From the John Wayne Archives: The Searchers

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In anticipation of Volume 27 of The John Wayne Official Collector’s Edition, Duke’s Most Iconic Movie Moments, we’re exploring the archives to reveal the bigger picture behind some of the actor’s most iconic movie scenes. The “Let’s go home, Debbie,” scene from The Searchers comes in at No. 13 in our rankings, and the entire film is worth a re-watch. Read more about this classic John Wayne Western below and find out where the rest of his scenes stand in Volume 27, on newsstands nationwide January 29 or available now by clicking here!


John Wayne in The Searchers


Featured in The Official John Wayne Collector’s Edition, Volume 3

In 1956, the master of the Western motion picture, John Ford, released his masterpiece, which also starred the physical embodiment of the Western spirit: John Wayne. Both men dedicated their considerable talents and abilities to making The Searchers. “There’s so much depth of emotion in this film that there’s no mistaking what John Ford and John Wayne both put into it,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “The movie deals with such fundamental emotions, and that gives the film so much power.” While today most critics acknowledge Ford’s stunning film—based on a novel by Alan Le May and adapted to the screen by Frank S. Nugent—as one of cinema’s most arresting stories, the movie originally received mixed reviews.

Duke finally took home Oscar gold for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, but bringing to life the troubled and nuanced character of Ethan Edwards, for many, stands as John Wayne’s single greatest accomplishments as an actor. In the film, Edwards stands apart from his brother Aaron and his family, yet when a Comanche raid on the farm wipes out his kin with the exception of his adopted nephew, Martin (played by Jeffrey Hunter), and his two nieces, Lucy and Debbie, who go missing, Edwards dedicates himself completely to retrieving the girls. The Searchers may seem like another story where the stoic, loner cowboy embarks on a righteous quest to protect his loved ones, but as Edward’s journey wears on and the bodies pile up, the character displays a dark side uncommon in most of Duke’s movies. “You see the anger of the character, his hatred and desperation,” says Maltin. “It’s such a wide range of feelings.” Even more disturbing, Edwards clearly intends to kill the grown Debbie (played by Natalie Wood) after discovering she’s been raised a Comanche, a huge perversion in the Edwardses’ eyes. Edwards’s change of heart leads to one of the film’s most emotional and legendary lines, “Let’s go home, Debbie,” and the audience can hear the character let go of years of hate and revenge, thanks to Debbie’s pitch-perfect delivery.


Movie Still of John Wayne in The Searchers


Unappreciated during its time, The Searchers slowly gained fans through the years and, in 1989, became one of the first films selected by the National Film Preservation Board as an American movie with strong cultural significance. The legacy of The Searchers also lives on in a generation of auteurs whom the film inspired, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. And the film’s influence extends to the small screen as well. “When my writers and I were outlining our final episode of Breaking Bad, we came up with a plot twist which made us all exceedingly proud,” said Vince Gilligan, creator of the critically acclaimed television drama. “At that point in the story, our main character, Walter White, hated his partner, Jesse Pinkman, and planned on killing him at their next meeting. But once Walt finally laid eyes on the young man, he saw how victimized his partner had become and had a silent change of heart. We were very proud of this stunningly original plot twist we had concocted, until it dawned on me that this same twist ends The Searchers,” Gilligan continued. “Writers and directors like me—if we’re smart—will continue to be inspired by the work of John Ford (and Alan Le May and Frank S. Nugent) for centuries to come.” Although The Searchers is more than 60 years old, time hasn’t diminished John Wayne’s most riveting and unforgettable role. “They don’t make stars like John Wayne anymore. It’s as if the movies got a little bit smaller after his passing,” said Gilligan. Will there ever come a time when The Searchers doesn’t hold some nugget of inspiration for aspiring artists? As Edwards himself would say, “That’ll be the day!”