By Wayne Allensworth
The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford, is a personal favorite of mine and a movie that influenced a whole generation of filmmakers, the generation of Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, and Scorsese. Spielberg has said that he watches The Searchers before beginning each new film project, and the opening doorway sequence (pictured below) has shown up in other films–notably in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Ford was a master at film composition, framing many of his shots like paintings, and he used doorways to frame shots in other films.
Ford was also a man who influenced directors as renowned as Orson Welles and Japan’s Akira Kurosawa. Welles was once asked by Peter Bogdanovich which American directors had influenced him, and Welles replied, “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” Welles added that Ford was both a poet and a comedian, and in his best films, you get “a sense of what the earth is made of.”
At the opening of what many critics and fans consider his masterpiece, Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan), who lives with her husband Aaron (Walter Coy) and her children on the post-Civil War Texas frontier, looks out her front door to see a man on horseback in the distance as he approaches.
That man is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne in what a lot of us movie fans will say was his greatest role. There is a sense of portentousness, of foreboding, even in the film’s opening shot. We know something ominous is coming along with Ethan, a man who had not returned after the end of the fighting in the Civil War, and now turns up at his brother’s homestead with a sack of gold coins (“Yankee dollars” says Ethan). We gather that the money was from a robbery, but are never let in on that secret.
Ethan is both the movie’s main protagonist and an extremely dangerous man who may be something of an antagonist to the others. Ethan proves to be heroic and an anti-hero in some ways. John Wayne embodied the character fully, his determination, and Ethan’s menacing quality as well. When Ethan enters a scene, the brooding stubbornness of the man dominates the screen. This is Ethan’s story more than anyone else’s.
The Searchers is a story of the frontier, and the terrible, bloody struggle that accompanied its settlement. It was a story repeated across the American West many times. A frontier homestead is raided by Plains Indians, in this case the Comanche, the settlers are massacred, the women defiled, the children taken captive. Then the children’s surviving adult relatives go on a quest to bring the children home.
Sometimes a trade took place to bring the children back. Sometimes children were recovered by the Army or Texas Rangers. Depending on how long the children had been held and what age they had been when taken captive, some never adjusted to the return. The tribe or band had become theirs, they had forgotten their native tongue and erased early memories of home. Others were grateful and relieved at being rescued. We can only speculate on the trauma and psychological anguish the captives and their relatives experienced.
When I was a child, I heard hair raising tales of Indian raids as told by my grandmother who was passing down stories told to her by older relatives. Parents might send children away from a house to hide, as Debbie Edwards (see below) is sent by her father to hide near her grandmother’s grave when he knows the homestead is being targeted by Comanche raiders.
In The Searchers, Ethan, an outsider by nature, a warrior by temperament, makes a tentative, and the audience senses, a somewhat uneasy return to his brother’s homestead. There is something between his brother’s wife Martha and Ethan, some unspoken attachment that is only expressed in small gestures, in Martha stroking Ethan’s coat as she folds it, in Ethan’s awkward pecks to Martha’s forehead. Ford subtly hints at an affection that was never made explicit, that the loner Ethan has a longing for home and family, a constant theme in Ford’s films, that he cannot express, and probably could never fulfill.
Ethan is a consummate frontiersman, and the war with the Plains Indians has given him the kind of “us” and “them” confrontation he can more easily understand. And he understands his foe all too well. He knows their folkways, their language, and their habits, and that only provides more fuel for his inner rage.
Watch the scene: Ward Bond as Texas Ranger Captain Clayton has come to the Edwards homestead to gather volunteers for a posse—Lars Jorgensen’s (played by John Qualen) cattle have been stolen. While Ethan prepares to go, Clayton dutifully keeps his eyes forward as the audience gets a hint of Ethan and Martha’s mutual affection:
Ethan once saved a child after the massacre of his parents, and that child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), has been adopted by his brother Aaron’s family. At dinner on the night of his arrival, Ethan eyes Martin suspiciously, stating plainly that he could easily mistake Martin for a
“half breed,” hinting at the undercurrent of sexual violation on the dangerous frontier. Martin assures Ethan that though he is one eighth Cherokee, “the rest is Welsh and English.”
Following a raid on the Edwards homestead, the murder of Aaron, and the rape and murder of Martha, Ethan and Martin will stubbornly pursue the Comanches who killed them and carried away the two surviving children, Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood as the younger Debbie, Natalie Wood as the teenaged Debbie). The relationship between Martin and Ethan will be a key to understanding how the story plays out.
The Searchers was shot in John Ford’s favorite location, Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah state line, an area marked by magnificent sandstone buttes, some of them reaching 1,000 ft above the floor of the valley, ancient red towers reaching for the sky. The valley is rugged, wild, forbidding, and starkly beautiful, suggesting untamed wilderness, the vast expanse of the American West itself.
