Ethan Edwards’s brother, his sister-inlaw and their young son, are killed in a Comanche attack on their homestead. Two of his nieces are carried off by the Indians. One is quickly killed, but Ethan and Martin Pawley, who as an orphan was adopted by Ethan’s brother, continue to search for the other girl, Debbie. Eventually, they find her and free her and take her home, in the process killing the Comanche chief, Scar.
With ‘Red Indians’ set against homesteaders and John Wayne playing the strong, silent hero the basic elements to the plot of The Searchers might suggest the film is likely to present simplistic interpretations of both the history of the American West and the nature of human psychology. What emerges though is something that is much more complex and resistant to easy analysis. The film moves towards a re-evaluation of Hollywood’s version of ‘Wild West’ history within the changing post-war world.1
Initially the representation of Native Americans is as the threatening brutal savage set against the home-making, peace-loving white folk, in other words as part of the classic anticipated binary opposition of Westerns. However, although Ethan Edwards (Wayne) and the Comanche chief, Scar, are constructed as diametrically opposed foes the strong similarity between them is at least as important to the dynamics of the film. The Native American has literally been scarred by his experience of the clash of civilisations that has occurred and in this he is clearly presented as a parallel to Ethan (and possibly his alter ego, a self that is able to play out the full extent of Ethan’s restrained savagery). Together they represent a past that needs to be purged so that the future can be shaped by a new generation.
The way in which Martin and the homesteaders need Ethan as a protector has often been commented upon but it is the younger man who actually rescues his adopted sister and kills Scar, leaving Ethan with only the opportunity to re-emphasise his repressed brutality by scalping Scar. Martin displays the same tenacity in trying to find his sister as his uncle but with the difference that he is driven by the motivation to save life rather than to take life. Ford denies both us and Ethan (the old-style hero) the classic final ‘shoot-out’. The emerging new liberal hero, Martin, kills not within the context of glorifying ritual spectacle but simply, offscreen and of forced necessity. He rejects the racism not only of Ethan but of his fiancée, Laurie, who demonstrates the deeply ingrained nature of prejudice; and he reacts with simple compassionate humanity both to the plight of white women driven insane by their experiences at the hands of ‘Indians’ and to the massacre of women and children by the 7th Cavalry.
By contrast, Ford steadily exposes the reality of the nature of Ethan, the old order hero. In blind hatred, for example, he shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche in order that his soul should not enter the spirit world and slaughters bison in manic fashion in order that the tribes should not be able to feed themselves. The viewer, certainly in 1956 when Wayne was at the height of his popularity, is placed in the potentially uncomfortable position of having to reject the values embodied in the character played by the iconic star.
On the other hand, it is also true that Ethan’s motivations are more complex than is often allowed. To see him simply as seeking revenge is to neglect the extent to which he is also driven by guilt. He is the Indian-hater who knows his adversary’s ways better than others, and yet he allows himself to be drawn away from the home, allowing the massacre of his brother’s family and the woman he loves.
Ethan is full of the contradictions Ford seemed to see in contemporary United States. He is the brutal man who scalps Scar and then lifts Debbie to the sky with such compassion. Wayne’s character in many senses remains the traditional hero: he knows what to do in any situation, can deal with any foe, and is never scared even in the face of his own death. Yet, he is also a frightening man with dark corners to his personality – in many ways an anti-hero. Frequently Ford uses careful direction and shot composition as well as dialogue and action to show us this complex man; but when Wayne, the jocular hero of so many Westerns, shifts suddenly to the dark anti-hero the dislocation is stark. The viewer is disorientated and faces the central flaw in the film – the way in which it uncomfortably straddles the divide between an older Hollywood version of ‘how the West was won’ and a new emerging perspective on history and nationhood.
If Ethan’s similarities with Scar are at least as important as their opposition the same is also true of his relationship with Martin. Old and young, avenger and saviour, traditional hero and new emerging hero they might be, but at the same time Martin is Ethan’s natural heir and the one who is able to carry Ethan’s inheritance into the future. Like Ethan, Martin’s natural element is the outdoors; he arrives in the film bare-chested and riding bareback suggesting his mixed blood but also the way in which he is at home in the landscape. He has Ethan’s determination but shaped by a new outlook. Their interaction throughout the film has all the tensions of a father-son relationship.
The Searchers is set in the past and yet in many ways mirrors the tensions and fears of late 1950s America. Reactionary forces are perceiving the uncertain loyalties of some as a threat while at the same time new understandings of old conflicts are attempting to shape a new world. The civil rights movement is underway and the strongly perceived external and internal threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism hangs over every political decision. From our vantage point The Searchers can be seen as a politically flawed product of the 1950s, a strongly situated historical construct revealing the cultural perspectives of the period in which it was made. The issue of racism is at the heart of both the film and the central character. The civil rights movement has made the question of race unavoidable and this film reflects that contemporary reality. From the start, despite being part Native American, Martin is welcomed into the family by Ethan’s brother and his wife. Ethan, the racist, respects the domestic sphere but the performance clearly shows us he only grudgingly accepts Martin’s presence at the dinner table. Both Martin and Debbie are orphaned by the violence of the past and are seen by Ethan as in different ways tainted by their contact with the formerly excluded Native American ‘Other’; but both are welcomed back into the community.
