The reputation of John Ford’s The Searchers as a classic but troubling Western in which John Wayne plays an Indian-hating racist is so widely accepted that it’s a bit of a surprise to discover that the film, and the character, are in fact more complex than the reputation suggests.
A tense, unsettling tale of obsession and vengeance, The Searchers tells the story of Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards’s relentless pursuit of a Comanche band led by the war chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who has led a murderous raid on a settler household and kidnapped his young neice Debbie. Accompanying Ethan is the girl’s adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who hopes to rescue his sister, and, as years go by, begins to fear that Ethan would rather see the girl dead than living as a Comanche.
From the start, it’s clear that Ethan is far more ambiguous than the typical Western hero. Wayne’s character in Stagecoach may have been an escaped outlaw, but he was wrongfully convicted for doing no more than defending his family. Ethan, on the other hand, is a Confederate ex-soldier who seems to have gone AWOL at the end of the war rather than surrender his cavalry sword, whose whereabouts in the intervening years is never explained, who seems to have a ready supply of gold, and whom a Texas Ranger captain says cryptically "fits a lot of descriptions."
Martin is one-eighth Cherokee, and Ethan’s first words to him set the tone for his abrasive, antagonistic relationship with the young man: "I could mistake you for a half-breed." Yet it’s not clear that Ethan’s treatment of Martin is particularly rougher than his treatment of anyone else; nor does the half-witted old Indian scout, Mose Harper, seem to suffer for being Indian at Ethan’s hands.
Ethan’s anti-Indian passion is obvious and disturbing. Yet his hatred seems to be principally reserved for members of one particular tribe, the Comanche, some of which killed his wife and which have now committed further atrocities against his family. Toward other Indians they meet along the way Ethan is perfectly capable of behaving with due civility and respect, and he is familiar with all their languages, customs, and beliefs. When, in a comic subplot, a squaw becomes briefly attached to Martin and trails along with their party, Ethan is amused but not offended or put out, and doesn’t treat her badly.
To the enemy Comanche, on the other hand, Ethan is utterly ruthless, denying them even the honor due enemies in warfare. In battle he shoots enemies even as they try to retreat or rescue their wounded. He senselessly slaughters buffalo simply to deprive his enemies of them. He even goes so far, in one of the film’s most disturbing moments, to offer the ultimate insult to a dead enemy, shooting out his eyes, which he says in Comanche belief means the brave’s spirit will be unable to find its way home.
Obviously there’s a racial or cultural dimension to Ethan’s vicious opposition to the Comanche. Yet his behavior may be less indicative of mere bigotry, or ignorant hatred of the other, than of harsh, "war is hell" battlefield lawlessness extended to an enemy against whom Ethan harbors deep personal grudges. There are even indications that what Ethan hates may be as much a cultural category as a racial one. Having come across a number of white girls who had been kidnapped at a young age and raised among Comanche, Ethan says, "They ain’t white any more — they’re Comanche!" A thoroughgoing racial chauvinist could hardly say such a thing.
By far the most disturbingly racist aspect of Ethan’s vendetta is his cold judgment that Debbie would be better off dead than living as a Comanche squaw. To some extent this might be seen in terms of outrage that Debbie should be sleeping with the murderer who killed her own family. Yet Ethan unambiguously goes beyond mere issues of loyalty and betrayal when he declares that, for a white girl like Debbie at least, "Livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive." A deep hostility to the mixing of the races itself seems to be a basic part of Ethan’s complicated, ambiguous motives.
Yet Ethan’s point of view is clearly not that of the film itself. Ethan’s Civil War experiences may have given him resources and skills beyond the likes of Martin or even Texas Ranger Captain Clayton (Ward Bond), but those same experiences have also alienated Ethan from the civilized values that Martin and Clayton still retain. Ethan’s companions ignore his practical judgment at their own peril, but they oppose his brutality because their humanity demands it; and the film’s sympathies are with them, not Ethan.
In a genre that traditionally regarded its heroes as good almost by definition and Indians as one-dimensional adversaries, The Searchers broke new ground in casting no less than the Duke himself as a flawed protagonist, almost an antihero. This challenge to the Western mythos is deepened by a scene in which the ever-reliable cavalry attacks an Indian camp, brutally slaughtering even women and children in retribution for an Indian attack.
As for the Indians themselves, Scar’s Comanche are ruthless killers, but we also see peaceful Indians, and, while Scar remains a totally unsympathetic villian, his actions aren’t wholly without provocation — white men, he tells us, killed his sons before he started scalping and kidnapping.
Students of Indian culture may find distracting the film’s stand-in use of Navajo Indians, dress and dance in place of Comanche; some have even argued that this non-rigorous approach to authenticity is objectionable in itself. But this seems pointless carping; one might as well complain that the Monument Valley shooting locations look nothing like the Texas landscape where the story is supposedly set, or even that John Qualen’s Swedish accent as Lars Jorgensen sounds goofy to real Swedes.
Like many reviews of The Searchers, this one falls into the trap of making the whole film seem relentlessly grim and downbeat. That’s not the case. The story covers too much time — several years — for such a treatment to be either realistic or bearable. A wounded soul like Ethan might remain perpetually hardened, but regular human beings can’t sustain such intensity indefinitely; ordinary life begins to creep in around the edges. The film’s various comic and romantic subplots are more than comic relief; they represent the human mode of existence from which Ethan has cut himself off, and that Martin keeps putting on hold, but will not be able to do so indefinitely.
The film’s complexity and ambiguity extends even to the famous climax, in which two central characters make choices that could be viewed as changes of heart, but could also be viewed as differing responses to changing circumstances. Do the characters change and develop, or is the truth about them simply more clearly revealed? The Searchers offers no clear-cut answers, not even to the question in the theme song. It’s a rare classic Western that invites viewers to ponder ambiguities rather than to cheer good guys against bad guys, and even to question its hero and the Western mythos itself.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.