30 Great Westerns
The Searchers

Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne in The Searchers.

The Searchers is a revenge film with a wicked twist.

John Wayneís Ethan Edwards seeks to avenge the murders of his nephew, niece, brother Aaron, and sister-in-law Martha (whom he secretly loved). He also seeks to rescue his nine-year-old niece Debbie from Chief Scar. But finding Debbie doesn't prove to be easy. Ethan and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) search for so long that Debbie reaches marrying age and becomes one of Scarís wives. Once Ethan discovers Debbie's union with Scar, his quest turns from rescue to murder. Ethanís hatred and fear of miscegenation is one of the darkest ripples in all Western plots. After he and Marty find Debbie (Natalie Wood) encamped with Scar, Ethanís viciousness registers full scale. Debbie runs toward Marty (her adopted brother with Cherokee blood), speaking Commanche, and pleading with him to leave. Wayne, wearing a red-checkered table-cloth for a shirt, stands rigid in the dust, and breaks up the reunion, a gun clamped in his hand. "Stand aside, Marty," he says. Marty defends Debbie, throwing her behind him, his arms locking around her protectively.

Ethan Edwards is a racist and a part of the darkest revisionist landscape of 1950s Westerns. Early on, he looks dismayed at young Marty during breakfast, saying with some disgust, "a fellow could mistake you for a half-breed." Later, when he sees two white women raped by Indians, their minds shattered, he dismisses them, "They arenít white. Not anymore." And as he exits the room, Fordís camera rapidly tracks in on Wayneís face to a close-up that reveals hard slits for eyes and a mean curl to his lips. His distaste even leads him to kill a bunch of Buffaloes so that the "Commanch" wonít have enough to eat in winter.

John Fordís text doesnít condone Wayneís actions, nor does it side, necessarily, with whites over Indians. The film begins and ends with massacres. The first performed by Indians, the second by whites. Filmed in 1956, a time when the nationís Civil Rights movement was advancing and two years before the Brown Versus the Board of Education decision was rendered in Topeka, Kansas outlawing school segregation, The Searchers explores these cultural issues.

Jeffrey Hunterís Marty is the filmís moral hero. He wants to bring Debbie back no matter what, but Wayne doesnít believe that Mary belongs on the quest. "Sheís no blood kin of yours." And yet, Marty, even though not blood-related, belongs more than anyone to the new community of integration. He has the American spirit of democratic acceptance. When Marty learns from old Mose Harper (Hank Worden) that Debbie is still alive, he demands to rescue her. Ethan wants to charge in and hope she gets killed in the crossfire. Even Martyís girlfriend Laurie (Vera Miles) feels "Ethan should put a bullet in her brain. I tell you, Martha would want him to." "Only if Iím dead," says Marty. He vows to save her from Ethan and his kind.

One-eighth Cherokee, the rest Welsh and English, Marty is a melting pot of identities, and unlike Scar desires to fit into the mainstream. He represents the kind of integration Ford and writer Frank S. Nugent could envision in 1956. By contrast, Scar is punished for being too much of an outlaw, or in an allegorical sense, being too black. A truly liberal, revisionist Western would have had Debbie enjoying her life with the Indians and returning to their community at the filmís end.

But this is 1956 and integration is defined in white terms. Marty clearly represents the filmís moral center, but Fordís Western has two heroes. John Wayne is the figure that a cowboy wants next to him in an Indian attack, or as Scar grunts, "You big shoulders. You, one who follows." Ethan knows the ways of the Indians, and people defer to his authority, but maybe Martyís love and loyalty to Debbie breaks through Ethanís hardened resolve. In a wonderfully lyrical moment, near the end of the film, Ethan on horseback, rides down a hill looking for Debbie. She fears for her life and runs. He corners her with his horse, steps down and picks her up. While in her arms, she contemplates flailing, but stops. He cradles her to his chest and gently says, "Letís go home, Debbie."

But ultimately Western society and America of 1956 has no home for a segregationist. After returning Debbie to the Jorgensens, Ethan watches his niece, Marty, and Laurie enter the home. He stands at the threshold, grabs his right arm, turns, and moves deep into the frame, wandering into the desert as the wind kicks up dust and the door closes to a fade.

--by Grant Tracey