Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’

The Searchers Movie Essay - 1956 John Ford Film

“Let’s go home, Debbie” — Ethan Edwards (John Wayne)

For nearly 50 years, the American Western was relatively straightforward. The good guys were good, the bad guys were bad and the storylines were simple, honorable and pure. And this was fine. The films were popular; the form produced dozens of great directors, stars and timeless works of art. Things began to change in the 1950s, though, as a slew of revisionist westerns called into question the customary tropes of this beloved genre. The often-insightful modifications, best exemplified by the string of five Anthony Mann/James Stewart Westerns from 1950 to 1955, challenged conventional notions of thematic interest, character disposition, violent, sexual and psychological content, and the nature of historical representation. The progressive result, more modern variations on the tried and true, would eventually touch the genre’s preeminent filmmaker, and it would inform its most celebrated actor.

The Searchers, a stunning 1956 collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne (just one of their more than 20 pairings), is firmly entrenched in Western archetypes, from its material iconography to its Monument Valley setting (standing in for west Texas). But its tone is something different, and the audacity of its visual and vehemently emotional potency sets it apart from the norm. On the surface, The Searchers begins unassumingly enough, with the arrival of Wayne’s wayward Ethan Edwards, returning to the homestead of his brother and his family: Aaron (Walter Coy), his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott), the oldest, and Debbie (Lana Wood), the youngest, and in the middle, brother Ben (Robert Lyden). Though it appears an understated occasion of mere familial consequence, Ford and Wayne instill in this meticulously arranged introduction an astonishing degree of unspoken intrigue. Where has “the prodigal brother” been for the three years after the Civil War? Was he in California or not, and why is it a secret? And what is he doing with a bag full of fresh-minted Yankee dollars? These uncertainties, combined with the subsequent inclusion of such topics as racism, miscegenation, rape, moral depravity and betrayal are a lot to pack into a 1956 Western, and were it under the management of someone less accomplished than Ford, its potential for success would be drastically diluted.

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The Searchers Movie Essay - 1956 John Ford Film

As Ethan emerges slowly from the vast desert expanse, his mirage-like arrival is peculiarly ominous — but for the Edwards family, he is a welcome sight… in more ways than one. A stoic man alone, as rugged as the arid landscape (“A man as hard as the country he is crossing,” states the script for The Searchers. “Rider and horse have come a long way.”), he is also shown to be capable of tremendous tenderness, touchingly and telling demonstrated in the obviously mutual yet delicately implied affection between he and Martha. When Rev. Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) visits the family the following day and ingenuously observes the way Martha handles Ethan’s Johnny Reb coat, embracing it as if the man himself were still inside, the suggestion is undeniable. At the same time, Ethan reveals himself to be equally disposed to unadulterated racist derision in The Searchers. With the entrance of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the Edwards’ adopted son who happens to be one-eighth Cherokee, Ethan’s demeanor twists as he disparages the young man for looking like he could be a “half-breed.” And that’s just a hint of what’s to come. In these early sequences, the family gathers around for gifts and stories, operating as normal within an atmosphere of latent desire, hatred and mystery. It’s a curious establishment of decency and warmth alongside muted foreboding, effectively previewing — in just 10 minutes of screen time — the marked tonal shifts that will routinely permeate The Searchers, most emphatically in the temperament of its troubled protagonist.

Drawn away by an assembling team of Texas Rangers, supervised by Rev. Clayton, Ethan is quick to realize that the ostensible cause for their concern (the theft of cattle owned by local rancher Lars Jorgensen, played by John Qualen) is but a ruse designed to get the men away from their respective homes, thus allowing ferocious Comanche warriors to effortlessly descend upon their unprotected families. And sure enough, in a haunting sequence emblazoned in hellish orange-red light by cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, an Oscar winner for his work on Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Quiet Man (1952), an army of Native Americans, led by Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), decimate the Edwards estate, kidnapping Lucy and Debbie, killing the others and setting the property on fire. The glow of the nocturnal attack is a painterly embellishment of absolute evil and sheer terror, but it’s nothing compared to the wrathful passions unleashed within Ethan. What was irrefutable bigotry to begin with becomes manic, violent fanaticism, and it initiates one of the more demanding alliances in film history, between the complacent viewer — the average fan of The Duke — and what this characterization ultimately becomes.

