Dir. by John Ford
The Searchers is perhaps John Ford’s masterpiece among Westerns. It is a landmark among classic Westerns, standing in sharp contrast to the high points of the revisionist era such as Little Big Man. It is also one of, if not the greatest role by John Wayne. The cast was one of the best assembled for a Western, and there are magnificent performances by Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, Harry Carry, Hank Worden, and Vera Miles among others.
The story concerns Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), an un-Reconstructed Reb who returns to visit his brother in Texas. While Ethan has been busy acquiring newly-minted double eagles from an un-named source, Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) is busy raising a family on the West Texas frontier. Living with the Edwards family is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, know to SF fans as Capt. Pike of the Starship Enterprise). Martin is an orphan, his family was massacred by Indians and he was the sole survivor. Ethan was the man who found Martin (an echo of Tom Dunson’s relationship with Matt Garth in Red River).
Ethan’s re-entry to domesticity from the cauldron of war and banditry is short-lived. While he and Martin join a group of Rangers on a scout, Comanche raiders led by Scar (Harry Brandon) attack the Edwards cabin and kill the adults and carry off the girls. Ethan and Martin begin a search of epic proportions to find Debbie (played by Lana and Debbie Wood as a girl and young woman), the youngest child.
The Searchers is not exactly a sentimental film about getting a lost child home. Rather it is a story of how racism poisons that sentimental attachment to family. For Ethan comes to realize that Debbie will no longer be a child when they find her, she will be a woman. Moreover, she will be the bride of a hostile Comanche warrior. The same as the warriors who raped and murdered her older sister. Ethan is caught in a terrible moral trap, guilt for failing to save his family compels him to search for the lost girl. The same guilt commands that he kill her as an irredeemably tainted race traitor.
Martin is at least as driven to follow Ethan on his demented quest. He too is driven by guilt and terrible memories. He is as much Ethan’s rival as he is his helper. Ethan repeated makes it clear that Martin is no kin to Debbie or any Edwards. Yet Martin knows better. He turns his back on a happy life to follow Ethan, martyring himself paradoxically because he cannot become a tormented soul or an indifferent one.
The racism of the film’s characters stands out, arguably by design. Ethan introduces Martin by contemptuously referring to him as a half-breed of Cherokee ancestry. Laurie (Vera Miles), Martin’s love, demands to know why he should sacrifice so much for Debbie, who is no longer white, but has been, “sold and sold again to the highest bidder,” as though to be a Comanche captive is to be a whore. Cavalry officers dismiss the deaths of white captives in an attack as better off dead. However, for all that the film probably tones down white hatred of Indians and the racism of the era. Still, Ford was bold enough not to eliminate it. The Searchers is not a whitewash.
Ford shows us why the white settlers would hate and fear Indians, but provides hints about why the Indians would hate and fear whites. Scar’s own sons were killed by whites. We see a young woman’s body (Wild Goose, played by Beulah Archuletta), after the cavalry has stormed her village. Martin asks what did she do to deserve that. While The Searchers does not provide nearly as much from the Indian point of view as it does from that of the whites, it is there.
The elephant in the corner is the attitude of Debbie to the idea of “rescue”. While Debbie is portrayed as a rational young woman, other white captives seem demented, broken by the horrors of captivity. The problem is that by-and-large that simply wasn’t the case. The Comanches were apt to rape, mutilate, and murder adult women they took as prisoner. But children were raised as part of there families. Even older children were shown tenderness and could identify with people who were not some much alien captors as adoptive parents.
If anything, it was white culture that enslaved and broke the spirits of “redeemed captives”. The records show that people like Cynthia Ann and John Parker, Herman Lehman, Clint and Jeff Smith, and Adolf Korn suffered terrible pain from the loss of their Comanche families and faced great difficulty in adapting to white society. Some never did. What future would Debbie Edwards face? What would she have said to Ethan and Martin, alienated kinsmen, who were warriors of the hostile Texans bent on exterminating her people?
As much as anything else, the open ended nature of these questions, ones that The Searchers raises but can not answer, make this a film that you can watch again and again.