Happy Birthday, John Ford: Doorways in The Searchers

Are you going in or are you staying out? In the world of John Ford’s The Searchers you must choose. You can’t have both. The Searchers takes place on the threshold of that choice, in the abyss of the borderlands, external and internal. For some of the characters, going in or staying out isn’t a choice at all, it’s just the way things work. Everything you want, everything you search for, is “out there”, or, on the flipside, everything you want is “in there”. There is a giant gap between “in” and “out”. Unbridgeable gap. Characters are seen standing a bit away from the house, with people clustered in the doorway, and it seems like anything, anything can happen in that small gap. There is no white-picket-fence safety of a little front yard. Slaughter can happen in that 20-foot gap, swift and terrible. So you must choose. As the terrifying Judge shows in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, there are things that happen in life, choices you make, that forever banish you from the world of the indoor, from civilization itself. There is a point of no turning back. Looking through a doorway, at something going on through yet another doorway, is an image that repeats throughout The Searchers. Whatever happens through a door, whatever is glimpsed, is the “substance of things hoped for,” it’s the truth of the matter, a truth usually unspoken and private. So private that the famous final shot, unfolding in silence, is a man turning away from the door and walking away, with the slightest of stumbles at first, a knee buckling under him slightly, because he knows … he knows that he can no longer go “in there.” It’s not that he’s not welcome. It’s that he has traveled too far, seen too much, been too much. The threshold is now forbidden to him. In there is warmth, safety, domestic comforts, family. It is no longer possible for him to participate and he knows it. In the final moment, the door closes, for the last time.

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30 Responses to Happy Birthday, John Ford: Doorways in The Searchers

  1. Phil P says:

    Damn it Sheila, now I want to see the movie again! I remember the famous last scene, but I never noticed the persistent doorway imagery before. Very interesting.

    I don’t know if this was Ford’s best film – I’m rather partial to My Darling Clementine – but I would say it was Wayne’s best. I’m sure you know it was his favorite role and that he even named his son after Ethan, which is interesting, because the character is not attractive. But it was a rare chance for him to play something like a Shakespearean tragic hero, although it doesn’t end tragically (well, maybe it does for him!). Not unlike Red River. But I think Searchers is superior to Red River.

  2. DBW says:

    The Duke at Sheila’s place!! Yay. Was just reading the comments on your great post–“The Searchers, John Ford anecdotes.” I won’t repeat my comments, but I never tire of reading about the doorways of The Searchers, and, of course, Ford and Wayne.

  3. sheila says:

    Phil – and then there are the “natural” doorways, formed by the caves they hide in in Monument Valley – and the rounded cave entrance where we witness the final chase between Ethan and Debbie (heartcrack). Those caves could also be considered “doorways”. Amazing.

    I agree that The Searchers is one of Ford’s best works – certainly Wayne’s. It feels like the pinnacle of a glorious and rich “late period”, akin to a painter. This is clearly the work of a man past the point of mid-life. He never could have made this movie as a young man. It’s a mature and complex piece of work.

    Ethan’s racism is not soft-pedaled or even apologized for although he is surrounded by people who find him distasteful. Wayne just lets it be what it is. He doesn’t beg for sympathy. This is a tough tough man.

    It’s one of the reasons why his gestures in that famous last shot are so touching to me – because you see him suddenly …. unsure. He stands in the doorway and watches the main family go through. Laurie and Martin are behind him, in the front lawn, lagging behind – they come up behind him, and surprise him a bit. You can see Wayne suddenly turn around, realizing they are there – He steps back a bit to let them pass. A gracious yet awkward moment – from this man who has given Martin nothing but shit from the beginning, due to Martin’s mixed blood. But there he is, sort of standing aside to let the young lovers pass – it’s just so awkward how he does it. Beautiful, like he’s an adolescent at a dance. It’s jarring to see that huge tall burly man seem suddenly so unsure. And then the final pose, where he holds onto his own arm. That was a deliberate choice on Wayne’s part – he knew a man who stood like that, and it always occurred to Wayne that the pose looked “lonely” – and again, it’s such a touching moment, so complex though that I could talk about it forever.

    • Mitzi Conn says:

      I stumbled onto this blog after looking for others’ opinions regarding this scene. Your words confirm things I have felt/ heard about for years. This is my favorite movie of all time for many reasons, one being that thanks to people not afraid to “venture outside the door,” we enjoy the comforts of our homes and freedoms today. Thank you for your in depth analysis of a movie and scene that are very important to me.

