John Wayne’s Classic ‘The Searchers’ Inspired 2021’s Best Picture Winner in a Surprising Way: Here’s How

by Suzanne Halliburton
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What do John Wayne and The Searchers have in common with Nomadland, this year’s winner of the Academy Award for best picture?

It’s the beautiful, expansive ending. And it wasn’t a coincidence. Nomadland director Chloe Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards deliberately shot the ending of their movie in a tribute to The Searchers and the way it closed with John Wayne.

John Ford directed this John Wayne movie from 1956. And decades later, it still has a lasting impact. In 2008, the American Film Institute named it the greatest American western ever made. The U.S. Library of Congress decided it fit the criteria of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and therefore eligible for preservation in the National Film Registry. It was one of the first 25 movies added to the registry.

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In John Wayne Classic, He Spends Years Trying to Find His Niece

In the movie, John Wayne plays a Civil War vet who is in search of his long-lost niece Debbie, played by Natalie Woods. Comanches kidnapped both of Wayne’s nieces. One is killed. The Comanches also murdered Ethan’s brother, sister-in-law and nephew.

Five years later, Ethan finds his niece. She’s living as a Comanche and is one of the wives of the tribe’s chief. She won’t leave, so John Wayne says he’ll kill her, rather than leaving her to live with Scar, the chief. Time passes and Ethan and Martin, Debbie’s adopted brother, locate Scar again. Martin kills him and Ethan sets off on horseback to find Debbie. He sweeps her up onto his saddle and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.”

The final scene of The Searchers shows John Wayne leaving his brother’s homestead. He’s alone, like he was before.

Final Scene of Nomadland Shows Fern Looking at Her Hometown

That’s the ending Nomadland tried to emulate. The movie is about Fern, portrayed by Frances McDormand. She travels and lives out of her van. At the end of the movie, Fern returns to Empire, her old hometown. It’s in northern Nevada. She left there in 2008. That’s when her husband died, while the nation suffered a harsh housing crisis and an economic downturn.

“During our first film scout of Empire during preproduction, that sequence was pretty much completely mapped out,” Richards told TheWrap. “It was just Chloé and I together and we took a small camera and shot a version of how it would look.”

Richards then tied in the John Wayne movie with Nomadland.

He said: “Ethan Edwards is the hero of that film sort of like Fern is the hero of our story. He’s the cowboy who drifts in the wind. And at the end of The Searchers, he stumbles out into the landscape as the door closes. But in our film, Fern goes out and the camera stays behind, looking at that little gate, which sort of says everything about American domesticity. This is the world which she’s left. But it’s not the end.”

The Searchers was a box-office success and still is regarded as one of the best movies ever, inspiring the likes of Nomadland. But in an odd twist of movie history, the John Wayne classic received zero Academy Award nominations. Around the World in Eight Days won Best Picture, while Giant garnered the most nominations. The King and I and The Ten Commandments also were nominated that year.

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