John Wayne and The Searchers

John Wayne in The Searchers

John Wayne in The Searchers

In 1956, John Wayne starred in what is now arguably one of the best westerns ever made. That film was The Searchers. I grew up on classic films, many of those being westerns, yet for some reason never connected with John Wayne. He’s generally considered a man’s man, so maybe as a boy I could never relate to the machismo of his on-screen characters. However, some time ago I came across A Personal Journey Through American Movies, a great series where Martin Scorsese personally takes you through the history of film with him focusing on movies that impacted him. It’s a great series and I highly recommend watching the whole thing (someone uploaded both discs here on YouTube, broken up into sections). I’ve watched this series many times and found every time Scorsese discussed westerns, and John Ford/John Wayne films in particular, that I needed to go back and revisit The Searchers. The way Scorsese analyzed John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers made me realize that maybe I was wrong about him. Finally, after many years, I bought The Searchers and watched it.

First let me say that the movie looks incredible on blu-ray. Warner Bros. did an excellent job on the restoration, as they usually do for many of the classics they’ve put out on blu-ray. However, it’s the film itself I want to talk about. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a soldier who some years after fighting for the Confederates in the Civil War, finally returns home. It is immediately made known of his somewhat shady past, having obtained a large quantity of gold, along with his refusal to join the Texas Rangers. This is also when we learn of Ethan’s hatred for Native Americans, after refusing to be called ‘Uncle Ethan’ by his adopted nephew, Martin Pawley, who is 1/8 Comanche. After being drawn away from the home to rescue some missing cattle, Ethan and Martin learn they were tricked by the Comanches and return to find their family attacked and their home burned. This sets up the rest of the movie, as Ethan and Martin spend the next five years searching for the only survivor, Debbie, taken by the Comanches. It is in this journey that we learn who deep Ethan’s hatred for the Comanches is, and Native Americans in general. And it is this hatred and racism that drives the film.

When I saw this film years ago, I was too young to pick up on the racism that was prevalent in the film, but having watched it now, I’m shocked to see how blatant the film deals with it. Ethan is an interesting character, a loner who seems to drifting about. So when his family is brutally attacked and killed, with two nieces (one of which is raped and killed not long after) taken by the attackers, it seems that his hatred for the Comanches is based on what they did. But before the attack even occurs, Ethan subtlety suggests his despisement for Indians. He looks down on Martin who is 1/8 Indian, enough to cause Ethan to refuse to acknowledge him as family.  Thus, Ethan’s hatred developed long before the massacre that befell his sister’s family. And as the film progresses it only seems to grow.

After the homestead is attacked and they begin their pursuit, they come across a makeshift grave of an Indian, apparently killed from wounds sustained during the raid of the house. Ethan fires twice into the dead body, a bullet for each eye, causing the Indian’s soul to not find the spirit land and instead left to wander between the winds. This explanation encapsulates Ethan’s journey, a man blinded by his hatred, left to wander in the world. In fact, another name for this film could be The Wanderer. Ethan’s hatred is so pronounced that Martin becomes concerned about what Ethan may do to Debbie when she is found. When Martin and Ethan return home during a break in their search, Martin’s concern is indeed confirmed when Laurie says that Debbie’s own mother would want her killed than be raised by Indians. In fact, the only character who seems to have any kind of conscious is Martin. There are many times in the film where Martin tries to thwart Ethan’s anger, trying to intervene when Ethan flies off the handle. While Martin wants to rescue Debbie, a task that could require killing, he isn’t interested in needlessly taking a life. And thus, it soon becomes clear that the concern is what will happen when Martin and Ethan find Debbie, not whether she’ll be found at all. Ethan doesn’t seem to be rescuing her, but instead pursuing, in hopes to kill her now that she is ‘tarnished’ for living among the Comanches.  When she finally is found, she tells the two to leave her, causing Ethan to draw a gun on her.  Thankfully, Ethan’s conscious, in the form of Martin, intervenes long enough for Debbie to escape. Thus the viewer knows that if given a second chance, Ethan won’t let it go to waste. And at the end of the film, Ethan does get a second chance. But instead, he picks her up saying, “Let’s go home Debbie.” And after bringing her back, with everyone outside to greet them, they make their way inside, except Ethan who turns away.

After finishing the movie, I couldn’t help think about Ethan’s sudden transformation. It bothered me how fast it was instead of being a slow realization developed throughout the film. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to like it. Throughout the whole film, Ethan is filled with such strong hatred. A hatred that drives him to pursue Debbie and the Comanche leader, Scar for five years. Thus when he finally confronts Debbie at the end, his transformation is more impactful. If he had slowly been changing throughout the film, the end wouldn’t be as interesting. And yet, we’re led to believe that his change of heart may only be to spare Debbie’s life. Ethan doesn’t enter the house at the end, because he knows he doesn’t belong. He may be able to except his niece and adopted nephew, but his hatred is still there, and so instead he turns his back to his family as the front door closes, left to wander between the winds.

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