The Searchers (1956) has been acclaimed not just as one of John Ford’s greatest films, and not just as one of the greatest Westerns, but as one of the greatest films of all time. This praise is all the more surprising given that The Searchers is a profoundly illiberal and even “racist” movie, which means that most fans esteem it grudgingly rather than unreservedly.
I think The Searchers is absurdly overrated, for it is far from flawless. But it is still a great work of art that plumbs deep themes and stirs deep feelings. It should be seen by everyone, even people who generally don’t watch movies. (Spoiler Alert: I am going to talk about the whole story, so bail out here if you want to see the film with fresh eyes.)
Although The Searchers is set in Texas in 1868, Ford’s treatment goes beyond the historical to the mythic and epic. The movie begins in a dark room. A door opens on a magnificent Monument Valley landscape. The silhouette of a woman appears in the doorway. As she steps forward, into the light, she moves from being two-dimensional to three. It is like watching a specter, a shade, taking on an embodied form. It has the feel of a creation myth.
But what is being created? The answer seems to be civilization, and it is a very different myth than the one told by liberal social contract theorists. The opening also suggests that the interior realm of family and domesticity is less real than the exterior world. It certainly proves to be more vulnerable and less harsh.
A rider approaches across the desert. This is a lawless land, where every stranger is regarded with apprehension. The wife is joined on the porch by her husband, then her daughters, then her son, all scanning anxiously. The figures are shot from a low angle. They move with dignity. They barely speak. The whole feel is monumental, epic.
As the rider comes closer, they recognize him as a long-lost member of the family: Ethan Edwards, played with searing charisma by John Wayne. After eight years of fighting, first with the Confederacy then as a mercenary for the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, the wanderer Ethan has come to the ranch of his brother Aaron, Aaron’s wife Martha, and their three children, Lucy, Ben, and Debbie.
Ethan clearly aims to stop fighting and make a home there. He gives his sabre to Ben and a Mexican medal to Debbie. He presents Aaron with a substantial amount of money to “pay his way.” But Ethan’s attempt to reenter society and enjoy the fruits of peace does not last a single day, for there’s trouble afoot.
The next morning, Ethan goes off with a group of Texas Rangers to recover the stolen cattle of a neighboring rancher, Lars Jorgenson. When they find the cattle slaughtered with Comanche lances, Ethan concludes that the cattle theft was a diversion to pull the men from the ranches, leaving them vulnerable to attack. The party splits up, riding to defend both the Jorgenson and Edwards ranches.
When Ethan arrives back at his brother’s ranch, he finds it in flames. Aaron, Ben, and Martha are dead. Lucy and Debbie have been abducted by Comanches. After a brief funeral, Ethan and a group of Rangers go in search of the girls.
After a battle with the Indians, the party splits in two. Most of them return home, while Ethan continues the search accompanied by Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an orphan who was adopted by the Edwards and considers the kidnapped girls his sisters. When Ethan finds Lucy dead, a distraught Brad charges into the Indian camp and is killed. The searchers are thus reduced to Ethan and Martin, so we need to pause a bit and examine both characters.
Who is Ethan Edwards? He is a warrior and a wanderer in wild spaces: the space between warring civilizations and the space between civilization and savagery. He lives in the state of nature, not civil society. In the state of nature, there is no overarching power to enforce the peace, so a man needs to know how to protect himself. Thus Ethan knows how to thread his way between hostile peoples, negotiate treaties with enemies, strike bargains with crooks, and deploy both trickery and violence in a fight. He knows Spanish, Comanche, and probably some other Indian tongues.
Ethan fought on the side of the Confederacy out of loyalty. (He won’t swear another oath to the Texas Rangers.) Once the Confederacy was defeated, he fought for the Emperor Maximilian for money. But war is a young man’s game. Ethan is getting too old for it. Thus, he wants to take his earnings and make a home for himself with his brother’s family in Texas.
Ethan is a dark character. He has done dark deeds. He fits “any number of warrants,” which doesn’t necessarily mean he is guilty of anything. But the local Rangers would rather be his friend than his enemy. On two occasions, the Ranger Captain Clayton chooses to ignore Ethan’s possible crimes because they need his help. They sense that Ethan is like them: a guardian of peace and family life, even though he has known precious little of them himself.
For instance, when a fight breaks out at a wedding at the Jorgenson home, Ethan shoos Mrs. Jorgenson inside because he doesn’t think a woman should see such things. When Ethan finds the bodies of Martha and Lucy, both of whom were presumably raped, he spares others the sight. He has peered into the abyss so that others don’t have to.
Ethan doesn’t wish to remain in the state of nature. But he understands that he may never see civil society. He may have to give his life so that others will see it. He may have to do things that render him unfit for civil society, so that others can enjoy it in innocence and peace.
