Considering the part of Ethan Edwards to be the best character that he ever portrayed on-screen and The Searchers (1956) to be his favorite film role, John Wayne named his youngest son Ethan Wayne in homage.
Natalie Wood was still a student in high school when this film was being made, and on several occasions both John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter had to pick her up at school on days when she was required on the set. This caused a good deal of excitement among Wood's female classmates.
During filming, a Navajo child became seriously ill with pneumonia and needed urgent medical attention. John Wayne had his own airplane on location and had his pilot take the little girl to a hospital. For his deed, the Navajos named him "The Man With The Big Eagle".
Reportedly this film was seen in a theater in Texas by Buddy Holly and his friends in the summer of 1956. They were so impressed with Ethan's (John Wayne) repeated use of the phrase "That'll be the day" that they used it as the title for their now standard rock song, which they composed soon after.
A significant portion of the film's labyrinthine plot is revealed on a throwaway prop that most casual viewers rarely notice. Just before the Indian raid on the Edwards homestead, the tombstone (of Ethan's mother) that Debbie hides next to reveals the source of Ethan's glaring hatred for Comanches. The marker reads: "Here lies Mary Jane Edwards killed by Commanches May 12, 1852. A good wife and mother in her 41st year."
Western star Harry Carey died in 1947. Director John Ford cast Carey's wife (Olive Carey) as Mrs. Jorgensen (the mother) and Carey's son (Harry Carey Jr.) as one of the sons (Brad) as a tribute to Carey. In the closing scene with John Wayne framed in the doorway, Wayne holds his right elbow with his left hand in a pose that Carey fans would recognize as one that he often used. Wayne later stated he did it as a tribute to Carey. Off-camera, Olive watched.
The eccentric character of Mose Harper, played by Hank Worden, is loosely based on an actual historical personage called Mad Mose, a legendary half-crazy Indian fighter of the American southwest with a fondness for rocking chairs.
While on the desert locale, John Ford was stung by a scorpion. Worried about his investment, financial backer C.V. Whitney asked John Wayne, "What if we lose him? What are we going to do?" Wayne offered to check in on the "stricken" director. A few minutes later he came out of Ford's trailer and said to Whitney, "It's OK. John's fine, it's the scorpion that died."
In a biography of John Ford it is mentioned that Ward Bond, in his motel room after shooting, would walk around naked with the curtains open in hopes of attracting Vera Miles. Apparently, this plan did not have the intended results.
The day-for-night filming of Ethan's speech recounting his discovery and burial of Lucy required more than one take, but only because Ward Bond needed a shave. John Wayne nailed the scene the first time, but for some inexplicable reason, the camera had stopped. Supremely irritated, John Ford asked the operator what was wrong with the camera. As he answered, the power to the camera returned and they resumed filming the scene without incident. Indeed, nothing was wrong with the camera. Bond had pulled the plug on the camera in order to use his electric razor. The crew never did tell Ford, for fear that he would physically harm Bond. Years later, after Bond's death, cameraman Winton C. Hoch told Ford about the incident at a Hollywood event. Reportedly, Ford's face turned white and he was speechless.
The actors playing Comanche Indians are all Navajo, with the exception of Chief Scar, played by Henry Brandon, a German-born Jew. The language, traditional dress and dances depicted in the film are all Navajo, not Comanche. The "Comanche Death Song" is actually a social Navajo "Squaw Dance" song.
Lana Wood went through a "gruelling" audition. She was ushered into a room where she was introduced to John Wayne and John Ford. Instead of rehearsing a scene from the script with the two performers, Ford issued one command to Wayne: "Lift her up, please." As Lana recounted in her autobiography, "Mr. Wayne stood up--he seemed to extend further toward the ceiling than anyone I had ever seen in my life--grinned, and rubbed his huge hands together. Then he reached down, picked me up, and never once stopped smiling at me. 'That's fine, no problem at all,' he finally said, putting me down. And that was it."
Henry Brandon recalled to John Ford biographer Joseph McBride that he waited until the first day of shooting to ask, "Mr. Ford, I've lost lots of native parts--Indians, Arabs--because of my blue eyes. How come you cast me?" Ford replied, "Brandon, hasn't it occurred to you that the exception, dramatically speaking, is always more exciting than the rule?" Brandon told McBride that he used that line many times whenever the issue of his blue eyes came up, and he "always got parts by quoting Mr. Ford." Overall, however, Brandon described his experience working with Ford as "combative." Ford tried to goad the Shakespearean-trained actor one day over lunch. Ford said, "You know Shakespeare didn't write those plays at all, it was that guy Francis Bacon." Brandon refused to respond to Ford's antagonistic remarks while shooting his scenes, but he suffered enough from the frequently sadistic director to remark, "God, he was an evil bastard."
Ken Curtis was first overheard by John Ford using the exaggerated accent that Harry Carey Jr. described as "Colorado dryland". Ford liked it so much that he demanded Curtis play the role with the accent. Curtis objected, but Ford countered that the accent would get him noticed in the thankless role of the guy who does not win the girl.
In the dance scene just before the wedding, the male dancers are some of the most famous and toughest stunt men of the period. Chuck Hayward, Terry Wilson, John Hudkins, Fred Kennedy, Frank McGrath and Chuck Roberson can all be seen dancing. After the scene the crew nicknamed them "Ford's chorus girls". At the end of the scene John Wayne moves to the bar and Roberson says, "Let's have a drink." As he speaks, Hayward and Wilson move into the shot behind Wayne. Wayne is then surrounded by the three men who doubled him at various times in the movie.
