“You might be lucky. We’ve got some bodies in the back.” Such is what passes for good fortune in The Searchers. This Radio 4 adaptation goes back to the original source novel by Alan Le May, turning John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards back into Amos Edwards, but, like the famous film that character bestrides, creating a bleak, unforgiving world where there aren’t so much heroes as people who just survive.
The best of radio drama creates tight personal moments against a broad canvas. The Searchers, with its central pairing young, naive, determined Mart Pauley and bitter, angry, violent, wise Amos Edwards, scouring the wide, wide west in search of the missing Debbie, is perfect material and, thankfully, this two-part adaptation by Adrian Bean did the story and its possibilities justice.
William Hope was perfectly gnarled as Amos. His voice practically broadcast pictures of weathered leather. Simon Lee Phillips was equally good as Mart, a nice mixture of youthful desire but inability to be as strong as he’d like to be. Other voices come and go into the mix – but none stronger than those two, nor that of the wind howling across the prairie.
The years go by as they ride. Their quest beyond futile even if it is successful. Find Debbie who has been taken by the Comanche, or not. Does it matter? The world-changing incidents take place at the fringes: villages wiped out by cavalry looking for a reason, homesteads razed to the ground by Comanche seeking some kind of justice. General Sherman clears the plains just as the search nears its end. Two desperate civilisations that can never be reconciled but one that is clearly about to destroy the other. There is no morality here beyond the personal need to do what’s right by family, by kin, however twisted that becomes.
Obviously it doesn’t end with an iconic image of John Wayne walking away forever searching in the soundscape. In fact, it had a rather different perspective on the ending, maybe more true to the book (I don’t know). One that more directly reflects the terror and lack of easy answers of life in the Texas of the time. Overall, the soundscape, the narrative, and the overwhelming uneasiness drew you in and left you deeply unsettled. This is a difficult story and it was brilliantly told.