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The Searchers Movie Essay - 1956 John Ford Film

In addition to Wayne, Bond and other familiar faces of the John Ford stock company (including the always amusing Hank Worden as simpleminded Mose Harper), The Searchers features Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgensen, who fancies Martin but also catches the eye of crooning dufus Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis, John Ford’s son-in-law), Harry Carey, Jr. as her brother Brad (who woos Lucy) and Harry Jr.’s own mom, Olive, as Mrs. Jorgensen. Essentially, though, the film follows the years-long plight of Ethan and Martin, combative partners in the pursuit of Debbie, be she dead or alive. (Brad is with the two for a while, but he dies in a kamikaze attack on the Comanche after Ethan discovers the ravaged body of Lucy.) Their path is fraught with a combustible mixture of vicious action, seasoned competency and fleeting flashes of good-natured humor. Consumed by vengeance, Ethan is quick to cut off his family’s burial ceremony, for there is no time to stand around sermonizing, but he is just as keen to shoot out the eyes of a dead Comanche, thus condemning the deceased (by what the Native believes) to endlessly roam the spirit world, an apt, self-conscious parallel to the interminable wanderings of Ethan, before, during and after this particular chapter in his life.

Nothing is sacred if it stands between Ethan and his goal. Under normal circumstances, his devotion to Debbie’s rescue would be admirable, and maybe it still is, but in The Searchers, this drive emerges at the cost of Ethan’s underlying motivations, which have as much to do with wholesale racism as they do ancestral integrity. He has his purpose, but pent-up passions are misplaced, from grief and understandable anger to compulsive retribution aimed at an entire society. Ethan’s prejudice will manifest itself in slurs (referring to Martin as “blanket head”) in his nationalistic belief system (mocking Scar for speaking pretty good “American”), and in a stubborn refusal to accept Martin or the transformed Debbie as a relation (making out his will and declaring no “blood kin”). His capacity for sadistic reckoning is demonstrated when he pulls a gun on Debbie, as the young woman is first seen in Indian dress, now played by Lana Wood’s more famous sister, Natalie. Though her time on screen is minimal in The Searchers, the elder Wood presents Debbie as the embodiment of threatened delicacy, a sensation produced by a fear for her life generally, but also in reticent contrast to Wayne. There is an innocent acceptance about her, which amplifies the concern, now no longer based on what Scar has done (she does not appear unhappy or harmed), but, more than ever before, based on what Ethan may do. Additionally, when she expresses her torn allegiance, appreciating Martin’s liberating effort and yet declaring, “These are my people,” her ability to suggest two modes of thinking at once sets her apart from her more dogged, fixated savior. And still, as part of the enduring fascination with The Searchers, none of this instantly positions Ethan as anything less than a flawed hero. It’s one of the enigmatic marvels of Ford’s film and is a testament to Wayne’s underrated faculty. And it’s further proof of how adamantly generic molds can be upheld: this is John Wayne as a cowboy—surely, he can’t be all bad.

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The Searchers Movie Essay - 1956 John Ford Film

The Searchers’ Ethan is indeed skillful, strategic and knowledgeable, savvy when it comes to the identifying traits of certain Native American tribes and mindful of their methodologies. If he’s frequently belligerent, it’s usually because he thinks he’s right, and damned if he isn’t always right. Crass and cruel, he is also confident and proficient. But that doesn’t make him decent. He lashes out when told to let the Comanche carry off their wounded and dead, he takes a perverse delight in slaughtering the buffalo that would otherwise feed the Native people, and when confronted with Calvary prisoners, white women and children who had been living with the Indians, he sneers them away, snarling “they ain’t white anymore” as the camera dollies in on his hardened face, simmering with white hot hatred and disgust. Wayne could command the frame in a way few other actors ever dreamed — and his physical bearing has seldom looked more complete than it does here — but rarely did he do so with as much visceral resonance as in The Searchers . His core is polluted by racism, but it is not fully enveloped, and that any degree of civility remains possible after so much loathing goes to Wayne’s signifying presence. One minute, as when he uncovers Lucy’s corpse, he struggles with the emotion and exposes barely-suppressed sorrow; the next minute, he pauses to reflect with intense deliberation, declaring his resolution and tenacity: “We’ll find ‘em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ‘em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.” Through it all, until the film’s famous final scene where Wayne emulates a stance commonly enacted by the legendary Western actor Harry Carey, Ethan is such a complex figure that despite all he so explicitly demonstrates, for good or ill, there remain layers of character left to interpret.

Written by Frank S. Nugent, based on Alan Le May’s 1954 novel (where, interestingly enough, Martin, a white man, is the hero), The Searchers also had it roots in an actual Comanche kidnapping. The film was one of three produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney’s C. V. Whitney Pictures (followed by 1958’s The Missouri Traveler and 1959’s The Young Land, which featured Wayne’s son, Patrick, who also appears in The Searchers), and it counts among its many admirers David Lean, Sam Peckinpah and George Lucas (who paid homage to the film in the first Star Wars production), along with Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, whose 1976 Taxi Driver is often thematically linked to Ford’s picture. In that film, however, whereas Robert De Niro’s disturbed cabbie, Travis Bickle, is a disconcerting loner detached from the world around him, Ethan’s disdainful distance only goes so far as those of another race, and he, in fact, boasts a devoted circle of friends and family. While Ethan will at times evince comfortable cordiality in The Searchers, Travis’ attempts at affection are regularly awkward at best. Ethan and Travis may have their individual quests — quests in part ratified by gradations of social contempt — but who these two men are, and how they got that way, are points of notable variance.

