Martin Scorsese’s Favorite John Wayne Film


  • Martin Scorsese loves John Ford’s “The Searchers” for its subversion of the classic John Wayne persona.
  • The character of Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” is similar to Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”
  • “The Searchers” has lasting replay value, with the movie’s meaning changing over time and its open-ended nature providing a mystery for viewers.

Even the greatest filmmakers in history have their favorite movies and cinematic inspirations. Look no further than the peerless Martin Scorsese, often hailed as the greatest living American filmmaker currently working in Hollywood. As Scorsese makes the promotional rounds for his stirring new dramatic epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, the director has once again professed his undying love for John Ford’s classic 1956 western, The Searchers, a movie that has been informing his characters and stylistic techniques since Taxi Driver.

The Searchers stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a former Civil War soldier tasked with traversing the American frontier to find his abducted niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been taken by a Comanche tribe following the home invasion and massacre of Edwards’ family. The 10-year-long search involves an epic sojourn across the American West, with Ethan serving as the prototypical American archetype who goes on a classic antihero’s journey. While it’s easy to see the inspiration from The Searchers in Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese has been championing the great John Wayne Western for decades. Now, it’s time to find out why.

3 Subversion of The John Wayne Persona

The Searchers

Release Date
May 26, 1956

John Ford

John Wayne , Vera Miles , Jeffrey Hunter , Ward Bond

One of the first things Scorsese cites in his affinity for The Searchers is how it subverts the classic persona of John Wayne as a kind, moral, clear-cut hero. Rather than Wayne’s typical Western hero characters seen onscreen in the past, Ethan Edwards is a terrifying, grizzled war veteran who expresses his hatred, racist views, and awful prejudices openly and without shame. In his 2013 review of the underrated John Wayne movie for The Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese stated:

“Like all great works of art, it’s uncomfortable. The core of the movie is deeply painful. Every time I watch it — and I’ve seen it many, many times since its first run in 1956 — it haunts and troubles me. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema. In a sense, he’s of a piece with Wayne’s persona and his body of work with Ford and other directors like Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway. It’s the greatest performance of a great American actor.”

In Scorsese’s view, the moral gray area that Ethan operates in during his search for Debbie remains one of the most compelling aspects of the character and the movie as a whole, adding:

“Ethan also is genuinely scary. His obsessiveness, his absolute hatred of Comanches and all Native Americans, and his loneliness set him apart from any other characters Wayne played and, really, from most protagonists in American movies.”

2 Travis Bickle is a Reflection of Ethan Edwards in Taxi Driver

The Searchers follows Ethan and his nephew for one year as they traverse the American frontier searching for the kidnapped Debbie. Along the way, Ethan becomes obsessed with finding Debbie and exacting revenge on those who murdered his family. However, once Ethan finds Debbie 10 years after the search began and learns she has been indoctrinated into the Comanche way of life, Ethan expresses outrage and a desire to kill Debbie for assuming the identity of an indigenous tribe. Ethan loves his family but can’t reconcile with his seething internal hatred of the Comanche and outward bursts of violence toward them. The character arc is very similar to that of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Scorsese’s all-time great 1976 film Taxi Driver, proving how influential The Searchers has been since the early part of his career.

Taxi Driver concerns the nocturnal exploits of New York cabbie Travis Bickle, a former Vietnam veteran who becomes obsessed with rescuing an underage sex worker named Iris (one of Jodie Foster’s best performances) from her violent pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). Once Travis encounters Iris and learns she has learned to enjoy the lifestyle in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome dynamic, Travis flies into a hyper-violent rage just like Ethan does in The Searchers.

RELATED: Every John Wayne Movie Directed by John Ford

Moreover, both movies end with the lack of a clear-cut resolution, leaving audiences in a state of moral ambiguity as the credits begin to roll. The point is that Scorsese has long been inspired by the archetypal subversion of the American hero introduced by John Wayne in The Searchers, with Travis Bickle belonging to the character’s anti-heroic lineage. In the video above, Scorsese romanticizes his first time watching The Searchers and hints at the connections between Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle as “poets of hatred” who act out their violent fantasies, which separates them from most movie heroes. As Scorsese puts it:

“Ethan Edwards as brought to life by Wayne and Ford is a cousin to Melville’s Ahab on one hand and his Bartleby on the other — driven to the point of madness and absolutely alone. And neither director nor actor cuts corners with Ethan’s race hatred.”

1 The Searchers’ Replay Value Withstands the Test of Time

Among his effusive praise for the film, Scorsese can watch The Searchers over and over and glean something new from the experience each time. In his view, the rewatchable John Wayne movie’s meaning changes over time, with the discomfort and brazen lack of a gratifying conclusion making for an eminently replayable movie that continues to hold up. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese claims:

“I go back to The Searchers all the time. A few years ago, I watched it with my wife, and I will admit that it gave me pause. But the last time I saw The Searchers, the picture seemed even greater than ever, and it’s not it had stopped troubling me; in fact, it troubled me on an even deeper level. In truly great films — the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable — nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery.”

For Scorsese, the timeless appeal of The Searchers is clear. The movie upends the tropes and tenets of a classic John Wayne western to give viewers a scary, terrifying version of the American antihero that would proliferate in the following decades, not just through Scorsese’s own work like Taxi Driver, but across cinema writ large.

Beyond the character of Ethan Edwards resonating as Wayne’s most powerful performance, the ambiguous, open-ended nature of the movie warrants repeated viewings to mine the movie’s mysterious meanings. In Scorsese’s eyes, such meanings alter over time to reflect the different aspects of American culture and society. The further away from the Civil War America becomes, the more The Searchers holds up as the definitive 50s Western and a timeless John Wayne Western that exposes “the underbelly of the American psyche,” according to Scorsese (via AFI). The Searchers is available to rent on Apple TV, Prime Video, YouTube, & Google Play.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *