From Glenn Frankel’s “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend”:
What none of the critics, positive or negative, grasped was that The Searchers was a different kind of Western, something much darker and more disturbing than the usual fare. No one seemed to see Ethan Edwards as anything less than a standard-issue John Wayne action hero. Ethan’s racism, his mania, and his bloodlust all passed by without comment. “Racism was so endemic in our culture that people didn’t even notice it,” said Joseph McBride. “They treated Wayne as a conventional Western hero. Not one person got it.”
Still, Ethan was a memorable character. Buddy Holly and his drummer, Jerry Allison, saw The Searchers when it first opened at the State Theater in Lubbock, Texas—the heart of what had once been Comancheria. They came out and wrote “That’ll Be the Day”—a phrase Ethan Edwards utters four times during the film—which became a number one hit in the fall of 1957. It later became the first demo recorded by a Liverpool group known as the Quarrymen, who later renamed them-selves the Beatles. Another first-rate Liverpool band called themselves the Searchers after the film.
The British film critic Lindsay Anderson, a longtime champion of Ford’s work who was beginning to direct his own movies, disliked the film. Anderson felt Ford had abandoned his trademark optimistic celebration of the American spirit for something darker and more unsavory. Ethan Edwards was “an unmistakable neurotic,” complained Anderson. “Now what is Ford, or all directors, to do with a hero like this?”
Others felt inspired. Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave critic and director, said he wept at the end of the film, overwhelmed by the “mystery and fascination of this American cinema.” Although a committed leftist, Godard asked of himself almost plaintively, “How can I hate John Wayne upholding [Barry] Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when, abruptly, he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”
When the film failed to get any Academy Award nominations or other honors, Wayne pronounced himself mystified. “You know, I just don’t understand why that film wasn’t better received,” he told one interviewer. Speaking of Ford, he added, “I think it is his best Western.” Wayne was so impressed with the film, and with his character, that he named a son, born in 1962, John Ethan Wayne.
“Ethan Edwards,” Wayne declared, “was probably the most fascinating character I ever played in a John Ford Western.”