In Ford’s Westerns, the valley is the storied landscape of Manifest Destiny, embodying the dangers of the frontier, the promise of freedom, and the tension between the two. John Ford helped create the myth of the American West, and Monument Valley was more than merely a backdrop for filming his Westerns, it became a character in some of those films, the valley itself an elemental call to exploration, struggle, and the quest, a testing ground for heroes. The valley is exhilarating, breathtaking, the perfect setting for an epic Western.
Alan Lemay’s novel that provided the basis for the film takes place on the high plains of Texas shortly after the American Civil War, an imposing landscape of its own, but it is not Monument Valley. The weapons used by the combatants in the drama are often not period, but the Colt .45 Peacemaker and the Winchester rifle had already been established by Ford and other storytellers as the weapon of choice of heroes and villains alike in countless Westerns.
In John Wayne, Ford’s protégé and close friend, Ford the artist and Ford the mythmaker found the embodiment of the Western hero, stoic, enduring, stubborn, harsh, gallant and often inscrutable, motivated by an unspoken code his audiences had absorbed over decades of storytelling. From the moment Wayne stepped in front of the camera in his breakout role in 1939, twirling a Winchester in Stagecoach, Ford, America, and the world had their archetype of the Western protagonist imprinted on celluloid and in their minds. As Wayne’s frequent co-star and friend Maureen O’Hara put it, to people at home and abroad, John Wayne was America.
Wayne understood the mythic aspect of the Western movie. He once noted the Homeric quality of the best Westerns. The man called “Duke” by his friends said that Westerns were made of “the same raw materials Homer used.” A strong hero confronts his equally strong opponent, and a man on horseback “has the makings of something magnificent—strength, speed…[and] heroism.”
John Ford’s Westerns take place in that mythic American West, capturing, as all enduring myths do, the essence and spirit at the core of the narrative. The legend may not be exact in its particulars, but as Hemingway said of the best storytelling, it creates a story truer than the literal truth can convey.
As viewers, we are compelled by the elements of human tragedy and national narrative in The Searchers. In Ethan, we have one archetype, and in Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), another, the two men mirroring one another in attitude, stubborn intensity, and desire for revenge. Scar’s sons were killed by whites, and he has relentlessly pursued his vengeance, the massacre of the Edwards family being part of that revenge. As he tells Ethan in the scene when they meet for the first time, he has taken many scalps for each son, one of them, as we learn, from Martin’s mother. Raiding was a way of life for the Comanche, and with Scar, as it is with Ethan, a personal vendetta magnified the intensity and fury of his warrior nature.
The Searchers was a somewhat daring film for its time, as it paid more attention to the psychology of its characters and dealt with a subject that was seldom touched on in Hollywood Westerns, the sexual violation of frontier women by Indian raiders. By the 1950s, Hollywood was making films like Broken Arrow (1950), which took a more sympathetic view of the American Indian, something Ford had approached in Fort Apache (1948) and would delve into more fully in his last Western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In The Searchers, the rape and murder of Martha Edwards and her daughter Lucy are treated in a way that deals with the anguish of men like Ethan who had failed to protect them.
In a number of sequences, we get a glimpse into the fiery furnace of Ethan’s rage and the deep humiliation and sense of contamination that consumes some of the characters. When Ethan and the posse mentioned previously leave the Edwards homestead only to find Jorgensen’s cattle slaughtered, he realizes what has happened—and what will happen. Ethan tells the others that the taking of the cattle was merely a ploy to draw them away. “It’s a murder raid,” says Ethan. The Comanches will circle back to attack either the Jorgensen or Edwards homestead. As the others rush away, Ethan warns them the horses need rest—and watches forlornly as they leave, realizing that by the time any of them reach home, it will be too late.
By the time Martin reaches the Edwards place, he is on foot, his horse given out. Ethan tops a rise as he approaches the homestead and sees the house burning. He races past Martin, dismounts, and sees Martha’s dress outside a smokehouse. Another doorway shot—the camera from inside the smokehouse captures Ethan crumpled in the doorway when he finds what he knew he would. He uses force to prevent Martin from seeing the horror inside.
Later, Martin, Ethan, and Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) are pursuing the Comanches. Ethan finds Lucy’s body in a canyon and subsequently has to tell Brad (Lucy was Brad’s girl) he kept it from him. Brad had seen what he thought was Lucy in an Indian camp as he scouted ahead. “What you saw wasn’t Lucy,” says Ethan, but a “buck” wearing her dress. Brad asks Ethan what happened to her (“Did they…Was she…” he doesn’t finish the sentence, but we know what he means). Ethan shouts back “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out? Never ask me. As long as you live never ask me more…”
Back at the Edwards place, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), who is angry at Martin for, as she sees it, abandoning her, says it’s too late (it’s been many years since Ethan and Martin started their quest for Debbie), Debbie has by now been taken by many Comanche “bucks,” and has “savage brats” of her own. If Ethan finds her now, “He’ll put a bullet in her brain, and Martha would want him to.” Martin knows this full well, and he vows to be there to stop Ethan, who has been on a rampage, even killing buffalo to deprive the Comanche of a food source, and taking scalps.