John Ford was known for his terrible temper and his habit of playing cruel practical jokes on his cast and crew, but he was unusually kind to John Wayne's son Patrick Wayne during filming. It was Patrick's first important part and in the biography, "Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford" by Scott Eyman, he recalled that Ford "was crazy about me . . . Everyone had their day in the barrel, but I was always spared that. Which was good and bad. I wasn't exactly the most popular person on the set. Everyone was getting reamed but me . . . He handed everything to me . . . Remember, he was the only director I'd worked for at that point, and I figured that this was the way pictures were made. And I had my real father standing there watching me in the scene. I wasn't acting scared; I was scared."
In the screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, the medal Ethan Edwards gives to Debbie is identified as "a gold medal or medallion" awarded by Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to mercenary soldiers who fought between 1865-67 for the Emperor Maximilian's French forces against Mexican revolutionaries. This medal implies Ethan served in the French Mexican Expedition during his three-year absence and also explains his fluency in Spanish. In reality, the medal being used is the Order of St. Sava, a decoration of the Kingdom of Serbia established in 1883 to recognize civilians for meritorious achievements. John Ford was an admirer of Serbian people and heritage since his war days and probably came in possession of the medal through his friendship with director/actor Peter Bogdanovich, who has Serbian roots.
Hank Worden ("Old Mose Harper") was tied up finishing shooting on The Indian Fighter (1955) and was unavailable for some shots in this movie. In scenes where the Rangers have ridden out together in Monument Valley, "Old Mose Harper" is played in group shots by another actor hanging back and hiding his face. Single shots of Worden as Harper in these scenes were shot later.
The screenplay was adapted by Frank S. Nugent from Alan Le May's 1954 novel of the same name, that was first serialized as a short story in late fall 1954 issues of the "Saturday Evening Post" and first titled, "The Avenging Texans". It was based on a an actual Commanche kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker, a young white girl in Texas in 1836.
According to film restorer Ned Price, by 1991 when the first digital transfer was made (on Laserdisc), the yellow layer of the original VistaVision negative had completely faded, making it unusable. Black and white separation masters (yellow, cyan, and magenta) made in the late 1950s have been used since then to master DVD releases.
Never much given to talking in depth about his performances, John Wayne nevertheless took the part of Ethan Edwards very seriously. Usually prone to being quite light-hearted during most of his film shoots, he was noticeably more reticent during the shooting of this film, concentrating on giving a more textured performance.
The melody behind the opening credits is "Lorena", written by Joseph Webster and Henry DeLafayette Webster. Though this song was written in Chicago in 1857, it is best known for being favored by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The lyrics are the longings of a man for his now-dead wife.
The song playing as John Wayne approaches at the beginning of the film is a slow version of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" (original title: "The Irish Jaunting Car"). This song and Daniel Decatur Emmett's "Dixie" were the two "anthems" of the Confederacy.
John Ford made a point of hiring genuine American Indians for his films, and this one was no exception. The Navajo actually called him "Tall Leader" as they appreciated the fact that he brought employment to an impoverished people.
The Mexican man who takes the searchers to meet Chief Scar is called Emilio Gabriel Fernandez y Figueroa. The name of this character, played by Antonio Moreno, is a combination of the names of Mexican actor and director Emilio Fernandez and his cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, both of whom were friends of director John Ford.
Beulah Archuletta (Look) was found crying in one of the tipis by John Wayne in between shooting scenes. When Wayne asked her why she was crying, she responded that she was going to miss her son's wedding because she was filming her scenes at the time. John Wayne stopped production of the film for a few days, and flew her to California so that she could attend the wedding.
After a screening on BBC in the mid 70s, a big debate about the merits of The Searchers (1956) carried on, in the letters page of "Films and Filming" over several issues. One contributor mentioned that for a movie that spans several years and seems to cover vast distances, it all seems to be filmed in the same locations.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
According to John Wayne in a 1974 interview, John Ford hinted throughout the movie that Ethan had had an affair with his brother's wife, and was possibly the father of Lucy and Debbie. This meant Ethan's thirst for vengeance stemmed not from the murder of his brother, but of the woman Ethan had loved. This was so subtle that many viewers at the time missed it altogether.
The film was inspired by real events. In 1836 Comanches abducted one Cynthia Ann Parker. She was raised by them, became a member of the tribe and gave birth to a son. One day U.S. soldiers attacked the tribe's encampment and "recaptured" her. However, she did not want to leave "her people", and regretted this and the loss of her son for the rest of her life. Fiction, however, has nothing on truth: Her son, Quanah Parker, became a Comanche leader and fought the army for many years. When he and his band finally surrendered, he went to live among whites and became a successful businessman. He actually played himself in a 1908 silent film (The Bank Robbery (1908)). When John Ford cast the part of Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together (1961), he cast Henry Brandon, who played Chief Scar in this film.
In the climactic scene, John Wayne and Natalie Wood run up the side of a hill in Monument Valley, Utah . . . and come down the other side of the hill in the Bronson Canyon area of Griffith Park, Los Angeles (647 miles away).
Jean-Luc Godard said that no matter how much he despised John Wayne's right-wing political beliefs, every time that he saw Wayne taking up Little Debbie in his arms at the end of the film, he forgave him for everything.