The film is set in Texas in 1868. This is a crucial period in the history of the United States: massive westward expansion is underway and this brings with it the inevitability of clashes with the Indian nations. The Cheyenne–Arapaho wars (1861–64) and the Sioux wars (1862–67) have only just ended and more are to follow. In addition, the American Civil War (1861–65) has only just finished and slavery has only just been abolished (1866). The Jorgensens with their East European/Scandinavian background contribute towards showing the United States as an ethnic melting pot. Martin is eighth Cherokee, with the rest Welsh and English. The film it seems aims to include references to almost every aspect of conflict embodied in the American ‘invasion’ of the West.
Yet, despite all that has been said here regarding the seriousness of the issues at stake humour is often used: do these scenes act effectively as comic relief, or do they flaw the whole concept? The episodes involving ‘Look’ who is later slaughtered by the cavalry embody the most simplistic stereotyping imaginable of both women and the Native American ‘Other’. On the other hand it is also a woman, Mrs Jorgensen, who often puts the events of the film into some perspective acting as a voice of reason. She fully recognises that it is the harsh nature of the pioneering experience that lies at the heart of the hardship suffered (‘It’s this country killed my boy.’) and begs for something better for the next generation beyond that which she fears Ethan offers, ‘Don’t let the boys waste their lives in vengeance.’
Ford’s direction means as much is revealed through facial expression, physical stance and subtle gesture as through dialogue. Insights into characters are conveyed by body language and looks that carry implied meaning, for example Wayne’s unspoken love for Martha and Aaron’s uncertainty about Ethan. The cinematography clearly contrasts the inner spaces of the homesteads with the vast open tracts of landscape outdoors but again how this should be interpreted is not so easy to decide. Martha and Aaron’s home is solid, homely and warm but it is also overbearing and claustrophobic (see the low-angle shots revealing the heavy, low ceiling). It is clearly designed and shot as a place of safety and refuge but proves to offer no security. Outside the vast panoramas offer a sense of both beauty and freedom but it is a harsh beauty and the apparent emptiness of the space harbours the unseen threatening savagery.
Ultimately, the film is filled with contradictions. As both minister and soldier, the concept of the character of Clayton embodies the moral dilemmas of frontier life. Both Indians and whites are capable of alternating compassion and brutality. There are no easy answers, nothing as simple as good versus evil; unless that is we look for both good and evil within each character. The cavalry massacres men, women and children at the settlement and Scar has had two sons killed by white men.
It is the importance of the future that is consistently emphasised. Martin represents that future and Ethan recognises this when he leaves him everything in his will. Debbie is perhaps symbolically even more a representation of the future than Martin and Laurie (see how many ethnic groups come together in their union). Debbie is that which is being searched for, she is hope, she is reconciliation, she has lived in both cultures and in that sense is the future.
1. This is particularly the case when the film is read alongside its contrasting but in many ways companion volume from a few years later, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962). In this film Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) embodies democratic values – education for all, a free press, law and order. The very ordinary people who come to the school he establishes are given a sense of ownership; it is pointedly ‘our’ country, and a republic we are told is a state in which the people are ‘the bosses’. Pompey (significantly as the African American) recites from the Declaration of Independence, ‘We hold these truths self-evident that all men are created equal’. Yet, in the end even Stoddard has to admit, ‘When force threatens talk’s no good anymore’. Ultimately, he needs Tom Doniphon (Wayne, again) to defeat the baddie, the ironically named Liberty Valance. This it seems is the ultimate belief upon which Ford’s type of democracy is built, that in the end you sometimes have to defend democracy and the rights it brings.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: C.V. Whitney Pictures. Director: John Ford. Screenwriter: Frank Nugent. Cinematographer: Winton Hoch. Music: Max Steiner. Editor: Jack Murray. Cast: John Wayne (Ethan Edwards), Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley), Natalie Wood (Debbie Edwards), Vera Miles (Laurie Jorgensen), Ward Bond (Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton), Henry Brandon (Scar), Hank Worden (Mose Harper).]
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Arthur M. Eckstein, ‘Darkening Ethan: John Ford’s The Searchers from Novel to Screenplay to Screen’ in Cinema Journal Vol. 38, No. 1, 1998, pp. 3–24.
Arthur M. Eckstein and Peter Lehman, The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2004.
Scott Eyman and Paul Duncan, John Ford: The Complete Films, London, Taschen, 2004.
Julia Leyda, ‘Home on the Range: Space, Nation and Mobility in John Ford’s The Searchers’ in The Japanese Journal of American Studies No 13, 2002, pp. 83–106.
Armando Jose Prats, Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2002.
Gaylyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein, John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.