A key point in the film is Ethan and Martin looking for Debbie among a group of white captive children the cavalry has taken from a Comanche camp. The look on Ethan’s face, the horror, the revulsion at the half-mad girls (“They ain’t white anymore,” says Ethan) is Wayne at his best, acting with his eyes, his expression, his body language. We know what he has on his mind after that meeting. Debbie, to him, has already died. She has been assimilated by the people who murdered her parents. He tells Martin that life with Comanches isn’t living at all.
Ethan carries out his vendetta even on the dead, at one point shooting the eyes out of a dead Comanche brave. “What good did that do you?” asks Captain Clayton, who is also a preacher. “According to what you preach, none,” replies Ethan, but he adds that according to what the brave believed, if he had no eyes, he couldn’t enter the spirit world and would wander forever between the winds.
In the film’s climatic sequence, Clayton and his Rangers, together with Martin and Ethan, set out to attack the camp of Scar and his band. Martin pleads to be allowed to enter the camp surreptitiously to attempt to rescue Debbie, telling Clayton “If you raid into that camp, they’ll kill her [Debbie].” Ethan says that’s what he’s counting on. But Martin insists on going, Ethan only saying with resignation, “It’s your funeral.” When Martin leaves, we get one hint that something has changed—Ethan, who had earlier told Martin he intended to will all his belongings to him in the event of his death, reaches out to pat him on the shoulder.
As the fight in the camp rages, Martin kills Scar (Ethan stops to scalp him), and Debbie runs from the camp in terror, as Ethan chases her. He has already threatened to kill her in her presence, and Ethan runs her down, only to grab her under the shoulders, lifting her swiftly, but somehow gently, above his head as he did with the child Debbie so many years ago. “Let’s go home, Debbie,” he tells her.
It was Martin, his dogged devotion to his adopted family (a connection Ethan had disparaged earlier, telling Martin that Debbie was “nothing” to him, “no kin at all”), his unfailing determination to bring Debbie home, his enduring love that has changed a violent, weary, and stubborn man’s heart. It goes unspoken, but Ethan’s actions tell us what has been happening. Martin is a transformative character in The Searchers, Ethan a man who finds his redemption in one act of decency that no one, least of all Martin, expected.
In the film’s final scene, Ethan, Martin, and Debbie come back to the Jorgensen place, Debbie riding in Ethan’s arms as Lars and his wife (Olive Carey, wife of a Wayne role model, silent-era Western star Harry Carey) watch. Ethan carries Debbie to them and watches as they step into the house. Martin and Laurie walk past Ethan and into the house as well. Ethan stands alone, framed by the doorway, the wind whipping the brim of his hat. He adopts a lonely pose, reaching across his chest with his left arm to hold his right arm at the elbow. That was a personal tribute by Duke to Harry Carey, whose son and wife were also in the movie. It was a gesture Harry senior had often made. Ethan stares into the doorway, then turns and almost staggering, a man exhausted, spent, and walks away, the door closing behind him.
No one seems to notice him. Ethan has always been an outsider, and he remains so. Like Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he is a frontiersman, a rough and violent man who is needed when there are rough, violent jobs to be done. But when his services are no longer required, he can’t fit into civilized life. He has done what he must, completed his task, fulfilled a quest, yet Ethan is doomed to wander forever between the winds.
Watch the scene here:
A comment on Duke’s performance in The Searchers by his biographer Scott Eyman (John Wayne: The Life and Legend) is worth repeating here:
Wayne never puts any comforting space between the character and the actor. He never asks for our sympathy. Wayne understands this distressed and distressing loner. Ethan has seen a lot of ugliness—in the breaking of the land, in the acts of Indians, in himself. But he stops just short of the one unforgivable act, and in the final image, embodies resignation as a plaintive loneliness—the same towering power that brings Debbie home also makes a domestic connection impossible.
…Here, at his best, Wayne is something rare: a fearless actor exposing wildly varied aspects of himself with skill and energy. That so many people persisted in their sneering dismissal of Wayne’s acting ability is their shame—had they no eyes?…
The Searchers is Wayne’s greatest acting achievement. If Brando’s triumphs were the external life of Stanley Kowalski and the internal lives of Terry Malloy and Vito Corleone, then Wayne combines all of them into Ethan Edwards. The sheer size of the part, and Wayne’s portrayal of it, also signaled a quantum change in his screen dynamic. Ethan Edwards is so implacable and menacing that he’s too large for any genre but the western at its most mythical.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.