Even those who dispute the politics of the film agree that “The Searchers” provided John Wayne with his most demanding role since Howard Hawks’ “Red River” in 1948, and that he gives in this film his most challenging and complex performance, one that surpasses his first Oscar-nominated turn in the WWII drama “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) and his Oscar-winning part in “True Grit” (1969).
As Ethan Edwards, Wayne plays an anomic hero, an outsider par excellence–Ford described the film as “the tragedy of a loner.” It has taken Ethan three years to come home, after fighting on the losing side of the Civil War. He refuses to attend the capitulation of the South, claiming, “I don’t believe in surrender.” We also learn that Ethan continued to carry on the war on his own, taking the law into his own hands, including a bank robbery. Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife, Martha, but unlike his brother, he is not the man to settle down and raise a family.
At his core, Ethan is solitary, anti-social, and withdrawn from any link to community life. He respects family life but seems to be unable to take part in it. Ethan’s tragic fate is thus to wander, to live outside community and society.
More than other Westerns, “The Searchers” captures the Wayne hero’s fanatic devotion to a mission. In this film, Ethan Edwards is seeking the two nieces who were abducted during a Comanche raid, in which his brother’s family is murdered. Finding the mutilated bodies of his family, Ethan is guilt-ridden, feeling he was not there when he was needed. He thus becomes obsessed with recovering his two nieces and seeking revenge on the Comanche. This fanatic search provides the only rationale for Ethan’s life, and he is determined to succeed, “We’ll fin’em just as sure as the turning of the earth.”
After the body of one niece is found, the search for the remaining niece, Debbie, continues for five years. Ethan becomes more concerned with executing vengeance than with finding her. During the search, when Ethan is asked, “You wanna quit” he angrily replies, “That’ll be the day!” and he repeats this phrase many times in the course of the film. In another scene, Ethan gambles the life of fellow- searcher Martin Pawley against his own marksmanship. When Martin asks, “What if you had missed” “That never occurred to me,” he replies. Ethan is so sure of his skills and the rightness of his mission that the idea of failure never occurs to him.
Ethan embodies the most important attributes of the Westerner: individualism, self-sufficiency, strength, non-conformity, and loneliness. In this movie, Ethan’s solitariness is stressed visually. At the film’s start, Ethan appears out of nowhere, from the desert, and, at the end, after his mission is accomplished, Ethan returns to the desert. In the film’s last shot, Wayne stands alone, silhouetted in the door’s frame, while other people pass around, ignoring his presence.
Equally important is the juxtaposition of Ethan’s charismatic leadership with two different kinds of men. First, there is a contrast between Ethan and his brother, the domestic man who has no strength or authority. In fact, both Aaron’s wife and their children rely more on Ethan’s power than on their father. From the start, it’s clear that Ethan is tougher than his brother Aaron, and is admired by the latter’s children. Facing an Indian raid, the son says, “I wish uncle Ethan were here, don’t you maam” They feel they can rely on Ethan’s strength more than on their father’s.
The second contrast is between Ethan’s charismatic power and the authority of Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), which is a mixture of two types (to use the classification of sociologist Max Weber). Reverend Clayton combines traditional (religious) and legal-rational (military) authority. Functioning as the community chaplain as well as its military leader, the Reverend is endowed with qualities that Ethan lacks, respect for tradition and law, religious duty, and the strong wish to stabilize the community’s life.
Nonetheless, the Reverend is not an effective leader when it comes to protecting the community from the Indians. And significantly, Ethan’s authority derives not from an official position he maintains, but from his charisma based on his extraordinary moral and physical strength.
Ethan functions as the role model in The Searchers, in which his obsessive search is conducted with two men: Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Brad Jurgensen (Harry Carey Jr.). The search for the two nieces lasts five years, during which Wayne instructs Pawley, constantly putting his strength to test in a series of rituals. Pawley learns how to slaughter a buffalo, how to be more careful in bartering with the Indians, how to deal with ambushers–in short, how to survive.
Pawley’s earlier carelessness results in acquiring an Indian wife, which provides Ethan occasion to poke fun at him. When Ethan finds the mutilated bodies of his family, he absorbs the pain alone and quietly, with no outlet for his grief. Pawley, by contrast, is distraught even without seeing them. Later, when Wayne finds his elder niece’s (Lucy) body, he buries her in his army coat, keeping the whole incident to himself–until Jurgensen asks him about it. In contrast to Ethan, Jurgensen cannot face the truth and, losing self-control, he charges into the Indians’ camp and loses his life.
As in Rio Grande, when Ethan is wounded, he asks Pawley to remove the poison from his wound. Removing bullets or arrows is a recurrent symbolic ritual in Westerns, testing the hero’s ability to endure pain, but also strengthening the bond and camaraderie between the two men. Significantly, in Wayne’s movies, this person is either his son or relative.
The climax of The Searchers is the confrontation between Ethan and Debbie (Natalie Wood), the family’s only survivor. When Debbie tells Ethan, “These (the Indians) are my people,” he draws his gun, determined to kill her, since he regards miscegenation a cardinal sin. Obsessed with hatred for the Indians, he has been living for one purpose–to kill Debbie.
After defeating the Indians, Wayne chases Debbie and they come face to face. There is a suspenseful, uncertain moment, in which we are not sure what would happen to the girl. But then, Ethan says softly, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” He leans down and picks her up in his arms. This scene is considered to be one of the most touching and beautiful ones in the American film. The reconciliation is the beginning of a new relationship between uncle Ethan, now her socio-legal parent, and Debbie, now his surrogate daughter.
The film critic Molly Haskell has eloquently described the complex, contradictory emotions displayed in this brief scene: “Love dissolves hatred, mercy dissolves authoritarianism, maternal and paternal instincts unite in a single, all-encompassing figure.”
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne)
Martin Prawley (Jeffrey Hunter)
Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles)
Capt Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond)
Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood)
Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen)
Mrs. Jorgenssen (Olive Carey)
Chief Scar (Henry Brandon)
Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis)
Brad Jorgenssen (Harry Carey, Jr.)