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The Searchers Movie Essay - 1956 John Ford Film

In any case, if The Searchers is much-admired (the British and American film institutes count it among the greatest movies ever made), it is also a persistent catalyst for controversy. The cringe-inducing racism appears as innocuously as when Mose imitates a clichéd Indian war cry, or it can take shape in the abuse and ridicule bestowed upon Martin’s involuntary wife, Look, AKA Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky (Beulah Archuletta). Unfortunately, though it is simply a matter of historical fact, this treatment was generally standard for the American Western. It certainly isn’t unique to The Searchers. If anything, the quality of Ford’s film, and the resulting acclaim, has likely positioned The Searchers as a prime target for condemnation based solely on its celebrated status. Similarly, while Ethan can be pitiless and hostile to the Native Americans, his personality makes him downright cantankerous with most everyone else as well. As far as that goes, other characters aren’t entirely blameless either. The storekeeper Jerem Futterman (Peter Mamakos) will only help Ethan find Debbie for a reward, and even the ostensibly respectable Laurie talks with Martin and refers to Debbie as nothing more than “the leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own.” And when she argues that Ethan would “put a bullet in her brain,” she also admits, “Martha would want him to.” That these attitudes are endemic don’t make them right, but it also doesn’t make them exclusive to Ethan.

For every point of contention when it comes to The Searchers, there are just as many points of praise. There are a hundred objections to the film, writes John Lingan with Slant Magazine, “none of which are as convincing as the film itself.” Acknowledging the “fair points” of criticism concerning “Wayne and Ford’s right-wing, chest-forward brand of American masculinity, and of pre-civil-rights Hollywood’s maltreatment of minorities,” he also observes, “I have nothing but pity for the moviegoer who watches The Searchers and lets them overwhelm the sheer visual magnitude on the screen. … This movie is bigger than any Cultural Studies criticisms one might lob at it from the safe distance of a half-century.” Always a consummate craftsman, Ford’s mastery of the Technicolor process and the VistaVision format is on full display in The Searchers, and like the panorama of his cherished Monument Valley, everything about the film looms large and makes an impression. Still, The Searchers could not exist as it does as a pre-war film, and a pre-war John Ford could never have made it. Trailing World War II’s devastation and the associative confirmation of just what mankind can propagate, so much of the film’s constitution derives from a reflective glimpse at the challenging state of the American soul, considering all the contradictions and complications that go along with it. The Searchers has moments of low-brow comedy and moments of penetrating tension, its interconnected themes involve love and guilt, and its visual and spiritual essence falls somewhere in the realm of poetic melancholy. Like the United States itself, the film is many things at once, and it’s never as simple as some presume it to be. In writing about The Searchers for The Washington Post, Glenn Frankel argues that “the Western is largely a forgotten genre in these morally tangled times, its narrative simplicity and black-and-white verities elbowed aside by 150 shades of gray.” But this is exactly why The Searchers is an engrossing, contentious and fascinating film. These shades of gray are rampant in the film’s characters and in its topical revelations. It isn’t simplistic, but instead forces the viewer to evaluate their own attitude, to come to terms with the film’s more incendiary content as it relates on and off the screen, and to place judgment with great care and consideration. As Jean-Luc Godard once stated, struggling to separate the Wayne he saw in the movie from the Wayne he saw in real life, “How can I hate John Wayne upholding [Barry] Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

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The Searchers Movie Essay - 1956 John Ford Film

There is no doubt that The Searchers’ Ethan represents an amalgam of courage and sadism, the good and the bad of humanity. After five years of searching, what he will do with Debbie is left up in the air until the last minute, and that it’s even a question says something about the strength of the film’s ambiguity. He has proven himself to be both determined and obsessed, walking a fine line between the two and personifying the question of what the difference truly is. Ethan is an obstinate Confederate holdover (he doesn’t believe in surrenders), so he is left in the past and is consequently, repeatedly, left behind. In the end, he is alone again; he will be perpetually unsettled for the rest of his days. While his sins are indisputable and indefensible, perhaps this rootless, isolated existence is punishment enough for Ethan Edwards. And after all, although it is an uneasy conclusion for the viewer, and an uncomfortable consideration proposed by Ford, if ever lost, captured or in danger, who better to be in one’s corner? Who else would you want searching for you?

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.