At one point, Mrs. Jorgenson says, “A Texican’s nothin’ but a human man out on a limb . . . This year and next and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country will be a fine good place to be . . . Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come . . .”
Texas is a pagan land that demands human sacrifices before it becomes a decent place to live. This is why Ethan interrupts the Christian burial of his family to begin the search for the killers. Texas is not yet ready for such niceties. It needs more blood and bones, and Ethan is ready to lay down his own.
Ethan is a man in a hurry. The proximate reason for haste is that with each passing minute, the girls are closer to rape, torture, and death. The deeper cause is that he’s over the hill, so his time is short. Thus he’s rude and abrasive. He treats weakness with contempt. He is focused on action and has no time for social niceties. He is cold and ruthless, using Martin as bait to trap and kill the treacherous merchant Futterman. He is also increasingly savage. He shoots out the eyes of a dead Indian, because mutilated men “can’t enter the spirit land” but must “wander forever between the winds.” He scalps another Indian corpse for the same reason. He even slaughters buffalo simply to starve the Indians.
Ethan’s search for Debbie quickly takes on the quality of an obsession. He barely knew the girl. She was eight years old when he returned from eight years of wandering. But she is all that remains of his family, and he searches for her for five years, long after most men would have given up. He is Odysseus, who returns home for a day, then becomes Captain Ahab.
There’s a lot to dislike about Ethan Edwards, but he’s the only man who could have rescued Debbie. As in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford wants to confront liberals with the fact their civilization could not have been built without illiberal men and illiberal deeds.
The central hangup of most critical writing about The Searchers is that Ethan is a “racist,” even a “virulent” one. “Racism” is a recently invented sin, a bogus moral concept that means hating people “for no reason whatsoever” except the fact that they are “different.” A racist, in the words of Jim Goad, means “a vicious loser who hates people with different continental ancestry . . . merely to compensate for being an inadequate psychopath and to avoid taking responsibility for his own problems.” Racists, we are always told, are “ignorant,” for apparently to know Indians or blacks or Mexicans is to love them.
Ethan clearly isn’t a racist in this sense. First of all, he is not ignorant of the Comanches. He knows their language and their myths. He respects them as enemies. He clearly hates them. But he doesn’t hate them because they are merely “different” or because he is a “loser.” He hates them because of their treachery, violence, and cruelty. They butchered his family after raping the women, something they did to countless other white families.
Critics are also exercised over the fact that Ethan would rather kill Debbie than allow her to stay with the Indians. Surely this is an expression of irrational “racism” and “hate.” But is it? Plan A was always to rescue Debbie. At one point during their search, Ethan and Marty encounter some white women and girls rescued from Comanche captivity. They have clearly been driven mad by the experience. “Hard to believe they are white” says their rescuer. Ethan says, “They’re not white anymore.” Arguably, this is a fate worse than death. At this point, Ethan formulates Plan B: to kill Debbie if he can’t rescue her.
Ethan also knows that once Debbie reaches puberty she will be raped. Maybe she will be killed then. Maybe she will be made into a squaw. Ethan would rather die than suffer that fate. He wants to spare Debbie from it. This isn’t racism and hate. It is an act of love in a terrible situation.
Martin Scorsese was deeply influenced by The Searchers. (His 1967 movie Who’s That Knocking at My Door includes a discussion of the film.) In Taxi Driver, Scorsese modeled the characterization of the pimp, Sport (played by Harvey Keitel) on Scar. Scorsese saw the relationship of Sport and the teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) as an exploration of how someone like Scar would establish his hold on a captive like Debbie. (Screenwriter Paul Schrader originally made the pimp black, which was true to life. The producers thought it would be too “racist” to have a black pimp, so Scorsese had a Jewish actor play him as an Indian.)
The Searchers is based on Alan Le May’s 1954 novel of the same name, which is based on the true stories of James W. Parker and Brit Johnson, both of whom searched for years to rescue female kin kidnapped by Indians. In the novel, the conflict is neatly racial: whites versus Indians. But in Ford’s movie, these neat lines are blurred in two important cases.
First, Ford makes Martin Pawley one-eighth Cherokee. He first appears riding a horse bareback, then neatly dismounts while it is still trotting. He’s also late to dinner. Later we see that he is highly emotional and impulsive, although he is still a teenager. When he is a little older, he does not fight “fair” in a fist-fight. All this suggests that he has a bit of Indian wildness in him.
