In his entertaining and insightful piece, Stop this Sketch. It’s Silly, Dave Franklin states Ethan Edwards “drops the ball” at the end of The Searchers.
“That’ll be the day.”
The Searchers was directed by the great John Ford (a director not much admired by some here at Ruthless. If you have seen the footage of the Doolittle raiders in their B25s flying off the deck of the Hornet on their way to 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, you may be interested to know John Ford was operating the camera.) Ford, like Hitchcock, always knew what the audience wanted to see in their movies. The one thing they did not want to see was Ethan murdering his niece. She was, after-all, the daughter of the woman he loved.
That woman, Martha Edwards, was played by Dorothy (nee Jordan) Cooper, wife of executive producer Merian C. Cooper, a close associate of Ford and the creator of King Kong.
Merian C. Cooper was an American aviator, U. S. Air Force and Polish Air Force officer, explorer, screenwriter, director, and producer. He was the founder of the Kosciuszko Squadron during the Polish-Soviet War, where he shot down Soviet fighters in dogfights until he himself was shot down and taken prisoner. He escaped prison camp and few against the Soviets again.
The origin of the Searcher’s story began in Texas in 1836. Nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped by Comanche warriors. In the next 24 years she married a Comanche, and bore three children. She made her life with the tribe, and was reportedly happy. Her uncle spent years trying to find her.
This was not at all uncommon with children kidnapped and assimilated into a tribe. Conrad Richter wrote of it in his novel The Light in the Forrest, and other works.
Then, a Texas Ranger in the form of Charles Goodnight showed-up after his fellow Rangers wiped-out Cynthia Ann’s band of Comanche and rescued her. However she did not want to be rescued. (Charles Goodnight was a plainsman and cattleman. He is the model for Ranger Captain Woodrow Call in Larry McMurtry’s superb novel, Lonesome Dove. His partner Oliver Loving, was the model for Captain Augustus McCrae. Loving is credited in inventing the chuck wagon).
She was returned to her folks and died of a broken heart. She left behind a son, Quanah Parker, the war chief who led the attract on the Adobe Walls buffalo hunters trading post in 1874. The attack was ended when a hunter named Billy Dixon made a 1500 yard admittedly lucky shot with his Sharps .50, killing a Comanche medicine man. (It should be noted the soon to be Dodge City marshal and later Ford County sheriff, the 20 year old Bat Masterson was present).
In 1956, the year The Searchers was released, Natalie Wood had just come off Rebel Without a Cause and was on track to major stardom. John Wayne was the biggest movie star in the world. The audience had certain expectations of him, and one was he did not shoot kidnaped girls.
Cynthia Ann Parker personified all that a Ethan Edwards despised and was not murdered by the Texans of her time.
Edwards did not drop the ball. He scored a touchdown.
Well, he may have come close to dropping Natalie Wood at the cave in Griffith Park where it was shot. Edwards grabs under her arms, and sweeps up up over his head, then tells her she is going home.
There is a match cut there. Two takes. Perhaps it was a negative cutter’s mistake, but I doubt it. The 50 year old Duke apparently could not do the “sweeping up” of the tiny girl in one shot. Movie magic.