farm with new coins of an unknown origin with the implication being that he stole them at some point before arriving. The shadiness and open hostility makes him a bit of an aberration in the career of Wayne.
People die pretty regularly in this film. The family is slaughtered. The niece is killed for whatever reason. They are forced to kill a gentleman that gives them information who followed in order to kill and rob from them. The level of death and how it is treated is shocking for the time. The plot is soaked in blood. This is not a lighthearted romp but rather serious business that they are on.
The film is more about the characters than it is about the action even though there are some pretty good action scenes in it. There is an exciting battle towards the end where Ethan and Martin are finally able to rescue the niece and return her to civilization.
Even the Native Americans are given motivation beyond simply being savages that wish to attack. Attitudes were changing and this film showed it even if what they showed was not perfect. But it was change.
The story itself takes place over several years and is told as a series of events with letters arriving at the Jorgensen homestead and read by Martin’s fiancé(?) Laurie (Vera Miles) to indicate the passage of time. I found that unusual. In the terms of a timeline the beginning, middle and end of even the longest westerns tend to be relatively short. Few of them take place over the course of years. Most are days or even a few weeks.
Laurie has been waiting for Martin, but he is not exactly engaged to her and I am unclear if they ever were. It is a little fuzzy. Maybe I just missed something. Either way at the time they connect with the Jorgensen’s Ethan suggests Martin stays behind with Laurie. You get the feeling Ethan left someone he loved and thus lost and wishes to spare Martin that pain. It was a sign of empathy and that the character was confronting his own attitudes.
John Ford was a masterful director. He knew how to take the script and not only produce a good film but frame the scenery in a stunning way. Here he gave us a stunning film that is also a great story.
This is a classic Western by one of the all-time great Western directors starring the greatest of the Western film genre’s actors. It deserves its high-ranking status.