Ethan rescued Marty as a child after his parents had been killed by Comanches. He was adopted by Aaron and Martha and regards the Edwards as family. When Ethan sees him, he blurts out that he could be mistaken for a half-breed. In truth, he cannot. Played by Jeffrey Hunter, Marty has strikingly handsome Caucasian features, with a dark tan—but no darker than Aaron—and flashing, pale blue eyes. Ethan also rejects Martin calling him “Uncle Ethan,” because they are not blood kin.
Second, the Comanche chief Scar is played by a German actor, Henry Brandon. Like Marty, he has handsome white features, a dark tan, and pale blue eyes.
I don’t think Ford was trying to lessen the racial conflict in the movie so much as to create additional dramatic conflicts. Blood loyalties drive the whole story: Ethan wants to avenge his dead kin and rescue or kill Debbie. Scar wants to avenge his two dead sons killed by whites. But there are other loyalties. Marty is not blood kin to the Edwards, but he was raised by them and feels loyalty to them, a tie that Ford brings into sharper relief with a taint of Indian blood. Scar, by contrast, has white blood and Indian loyalties.
Ethan himself recognizes that blood kinship is not everything. The rescued whites who have gone mad in captivity may be racially white, but they no longer belong to white society. Which opens the disturbing possibility that some whites can embrace “going native.” When Ethan and Marty finally find Debbie, she claims that the Comanches are now her people, but she also tries to save Marty and Ethan from them. When Ethan sees she has gone native, he tries to shoot her. It looks like he will shoot Marty as well to get her. But he is wounded by a Comanche arrow.
When Ethan and Marty reach safety, Marty tends to Ethan’s wound, and Ethan informs him that he is disowning Debbie and leaving his property to Marty. Clearly, he is giving up the search. Earlier, Ethan offered Marty some of his property to settle down and marry Laurie Jorgenson. Clearly, he doesn’t think a taint of Cherokee blood makes him a bad match for Laurie. Blood matters a great deal in this world, but so does loyalty, and sometimes it cuts across the lines of blood and race. When Laurie suggests that it might be better for Debbie to die than stay with the Comanches, it is obviously not because she has a horror of miscegenation. Instead, she has a horror of rape.
The characters of Marty and Laurie bring us to the main faults of The Searchers. They are incredibly annoying: less characters than caricatures. Perhaps these characters could have been saved by good acting, but both Jeffrey Hunter and Vera Miles as Laurie are committed over-actors. Marty is annoyingly whiny and buffoonish, and Laurie tends to be shrill. There is a great deal of childish flirting and bickering. It is often painful. But the worst thing about it is that Ford left nothing to accident. He clearly wanted it exactly this way, which is a terrible lapse of taste.
George Lucas claimed that Ethan’s return to the flaming ruins of the ranch influenced the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker returns to the moisture farm after the Stormtroopers have destroyed it. Anakin Skywalker’s massacre of the Tusken raiders in Attack of the Clones clearly takes some inspiration from The Searchers as well. I wish to suggest the terrible possibility that Lucas also copied Luke’s annoying whining from Marty and the juvenile bickering between Luke, Leia, and Han from similar scenes in The Searchers.
The character of Marty does develop, making The Searchers something of a coming-of-age tale. Marty starts out as a callow teenager who is simply sucked into the vortex of Ethan’s maniacal charisma and drive. By the end of the film, he is man enough to defy Ethan then fight off Laurie’s would-be groom, a grinning, drawling buffoon about whom the less said the better.
The end of The Searchers baffles the critics who see Ethan as simply a racist hater. A short time after Ethan almost kills Debbie, Scar’s Comanches show up in Texas. The Rangers, along with the US Cavalry, go in search of them. Marty insists on going into the camp alone, to rescue Debbie. He kills Scar, then the Rangers and Cavalry attack. Debbie runs off. Ethan scalps Scar’s corpse, then goes looking for Debbie. She flees from him in terror, but he rides her down, dismounts, scoops her up, and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.”
What happened? Obviously, Ethan has had a change of heart. But it makes perfect sense. He wanted to kill Debbie when she wanted to stay with Scar. But Scar is now dead, his people will be killed or captured, and Debbie has run away from the Comanches. So she has had a change of heart too. Now Ethan can rescue her, so he does. But that was Plan A all along.
The final scene of The Searchers is utterly heartbreaking. Returning to the epic Laconicism of the opening, it is entirely without words. Ethan, Marty, and Debbie return to the Jorgenson ranch, where the family is gathered on the porch. Then we see through the door of the darkened Jorgenson home. Mr. and Mrs. Jorgenson welcome Debbie and take her inside while Ethan watches. Then Marty and Laurie pass Ethan and enter together. Two new families are forming. Ethan stands for a moment, then turns and walks away. He will not enter the domestic world that he has given everything to secure. He will wander between the winds and know no peace. Then the door closes, and we see only darkness.