Screenplay 101: THE SEARCHERS

Our exploration of the WGA's 101 best screenplays continues with THE SEARCHERS, written by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan Le May. The film is considered by many to be not only one of the best Westerns of all time, but one of the most influential films ever made. The pages here are from the July 1955 draft of the film. Much like THE WILD BUNCH, the script begins with long swaths of character description, lingering on the introduction of Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne in the film) and Debbie (played by Natalie Wood, but not in this first scene, when she is much younger):

He is ETHAN EDWARDS, a man as hard as the country he is crossing. Ethan is in his forties, with a three-day stubble of beard... He wears a long Confederate overcoat, torn at one pocket, patched and clumsily stitched at the elbows. His trousers are faded blue with an off-color stripe on the legs where once had been the yellow stripe of the Yankee cavalry. ... Debbie is 11 years old with a piquant, memorable face. Here we must establish what it is about her face that is memorable, so that if we were to see her again five or six years later, we would know it is she - perhaps the eye color, or the slant of the eyebrow, or a trick of scratching bridge of nose with crooked forefinger.

You don't see long character descriptions like that anymore.

The script goes on to describe Ethan's arrival in the camp and his family's reaction to it, which is summed up beautifully in one parenthetical word before his brother Aaron's opening dialogue on page 3:


With that single word (and a tiny bit of description before it), we discover so much about Ethan's relationship with the people whose lives he enters in the first scene.

THE SEARCHERS was never nominated for any Academy Awards, but Nugent, who wrote 11 Westerns for director John Ford, would go on to receive WGA Awards for MISTER ROBERTS and THE QUIET MAN.

Searchers_1_Jul 2, 1955 draft Searchers_2 Searchers_3

Here’s the deal: Throughout 2014, we’re posting pages from every script on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, as chosen by Guild membership, because we have every one in our library. Sure, we have other scripts that didn’t make it onto the list, either because they didn’t make the cut or because they were produced after the list was generated (presumably SHARKNADO, which we totally have a copy of, is only in the latter category).