John Ford’s The Searchers is a subversive work in the Hollywood Western genre that represents a time of transformation in the American consciousness. The protagonist, Ethan Edwards, played by the legendary John Wayne, is a man consumed with hatred; He is a product of a nation founded on the conquest of others. To elaborate on said conquest, we are dealing with mass murder, slavery and the theft and rape of land. Ethan’s outlook is understandable given the time frame in which The Searchers takes place in the mid to late 1800s (post-Civil War), but also not entirely inappropriate for the time when the film was released in 1956 if we consider his racism as representative of America’s attitude toward minorities in the early-mid 20th century, during which Ford lived the majority of his life (he was born in 1894). In the 50s, America’s views were beginning to evolve, and Ethan’s arc in the film deals with this change. Ford and specifically The Searchers have been criticized for being racist, but this is an unfair claim. The racism on display in the film is put under a critical light, and Ford’s auteurism reveals much insight into both himself and America.
To understand the character of Ethan Edwards and to be able to interpret his key decision in the climax of The Searchers, we must look to an early sequence in the film, where he returns to his brother’s family for the first time since the Civil War ended. Ethan fought for the confederacy and has since been involved in lawfully questionable activities as demonstrated by his wealth of mint gold coins. The opening of the film is rich with subtext that is never explored in any expository fashion by Ford. The family to which our protagonist is known as “Uncle Ethan” is composed of five members: the father, Aaron Edwards; the mother, Martha; the eldest daughter, Lucy; the son, Ben; and the youngest daughter, Debbie. The very first shot of the film introduces a famous framing device. Martha is seen framed by the doorway of her home, looking outside longingly at the site of a returning Ethan. The opposite bookend of this device, which I will examine later, uses the same motif, but with Ethan framed by a doorway, looking in longingly. Immediately we have established that Martha has a special fondness for Ethan, and although there is no purely expository element to reference as evidence, the framing and staging of the next several scenes reveal that Ethan and Martha have shared an intimate relationship. In the way they greet each other so carefully, with Ethan gently kissing her forehead, the looks they share, and the way we see Martha lovingly stroke his clothing (again, framed in a doorway), it couldn’t be clearer.
The first shot of Ethan once he has entered the home is key: He picks up Debbie in his arms and lifts her above his head and carries her over to the dinner table, reluctant to let her go. All of Ethan’s exchanges with Debbie also suggest a special relationship, and the motivation behind his fixation on her, in comparison to the other two Edwards children, could be explained by her being the secret daughter of Ethan rather than his brother Aaron. In a gorgeous master shot, the entire Edwards family as well as several guests, are all seen in a single frame. When Ethan enters and walks towards the dining table he approaches Debbie, who is seated. The camera tracks in as Ethan gets closer to her and places his hands on her chair. Ethan is wearing a red shirt, and Debbie has red ribbons in her hair, as well as a red handkerchief. For the most part, Ford’s misé en scene is very subtle, but this shot strongly pronounces the secret connection between Ethan and Debbie. Taking this subtext into account, we can interpret later events as well as the film as a whole.
In 1956, America was beginning to undergo serious changes in terms of the treatment of racial minorities. The African-American Civil Rights Movement recently begun. One of the early key events was Rosa Parks’ refusal to abide by the segregated seating on a public bus, prompting a successful boycott of Montgomery buses. Martin Luther King Jr. was a spearhead in organizing the boycott, and his voice became synonymous with human rights, although his famous “I have a dream” speech was still years away, and indeed so were many of the milestones of the movement. It could be said that the America at the time of The Searchers was on the brink of changing, but far from having changed. This is perfectly represented by Ethan Edwards, a personification of this hatred and prejudice that was long overdue to expire. Ethan does not defeat his racism in the film, but he does temporarily transcend it. This stubbornness is also representative of the time, and maybe even John Ford himself, who no doubt had been raised with certain prejudice beliefs that were inherent of the era in which he grew up. The Searchers gives us a protagonist who cannot overcome the hatred he is burdened with, but believes in a future without it for others. Ford anticipated positive changes in the American consciousness and expresses his hope for them in the film through Ethan’s actions.
The narrative of The Searchers is one of the most effective in Hollywood cinema. After native savages known as the Comanche kidnap Lucy and Debbie, Ethan and others set out on a mission to save them. Lucy is murdered early on, and the search for Debbie lasts a decade. For the majority of the film, Ethan is partnered up with Martin, who is part Cherokee. Even though their interest in finding Debbie pits them together, Ethan is distrustful of Martin because of his mixed heritage. In this light, we can see that Ethan’s racism is completely unreasonable, as Martin is clearly the moral compass of the film. Indeed, Martin even plans on preventing Ethan from irrationally killing Debbie when they find her, something that Ethan makes it clear he’ll do once they discover she has been integrated as a member of the Comanche and is no longer, as Ethan sees it, innocent. Ethan’s hatred drives him throughout the film, which is what makes his act of mercy in the film’s climax so moving and so surprising. When they finally find Debbie, Martin kills the central Comanche antagonist known as Scar. Ethan’s hatred is clearly fueling him when he scalps the dead body of Scar, giving us no reason to expect him to spare Debbie. As he charges towards Debbie on his horse we fear the worst but in an act that transcends his all-consuming hatred, he picks her up in his arms with the same loving gesture that he showed her at the beginning of the film, and lifts her up over his head. Ethan’s love for his daughter is stronger than anything else, and sparks his transient heroics. Perhaps it should not be such a surprise when we consider a moment early in the film where Ethan places a war medal on Debbie as a gift, transforming an object with connotations of violence into something of love and beauty. Another clue occurs simultaneously with him charging at Debbie, with the walls of a cave framing the action much like with the doorway motif which is only used for moments that highlight love and family.
The best shot of the film is the famous final image that mirrors the shot from the beginning. Ethan returns Debbie “home”, to the Jorgensen family. The mother and father embrace Debbie as if she is their own daughter, then the three of them walk inside the house as the camera pulls back, creating the doorway motif. Next, Martin and his love interest Laurie Jorgensen walk inside together. Ethan Edwards is left alone on the porch, staring into the doorway longingly from outside in a reverse from the first shot in which Martha looked for Ethan from inside. He stays there for a few moments and then he turns around and reluctantly walks away. He was able to temporarily overcome his prejudice because of his love for his daughter, but he has not miraculously shed his tragic flaw. In order to create a family, Ethan must courageously remove himself from it in order to stop the cycle of hatred. As the man that he is as well as what he represents, there is no place for him in this newly forged family that offers the hope of a better future founded on love.