A career-best achievement for Wayne and his most important collaborator, director John Ford, “The Searchers” is at once a stirring adventure yarn and a piercing examination of the genre that made the two men famous. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a racist Civil War veteran who returns home to find his brother’s family slaughtered and his niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), kidnapped by Comanches. He embarks on a years-long journey to find her, only to try to kill her when he discovers she’s living as a Native American.
Overlooked by critics and Oscar-voters in its time, it’s now considered the definitive Western, influencing generations of filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader for “Taxi Driver”). It’s also the definitive Wayne performance, with the often undervalued actor finding fascinating new layers in his screen persona.