I hated, hated, hated, The Searchers when I first saw it. I thought it was annoying and racist, and any merit I gave it, I gave it very grudgingly. After digesting it for about a year, I decided to give it another shot for Western Wednesday, and have completely reversed my original position. Yes, it contains annoying and racist characters, but the film’s strength is highlighting them while other films would have swept them under the rug.
A few years after the end of the Civil War, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to the home of his brother’s family. Soon after his mysterious and sudden arrival, reports of a Comanche tribe in the area cause the Reverend/Texas Ranger Captain (Ward Bond) to deputize the men. They are all out looking for the Comanches, but they have already attacked the Edwards’ home. They are all killed except the youngest girl, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped instead, and her adopted brother Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who was out with the men along with Ethan. Ethan and Martin search for Debbie for five long years, but by the time they find her, she might not want to be brought back.
The Searchers is a confusing and unsettling film. The fact that the film has all the trappings of a Western does little to comfort the viewer. This is not an easy film to watch or to come to terms with, despite its outward appearances. Yes, it stars John Wayne, it shows a lot of comically comfortable small town scenes, it’s shot in Monument Valley as all Ford westerns are, but there’s one staple that gives us more pause here than in most old timey westerns, and that’s cowboys chasing Indians. It’s not that this is Dances with Wolves, 35 years later, trying to make us see the Native Americans as people. The Native Americans for the most part are still the automatic villains, but here, the cowboys are not necessarily the automatic heroes.
As Ethan and Martin search for Debbie, and even right when Ethan arrives, it becomes clear that is racist, and more so than usual, even in the normal 1950s interpretation of the old west. He’s so racist that the other characters of the film, casually racist themselves, can realize that something’s off about Ethan. He objects strongly to Martin, almost to the bitter end, because he is part Cherokee. Ethan does not recognize his right to search for Debbie, because they are not actually related, despite the fact that Martin lived with her for her whole life. He uses Martin as bait, and constantly belittles him, treating him like a child. There are countless other instances of racism on Ethan’s part, but the strange thing he is, he sort of becomes friends with Martin in the end, and even stranger, he understands the culture of the Comanches better than any of the other white men. He understands it, we don’t know how, but it seems to make him hate them more. The worst of it is how it turns him away from his own goal; when he discovers that Debbie has been living (and more importantly sleeping) with Comanches for so long, he’d rather kill her than get her back because in his view, she’s been ruined.
The film is incredibly precarious, both in its position towards racism and Ethan’s character, which could be considered one and the same thing. Ethan is not that simple however; to write him off as simply racist and then dismiss him is exactly what the film doesn’t want the audience to do. He’s not simply a hero though, that is another thing the film does not want us to assume. It’s clear that in the traditional sense of the word, Martin is the hero. He’s the one that does the right thing. Casting John Wayne in the role of Ethan is a master stroke, because no one better typifies the western, and by extension, America. America has always struggled with racism, and in The Searchers, so does John Wayne’s character. On one hand, Ethan is a hero, because he does do the right thing in the end (mostly) and he shows incredible determination and resolve towards a goal. On the other he is a villain, forced to work against Martin and the better part of himself because of a deeply rooted and misguided hatred. American is both of these things as well, and Ethan’s character makes us question ourselves and our history.
As I mentioned before, the Native Americans in the film are not portrayed as shining beacons of humanity, and the film’s focus is really the white people’s attitudes towards them and not necessarily them on their own terms. This is obviously a mistake that plagues cinema as a whole, and it leads to the precariousness of this movie’s position. The Comanches are depicted as ruthless people. The Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), displays scalps proudly, and it’s clear that in addition to killing most of the Edwards family, the women were also raped. One can see why Ethan hates them, but the problem is clearly that he extends this to the entire Native American race no matter what its members’ relations to him, and his hatred is present before this tragedy has even happened. There is wrong on both sides, and the white people are clearly given the whole movie to make themselves understood while Scar gets one scene. I’m not saying this movie is perfect, but it makes clear that there is a problem. A lesser movie would have just accepted the casual racism of most of the white characters in the movie, and left it at that. It points out the racism, which is the first step at combating it.
But there is more to this movie than racial commentary, and one such example is Ford’s great depiction of community. In his review (linked at bottom), Ebert essentially dismisses all of the scenes that don’t pertain to Ethan’s quest. I can see why, as they dilute the main thrust of the story, but I quite like them anyway. They give us a nice sense of contrast between Ethan’s obsessed, roaming, solitary ways and what he could be enjoying, were he a little bit more normal. There’s a love interest for Martin back home, Laurie (Vera Miles) who waits desperately for him to return, only to be continually disappointed. This is mostly done for laughs, and it is pretty funny, but it’s also tragic because you can see Martin becoming more like Ethan, leaving the one he loves behind (it is hinted at in the opening scenes that Ethan and his brother’s wife are in love). We get a good sense of the community, and more importantly, how Ethan doesn’t fit into it.
The Searchers is a film that will always be puzzled over, and one that can’t fully be understood. There are many unexplained details in the plot that contribute to the mystery, but the greatest one will always be the mystery of Ethan Edwards’ character. The ending is just as unsure as the beginning, and despite first appearances I don’t think Ethan is ever let off the hook. The viewer must judge him and empathize with him, which is not an easy thing to do no matter what your beliefs are. It’s a difficult film to come to terms with, but ultimately it’s worth it to try.
“Someday this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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