    • A.L. says:

      Make that

      It’s a common, and, in its way, nearly fatal (to the story) misconception that Ethan’s a racist, but he’s not — not in the abstract sense that you, and most people, mean it. He respects Indians, and even admires them (who, in the film, knows more about the Indians and their ways, than Ethan?), but he firmly believes that Indians belong in their world, and whites belong in theirs, and that there should be as little mixing of the races as possible

    • Mark Mayerson says:

      The man Wayne was emulating where he holds onto his own arm was the actor Harry Carey. Carey was Ford’s first star and Wayne appeared with him in The Shepherd of the Hills and The Angel and the Badman. One of the reasons that Wayne used the gesture is that Mrs. Jorgenson was played by Olive Carey, Harry’s widow.

  4. george says:


    It amazing how these stills stand by themselves, even out of context.

    I also liked the variation on day/night – daytime and the absolutely breathtaking colors against the dark indoors and then turned around – light, warmth, safety, inside the unknown dark outside. I believe this plays into Wayne’s character, Ethan, in so many ways; the dark and dangerous, the light and protective. At any rate this is perhaps my favorite camera and lighting work of any film – it’s not only mood; it’s an exposition on all the dramatic events and the characters themselves, Ethan foremost among them.

  5. sheila says:

    Oh, and Dorothy Jordan as Martha Edwards? I love her performance. The silent eloquence of her love for Ethan (and his love for her), and how it’s never explained – it’s just THERE. She made her choices, marrying a man who obviously could provide her with domestic happiness (something Ethan, by his nature, probably couldn’t) – but her love for him remains. She’s a wonderful actress. The way she reaches her arms out the window after they hustle their daughter out into the night to escape the Indian raid, and cries out, “Debbie!” It’s heartwrenching.

    SHE is our way in to the inner chamber of Ethan’s heart. And it has to be shown through behavior and silent moments. They have no dialogue about it, he doesn’t have a soliloquy about her around the campfire … we just have to see it, immediately, and then come to our own conclusions. And in so doing, we fall in love with her too. We have to. The story would be GENERAL, otherwise.

    • Bill Wolfe says:

      “…it has to be shown through behavior and silent moments. They have no dialogue about it, he doesn’t have a soliloquy about her around the campfire … we just have to see it, immediately, and then come to our own conclusions.”

      This is why it was essential that Ford started in silent movies. I doubt that he would have understood how to convey all this information through gestures, without speech, had he not spent years in silent movies.

  6. sheila says:

    Here’s the final scene of the movie. Watch John Wayne’s body language in that last moment. I know you’ve all seen it, but still, good to look at it again.

  7. Phil P says:

    Come to think of it Sheila, this may be Ward Bond’s best performance too!

    Andrew Sarris made a nice comment many years ago about the scene where Bond sees Ethan’s brother’s wife fondling his (Ethan’s) uniform – one of your stills I see – and his turning his head away and the camera catching his expression – an expression that says nothing in the world could ever induce him to tell what he saw.

  8. sheila says:

    That’s my favorite moment in the film. Blows me away. He just stands there and THINKS.

  9. scribbler50 says:

    The much imitated “John Wayne walk” never looked more poignant than in that final scene. Not that confident, hip swiveling amble but a weary, almost unsure, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. “My work here is done, where do I go next?”

    Wonderful post, Sheila, thanks for a walk through those doorways!

  10. hokahey says:

    This is a beautiful post with excellent image captures. I love this movie and its imagery – as you might notice if you check out images on my blog home page. Doorways make Martin and Ethan outsiders in the beginning of the film. The shot of Marty on the veranda with the dog is matched by one of Ethan sitting on the veranda after his brother and Martha go to bed. Wonderful post!

  11. sheila says:

    Hokahey – thanks so much! Yes, I considered putting the shot of Ethan with the dog in – a beautiful echo, as you mention – but I don’t think an actual doorway is in that shot, although it is implied. I love that shot, how he kind of absent-mindedly reaches out and pets the dog. Already, he has some ambivalence about himself and his ability to fit in inside. And God, how he watches them close the bedroom door. A door within a door.

    Just amazing stuff.

    Thanks for commenting – I love the movie too!

  12. phil says:

    Those doorway shots. The eye is drawn to the center. There’s no illusion, only truth. We become a member of the uncredited cast. Beautiful shots.
    I choose to go in, Sheila.

  13. MovieMan0283 says:

    It feels a bit superfluous to say so after all the praise, but I really enjoyed the post. What beautiful images – Ford’s films are so gorgeous it hurts.

  14. MovieMan0283 says:

    And looking at the images again, it strikes me that one reason The Searchers is so powerful is that it gives voice to both the feminine and masculine strains in Ford’s vision – the women standing on the porch, dresses and aprons fluttering in the wind, both poetic and domestic; the men on the outside, wandering, brooding in the dark, violent, all aggression. You sense that, in a way, Ford identifies with both, is torn between the two worlds and the figures he uses to represent them; one reason The Searchers plays more like an intense psychodrama than historical fiction.

