John Wayne’s Best Western Secretly Has A Great 2003 Remake (That Nobody Watched)


John Wayne’s greatest Western received a thinly-disguised remake in 2003, which was soon forgotten. The Searchers by director John Ford cast Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a bitter Civil War vet who returns to his family. However, when most of them are killed in a Comanche raid and his niece is kidnapped, Ethan sets out on a bloody, years-long quest alongside his nephew to find her. The Seachers’ stunning cinematography, dark story and Wayne’s mesmerizing performance have seen the 1956 adventure praised as one of John Wayne’s best Westerns – if not the best Western, period.

The Searchers has plenty of celebrity fans, including Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; the latter claims to rewatch it every time he’s about to make a new movie. There has never been a direct remake of The Searchers, and with good reason; it’s hard to top a film many critics and scholars consider one of the all-time greats. There have been plenty of movies that borrowed its concepts and reworked them, often to mixed success.

Ron Howard’s The Missing Reimagines John Wayne’s The Searchers

Howard finally scratched his Western itch with this bleak riff on The Searchers

Westerns enjoyed a brief revival during the ’90s due to Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, but the genre soon went dormant again. One of the few major studio Westerns produced during the early ’00s was The Missing, a 2003 adventure from Ron Howard that starred Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones. The story involves Blanchett’s farmer being forced to reunite with her estranged father Sam (Jones) to rescue her daughter, who renegade Apaches have kidnapped. Howard isn’t exactly known for dark, R-rated fare, which makes The Missing very unique in his filmography.

The film adapted the 1996 novel The Last Ride, but The Missing is really a new take on The Searchers. They both involve an estranged family member returning home and being forced to set out on a dangerous rescue mission for a loved one. In an intriguing twist on the Wayne original, Jones’ character isn’t a racist bigot, but a white man who spent years living as part of the Chiricahua tribe. This gives him an insight into their culture – while acknowledging he can never truly become part of it – which is something The Searchers wasn’t interested in engaging with.

Howard himself denied The Searchers was much of an inspiration for The Missing during a BBC interview, claiming the characters and themes made the two Westerns very different. Even so, the comparisons are plain to see, and The Missing is about as close to an actual remake of The Searchers as audiences are likely to get.

The Missing Completely Bombed (Despite A Great Cast)

Audiences had little interest in a Searchers remake back in 2003

On paper, The Missing should have been a slam dunk. It had a hot director in Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, etc) and a cast that included Blanchett, Jones, Evan Rachel Wood, Aaron Eckhart and even a surprise cameo by Val Kilmer. Even so, selling audiences in 2003 on a violent Western that ends on a downer was always going to be a struggle. Despite the talent in front of and behind the camera on The Missing, it also received uniformly lukewarm reviews.

Critics couldn’t resist focusing on The Searchers’ parallels, but often as a mark againstThe Missing. Reviewers also felt The Missing reveled in genre cliches and was too dreary and humorless for its own good. The film is largely forgotten now, and The Missing only grossed $38 million worldwide on a production budget of $60 million (via Box Office Mojo). It’s a shame because Howard’s film is one of the better Westerns of its era, and something of a lost gem.

Why Hollywood Keeps Remaking The Searchers

The Searchers’ template is constantly recycled by Hollywood

For younger viewers, there’s a good chance they only know of The Searchers because of the number of films that have referenced it. The most famous Searchers remake is Star Wars, with its premise of a naive youngster teaming with a veteran warrior to rescue a kidnapped young woman being a direct lift. There’s also a reprise of the Searchers sequence where Ethan returns to the burned out farm to find the bodies of his family; Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker goes through the same trauma when he discovers the charred corpses of his aunt and uncle.

2015’s Bone Tomahawk follows a similar structure to The Searchers – before taking a hard right into a cannibal movie – while 2011 sci-fi actioner Priest has scenes almost identical to The Searchers. Even Taxi Driver plays on Ford’s epic, with Travis’ (Robert De Niro) rescue of Jodie Foster’s Iris being a remix of Wayne’s Ethan saving his niece, Debbie. In 2007, director Alex Cox made the indie feature Searchers 2.0, but despite the title, it has nothing to do with the 1956 Western.

Like The Missing, there are countless examples of Hollywood remaking The Searchers in ways both subtle and blindingly obvious. That’s because the simplicity of Western stories lend themselves well to new adaptations. For instance, Wayne’s Rio Bravo has been remixed many times, including John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, while High Noon was reworked as sci-fi thriller Outland. The Searchers has a solid template to build a story around, so audiences should expect more remixes in the future.