John Ford’s The Searchers is perfectly named. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is always looking, never ceasing to hunt. He is a predator. With him, he brings chaos and discord, destruction even, but he always commits to some chivalrous idea of making it right, when really he invariably makes it worse in everyone’s eyes except his own, which are blinded by a severe lens of masculinity. It works despite its unseemly main character for two reasons: Ford is ambiguous about how much he endorses Ethan, and Wayne is an elemental figure on the screen. He may be more distasteful in The Searchers than in any of his other performances, but there’s something about his presence, his authority, that is appealing to us on a deep level, even if, as Ethan Edwards, he is repellant on an intellectual one.
That’s what allows The Searchers to endure. We have to come to grips with it ourselves. It presents a hero who is racist and sexist, is Cro-Magnon in his world view. It populates the rest of the world with people who are little better; they seem to see Ethan as a dangerous animal, but they don’t stand up to him; in fact, they aren’t really all that antagonistic to him. They adhere to his opinion that he is the manliest man and should be followed. Ford was making a movie about a time (the 1870s) when this type of thinking was unchallenged. He was making it during a time (the 1950s) when this type of thinking, if discouraged, was accepted. We have The Searchers now, when this type of thinking is roundly rejected, yet the movie doesn’t relegate itself to the fringes of academic study like Griffith’s racist The Birth of A Nation (1915) or Riefenstahl’s anti-Semitic Triumph of the Will (1935).
The Searchers isn’t an unpleasant experience like those movies; it’s thrilling and exciting, but it doesn’t allow us to accept the hero in the way we’re used to. Whether this was Ford’s and Wayne’s intention was beside the point (though, there’s some evidence that Ford is being willfully ambiguous. More telling is that Wayne named his son Ethan after the character in The Searchers). They created an ambiguous masterpiece about the myopic danger of obsession and the kinds of predators that just don’t quit.
It also helps that this movie is so subtle. Its story is obvious, but it’s telling requires close attention. Ford is often derided as the technician of action pictures, but there’s so much poetry in his compositions, his economic assembly, his attention to interpersonal and romantic relationships. The Searchers is nobody’s love story but watch how there’s a moment early when Wayne’s Ethan has come to visit his brother and his brother’s wife, played by Dorothy Jordan, and the Rev. Capt. Clayton (Ward Bond) comes to collect Ethan to be part of a posse. Out of the corner of his eye Clayton sees her tenderly put away Ethan’s coat. She loves him and in their brief interaction it’s possible that Ethan loves her too. There’s not much of this but the look on Clayton’s face as he registers this information speaks volumes to the idea of what was acceptable for men to discuss.
Later, Ethan will aimlessly dig in the sand with his knife after making a tragic discovery. It’s his way of processing his feelings. What’s he supposed to do, talk about them? So seeped in masculinity is The Searchers I once met someone who didn’t like the movie simply because he first experienced it on primitive color television that blew out Wayne’s shirt to make it look pink.
As it turns out, the posse’s mission is a trap to draw the men away from the homestead where Comanches burn down the house and kidnap Ethan’s two nieces, including the young Debbie (played as a teen by Natalie Wood). Ethan, the searcher, has his mission: find the girls and bring those responsible to justice. He doesn’t want to save the girls; they are beyond that. Even if they are alive (and only one is), they are ruined for being “with a buck,” as Ethan puts it. But the Comanches’ crime won’t go unpunished so he sets out, too eager to even wait for the dead to be buried. “Put an amen on it!” he hollers at Bond’s reverend, whose sermon has gone on too long for Ethan’s taste.
The party starts large but eventually it dwindles to two as people die or run out of commitment. There’s just Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the adopted son of Ethan’s brother, who Ethan saved from a similar Comanche attack years ago. Ethan doesn’t fully accept Martin because he’s a “half-breed” (actually, an eighth Cherokee, something Martin and this reviewer have in common) and never misses the chance to discourage Martin’s connection to the search. “You ain’t her nothing,” Ethan reminds Martin when he tries to justify his desire to find Debbie on the basis of family. It’s true, they’re not related, but Martin helped raise her, which is more than Ethan can say, who spent her childhood on another meaningless search in the name of ancient chivalry—the Confederate aims in the Civil War. When Ethan comes to his brother’s house, he thinks he mistakes Debbie for her older sister, not fully grasping that life goes on, even when he’s not around.
His hatred of Native Americans is complete. He murders buffaloes he can’t hope to keep for himself so that they won’t feed any of his enemies. He shoots the eyes out of a dead Comanche. “What good did that do you?” Bond asks. “By what you preach? None,” Ethan fires back. “But what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.” He knows his enemy, and that knowledge has hardly allowed him to accept them as fellow humans.
Similarly, his need for the opinions of women is almost nonexistent. Before he leaves on his search, a woman implores him to reconsider, to not follow the fruitless path of revenge. He barely responds to her as a man, presumably the woman’s husband, literally turns his back on the scene; he won’t get in the way. The man’s face seems to say that he sees the humanistic logic behind his wife’s words, but they can’t shake the fealty to manly duty.
These little moments indicate Ford’s understanding. He often presents us moments of classic heroism but won’t let us fully enjoy them, ever reminding us of the unmovable racism at the heart of Ethan’s character. There’s a disturbing sequence in an asylum where women, kidnapped like Debbie, have lost their minds. There is a close-up on Wayne, as good as any Ford ever gave, as he restrengthens his resolve. It can’t be fully enjoyed however, when one considers that his search for Debbie is more to deny the Comanche their prize, not to save Debbie, who in Ethan’s mind is worse than dead, raised to be an Indian. Later, we think he’s grown a little when he accepts Martin and leaves him his things in his will, but it’s only because he feels he has no other family now, even while his niece is alive.
The thesis of the movie can be found in the words of the wife of a rancher; “Some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” In many ways, The Searchers is truly about the birth of a nation and its attitudes, and the attitudes of its central figure are those we are still dealing with today. Thus, Martin becomes the key figure. He is the future, the one who will continue to build the country after Ethan’s bones are in the ground. He’s also the only one who continually stands up to Ethan; he’s always there to keep him from acting out the extremes of his racism, and he’s the only one who wholly disagrees with his beliefs (even Martin’s sweetheart, played by Vera Miles, accepts that being with Comanches is worse than being dead).
Good Westerns are all, at least in part, about the encroaching influence of civilization, an influence that even Ethan Edwards can’t stop. That’s why, at the end of the movie, when he’s ceded somewhat to his better angels and brings Debbie back home, he knows he can’t go inside the house with the others. He’s not even invited. He gives a lonely gesture, holding his right elbow with his left hand, as the now-complete family leaves him outside and he turns and goes to search some more.