by Sam Buntz
[Note: If you’ve never seen The Searchers, don’t read this article. Instead, watch The Searchers, preferably as soon as you can… Feel free to come back here once you’re finished.]
The Searchers might be the greatest American movie ever made. At least, you could make an easy argument for it. It’s clearly shoulder-to-shoulder with The Godfather, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and a few others—plus, it’s the definite summit of John Ford’s career as a director. (In my view, it’s pretty tough to rank the top ten or even the top twenty movies in any kind of coherent order. You end up falling back on criteria that are necessarily highly specific to your own interests and on personal quirks of taste. It’s kind of like trying to argue which pitcher threw a better perfect game). Like all pantheon-level movies, every scene in it feels absolutely inevitable. Nothing could’ve been different. It all clicks. The best movies have this intensely fated quality to them—they could only have ever been what they are. They seem to have existed forever, in and out of time, relating stories that will probably be re-told in a different form a thousand years from now, or are being told in some distant galaxy at the present moment. In the case of Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers deals with the universally relevant topic of human hatred. It is a remarkable story because it depicts a man’s triumph over his own hatred—which, in a way, is a more startling and difficult achievement than triumphing over someone else’s.
To briefly summarize: John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran, who joins his homesteader brother’s family on the plains of West Texas. While Ethan and the family’s older adopted son, Martin, are investigating a supposed cattle raid (which turns out to be a ploy), Comanches slaughter the entire family, except for the youngest daughter, Debbie, who they kidnap. (The Comanches also capture the older sister, Lucy, but shortly rape and kill her in some horrifying yet unspecified manner).
Ethan and Martin continue to search for Debbie over the course of five years, finally discovering that, as an adolescent (played by Natalie Wood), she is now one of the wives of Scar, the same Comanche chief who murdered her family. Since she’s effectively become a Comanche, Ethan attempts to kill her—but Martin prevents him. After a comic interlude back in Texas, in which Martin disrupts a wedding and wins back his former fiancé, they end up falling into a final conflict with Scar, successfully killing him (Ethan scalps him, to boot). They reunite with Debbie again, only, this time, Ethan has overcome his desire to murder his only living blood relative. He puts Debbie on his horse, tenderly looks into her eyes, and says, “Let’s go home.” There’s a lot more to the story besides, like a sub-plot in which Martin accidentally purchases an Indian bride, and goofy moments with Ethan’s friend Mose. But these are the essential beats of the tale.
Yet, there’s a secret, underlying plot point in The Searchers, which has helped secure its high critical estimation. It is implied that Ethan may have been in love with his brother’s wife, Martha. There’s no dialogue to suggest this whatsoever: Ford hints at it entirely through looks, highlighting odd glances exchanged between Ethan and Martha, which would be pointless if they weren’t meant to suggest something. This leads the viewer to another realization: Debbie might be Ethan’s daughter and not his niece, adding yet another level of pain and sadness to the story and to Wayne’s character. His hatred for the Comanches who murder his brother’s family leads him to almost exterminate the girl who might be his only child. A terror of “miscegenation,” of sexual pollution, helps creates the suspenseful, dreadful atmosphere of The Searchers. It’s not supposed to be pleasant, but it’s unusually realistic, true to the social mores of the West, given that sexual-racial anxieties were a huge element in the settlers’ wars with Native Americans, and also in European imperialism.
