A movie like The Searchers has such a reputation and abundance of words written about it; I doubt I’ll bring anything new to the table, but watching this for the first time prevents me from being too mired in past perspectives. When I disclosed to others I was encountering this for the first time, many wanted my thoughts on a lot of things, so I’ll do my best to review the film while simultaneously exploring the various cultural contexts and themes, both past and present, it puts out.
After his niece is kidnapped by Comanches, outsider Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) goes on a search, spanning many years, to bring her home.
Watching this after McLintock! left me noticing how much Wayne employed tropes from this feature into his later works. However, where he’s firmly a hero in the later feature, Wayne turns antihero as Ethan Edwards, playing, for a hefty bulk of the film, a racist old codger with little redeeming qualities short of his doggedness. He’s got reasons for his anger, of that there’s no doubt, but when he first comes to visit his brother, it’s revealed he never renounced his stake in the Confederacy. The use of the Old West allows the tired battle between cowboys and Native Americans to rage, but the natives could just as easily be African-Americans.
It isn’t so much the audience is inundated with “bad Indians,” so much its intention that violence begets more violence. Ethan’s Homeric odyssey presents a timeline of death: Ethan goes after the war chief, Scar (Henry Brandon) who’s killing white people after the murder of his sons; Ethan and his nephew – whom Ethan refuses to acknowledge because of his 1/8 Cherokee blood – stumble upon a massacre of native women and children at the hands of the white Cavalry. By the end, there are no true heroes or villains; every person is flawed and capable of killing if given motive and opportunity.
If anything, it’s hard not to see this as a rape revenge tale from a misogynistic male perspective. Ethan’s hunt for Debbie stems from his disgust at his lost beloved, Martha’s (Dorothy Jordan) defilement by Indians. He isn’t even interested in saving them, but sees them as less than human, not “white anymore,” because of their association with the Comanches; it doesn’t matter they’ve been kidnapped or held against their will. It’s no different from movies involving lust-riddled African Americans and their kidnapping of white women. When Ethan visits white captives “rescued” from the tribes, the women are insane, driven to lunacy by the Comanche’s supposed debasement. When Ethan and Scar finally meet, Scar gloats, showing the scalps of various females he’s encountered, one being Martha’s; this causes Ethan to “castrate” Scar by taking his scalp. The fears of miscegenation – another holdover of African-American fear in films – isn’t acceptable when a native man is in control of white women, and Marty’s lady-love, Laurie (Vera Miles) is more offended that Look is younger than her as opposed to being native. This isn’t necessary a rape-revenge issue, more showcasing white women’s “silliness.”
And for all its flaws, praise for The Searchers is warranted. John Ford captures a thrilling story spanning several years in barely two hours. You care about Ethan, and his redemption feels somewhat organic even if it’s required. Sure, there’s a misogynistic storyline about cleansing white women, but his bonding with Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) opens up a part of himself he ignores in vain. When Marty “gets the poison out” of Ethan’s snakebite, Ethan comes around, understanding this man could easily leave him or let him kill Debbie, but he doesn’t. The moment when Ethan can’t talk to Marty and Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) about Lucy’s body is emotionally charged and Wayne’s best acting.
The cinematography is also rightfully praiseworthy. Much has been written about Ford’s framing technique of characters entering and exiting doorways. Each scene is beautifully rendered, and packed with meaning, whether it’s characters entering the civilized world of the home or the harsh wilds of the frontier. We also get a delicate romance between Martha and Ethan that’s magical in its economy. The two are only on-screen together for ten minutes in the first part of the feature, but the audience understands the regret and passion of a romance spanning decades. In fact, several books about the movie assert Debbie is really Ethan’s illegitimate progeny, an assertion I’m not sure I completely agree with, but would make sense considering Ethan’s fervent obsession.
That’s not to say there aren’t racist overtones for 1956, but the movie presents enough balance evening it all out. The Indians (I use the word in 1950s context and for the sake of brevity) kill for the thrill of it and callously defile the women in Ethan’s life; Ethan shoots out a dead Indian’s eyes, ruining his afterlife, while getting a gleeful pleasure from doing so. Our hero has no qualms with doing a little equal opportunity offending: robbing a corpse of money Ethan’s already paid – which he’s later accused of murdering the man for! And the entire subplot with Marty’s “squaw,” Look (Beulah Archuleta) is woefully prejudicial, the source of comedy for the brief time she’s on-screen. Her presence is necessary if only to showcase white hypocrisy; it’s humorous and acceptable for Marty to marry a Native American woman (and technically, with 1/8 in his blood, it is acceptable), and yet Ethan is prepared to kill Debbie (Natalie Wood) because she’s been kidnapped and raised with natives.
More often than not, Ethan and Scar are reflections of each other. Ethan’s already “saved” a child from massacre once, young Marty, and yet Ethan can’t embrace him as kin because he’s part Native American; whereas Scar’s kidnapped Debbie and raised her as his wife. Ethan and Marty are constantly riding in the Comanche’s footsteps, and in one scene walk with the tribe above them. When Scar and Ethan finally meeting face-to-face, they’re placed incredibly close to each other, letting the audience see them as two sides of the same coin.
“What makes a man to wander” says the lyrics of the movie’s theme. A few things include honor, family, and love, all of which are reasons Ethan doesn’t explicitly state, but are felt throughout The Searchers. Its cries of racism actually intensify the emotions of the movie. I wouldn’t have explored it as deeply, although that’s debatable, without understanding all the emotions and controversies about it. As you watch Ethan’s journey, and his confrontation with his prejudices, the audience confronts what is racism and what redemption looks like. There’s still issues with the film, see my rape-revenge theory, but it’s simply another layer to an incredibly complex and flawed feature.
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