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  16. sheila says:

    Movieman – Great comment, thank you. I was just thinking about it and it occurs to me (unless I’ve missed something – if anyone can think of an exception, please let me know): in the doorway shots (at least the front doorways) – the women stand looking OUT and the men stand looking IN.

    I love the shots of the family breakfast, early on, when Ward Bond first shows up – and the bustle and the donuts coming off the fire, and coffee being poured – everyone talking and happy in their domestic comforts (while outside is a harsh landscape). Tough tough people, all of them.

    I think you’re right: that Ford identifies with both. But how to bridge that gap – make the gap between IN and OUT smaller? As the neighbor woman says mid-way thru the picture (I am not remembering her name right now, she’s wonderful, the mother of Laurie) – “Perhaps it won’t be our generation that sees this turn into a great country where people will want to live – it’ll take our bones in the ground to make it so …”

    I have also thought: Imagine the film without the unspoken love between Ethan and his brother’s wife. It just wouldn’t have the same power, his character wouldn’t have the same tragic aspect that it does. Without that love, or if Ford had given him a floozy broad in some town that he hung out with on occasion, or something like that – then Ethan Edwards would just be an outlaw, a renegade … But as it is, there is a yearning for home and wife and love in him … something he had to let go, a long time ago … He seems like a one-woman kind of man to me. That was it for him. He took it on the chin and moved on. But I think it gives his character real depth to give him that past love … something he never mentions. Without it, that last shot of him standing in the “yard” looking in wouldn’t be as much of a suckerpunch. It’s not “unmanly” to yearn for those things. It’s part of life. Ethan has to turn away from it – he has gone past the point of no return. He will always be “outside”.

    It’s really quite brilliant, isn’t it??

    Thanks for the comment – I’ve been reading Jason’s site for a while now, and love it – so I was pleased to see him link to this post. Thanks again.

  17. sheila says:

    And speaking of that: Wayne shows what a spectacular actor he is by how he conveys his love for Martha, in every look and gesture, without ever being sappy or “too much”. It’s just emotional, plain and simple (she’s terrific, too). Peter Bogdanovich, in one of his interviews with Wayne, mentioned Wayne’s use of “gesture”, and how theatrical he could be, how his gestures really stand out (think of how he whips the scabbard – if that’s what it called – off his gun, when he sees that the house in the valley is burning – it’s a helpless impotent gesture of rage – huge and theatrical) – Anyway, Wayne replied to Bogdanovich (and I’m paraphrasing): “I think that’s one of the first thing you learn from when you start to do plays in high school. If you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”

    Fearless actor.

  18. Stephen says:

    This is beautiful, Sheila.

    You’ve written a great introduction to the images and to the film itself. I remember reading a review of yours on Jafar Panahi’s OFFSIDE just minutes after I’d seen the film and it captured the atmosphere and joy of the film perfectly.

    Thank you.

  19. sheila says:

    Stephen – Hey, thanks! It’s nice to hear people like something I’ve done. Offside was so much fun, I love that movie.

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  21. MovieMan0283 says:

    Great further observations here – the film has a wonderful unity of story, theme, imagery; I suppose most great movies have that to a certain extent but in this story perhaps what makes it so powerful is that in every case the underlying element, the tension between aggression and domesticity, inside and outside, male and female, remains just buried underneath the surface. It takes a bit of discovery, appropriate given the title…

  22. MovieMan0283 says:

    And thanks for linking up to the meme! Serendipitous indeed…

  23. sheila says:

    Everyone’s contributions are just amazing! I know how much time it takes to find just the right screengrabs, but I was just doing it for one movie!

    In re The Searchers: With such a bleak movie in many ways, I love how funny it is, too. That typical John Ford humor that I never get sick of. Like during the fight scene between Martin and the groom, where, mid-fight, the groom sees something on the ground, picks it up and says, “Here’s someone’s fiddle” – (ie: we don’t want to ruin this) – and some dude from the crowd of men watching the fight says, “That’s mine”, takes it back, and then boom – the fight starts again. It makes me laugh every time.

  24. It has been some time since I visited this page, half a dozen years to be exact. But, I reread it and appreciated it once more. I have always loved this movie, my favorite along with The Shootest. In going back to revisit the The Searchers, I ran across a copy of the screen play, and suggest it as a must read.

  25. Bill Wolfe says:

    There were a lot of songs written for a lot of Westerns in the 1950s and early ’60s; for me, the one from “The Searchers” is far and away the best. Just more evidence of the movie’s greatness.

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