When I first watched The Searchers as a teenager, I totally missed these implications. I wasn’t entirely sure why Wayne’s character wanted to kill Debbie beyond the fact that she had become “one of them.” It didn’t occur to me that becoming one of them was essentially a matter of sexual violation, of rape. Ethan doesn’t just want to kill Debbie because she’s adopted the habits and customs of the Comanches. He holds the nasty belief that she’s been sexually polluted by another race, and that she can’t be rehabilitated back to a state of whiteness and normalcy. (Plus, if she really is his daughter, he might be harboring some guilt over cuckolding his own brother). If he were to reunite with her, she would represent only things he hates and regrets, the memories that assail him in vacant and idle moments. In Ethan’s eyes, she’s become indelibly stained by the racial and sexual conflicts of the West—in effect, she’s a product of those conflicts—and that’s why she needs to be eliminated. He thinks that if he can murder her he can put it all behind him… This is obviously insane and untrue, but part of the miracle of the movie is that it makes us actually understand Ethan. He never seems like a monster, exactly, because we see how hatred gradually eats at his heart in a way that’s both awful and undeniably human. He remains part of our species even in his worst moments.
The fact is, Debbie hasn’t been indelibly stained by these conflicts. She’s been hoping that Ethan and Martin will come and rescue her throughout the duration of her captivity. To the contrary, Ethan is the one who’s been marked by history and hatred, though not, as it turns out, wholly or permanently. The movie’s moment of transcendence comes when Ethan suddenly, and for no particular reason, forgives history and himself, and tells Debbie, “Let’s go home.” There’s a moment of recognition when he looks at her, the acknowledgment of an indissoluble bond. He’s been a product of his time up until now, but in an instant of grace, he rises above his own historical moment. He’s able to recognize that the relationship that exists between himself and Debbie is an eternally important one, much more significant and enduring than ethnic hatreds and perceived sexual shame. Those things all fall away. But Ethan, the man, can’t really live the happy familial life that’s shaping up for the other characters at the end of the story. He’s been too misshapen by time to be a father figure to Debbie—there’s still an excessive amount of history there, given the fact that he did attempt to murder her earlier. Now, he has nothing left to do but fade into the past, along with all the conflicts that defined Western settlement: the last shot of the movie is of Ethan walking away, alone.
In the end, Ethan doesn’t triumph over a tendency peculiar to himself—he triumphs over a hatred engrained in many people by harsh experience and by the sufferings imposed by history. History, according to The Searchers, is a nightmare, but a nightmare for all sides. Everyone becomes infected by the poison of ethnic and tribal hatreds: Scar takes scalps from whites and massacres families to avenge the deaths of his own sons, just as Ethan shoots the eyes out of a dead Indian’s body, in order to grotesquely violate a Comanche prohibition which states that a soul will wander in eternal loneliness if its body has been left eyeless. We see women who’ve been recovered from Comanche captivity, reduced to insanity by the torture and abuse they’ve experienced, and we see Ethan attempt to slaughter an entire herd of buffalo, purely in order to further the starvation of Native Americans. In a way, The Searchers offers as violent a portrayal of the West as Cormac McCarthy’s classic novel Blood Meridian. But The Searchers keeps the actual atrocities and rapes off screen, which makes them ultimately more chilling and affecting. The fact that Hostel-level butchery is occurring all the time in this society keeps us on our toes and pricks our imaginations into nervous action.
The Searchers has memorable characters, expertly placed moments of comic relief, and an exhilarating story. But like any prospective candidate for the greatest American movie of all time, it manages to say something enduringly important about the country and its people. It portrays America as defined by terrible instances of ethnic conflict and conquest, yet capable of rising above them. While it certainly doesn’t sentimentalize Scar’s band of warriors to any degree, it at least affords Scar an understandable motive (avenging the deaths of his sons) and portrays Ethan’s near-genocidal hatred of the Comanches as something fundamentally perverse. Frank Nugent, who wrote the excellent screenplay, actually based it on real incidents of kidnapping from the 19th Century frontier, and the movie seems more faithful to the reality of strife between settlers and Native Americans than most. It’s not a sustained critique of the settlement of the West, by any means, but it offers a more nuanced view of it than most movies from its era. Yet, the essence of The Searchers isn’t its critical depiction of these sordid conflicts, but the way in which it seeks to transcend them. It convincingly places human love above the world’s other mean and petty concerns, and it doesn’t do it cheaply or too easily. It manages to earn it, totally.