THE SEARCHERS, 1956
It is three years after the end of the Civil War and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) arrives at the Texas farm owned by his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy). There, Ethan’s unspoken love for Martha is rekindled. The feeling is clearly mutual. Aaron tells Ethan that he is free to stay as long as he likes, however, Ethan knows his welcome is tenuous even amidst the warmth of Martha and the Edwards children. To complicate matters,
Ethan comes face to face with the Edwards’ adopted “son” Martin Pawley, (Jeffrey Hunter) a half-bred, who as an infant, Ethan rescued after his family massacred by a Native – American tribe. Ethan’s racial hatred of the of the Native-American’s is firmly established.
The family reunion is cut short, when while assisting a posse to thwart cattle rustlers, led by the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond); it is discovered that cattle rustling was in fact a diversionary ploy by aggressive Comanche raiding party. A sure sign that the neighboring farms are in danger of massacre, the posse disperse to their respective homesteads. Ethan and Marty return to the Edwards ranch to burned find it burned to the ground, Aaron and his young son murdered. The most painful element is that Martha had been ravaged and murdered by her assailants.
The youngest daughter, Debbie, is taken prisoner.
After a short funeral Ethan and Martin begin a long quest to rescue the young girl. Over the course of years, amidst a rich background of characters and events, the true nature of the pair's motives are revealed. For Ethan, bitterness boiling under the surface, there emerges the twisted bent of a racial purist intent on killing the 'tainted' white girl. For Martin, the constant love of his adopted family, particularly his sainted Aunt, fuels his determination in protecting his 'sister' from the uncle who wishes to release her from the ‘savages’, to only maintain his goal of murdering her.
Eventually Ethan and Martin track Debbie, now grown and played by Natalie Wood, to a wandering Comanche tribe, ruled by Scar, their chief. With the assistance of the Texas rangers, Ethan wants to charge into Scar's camp, the hope being that Scar will kill Debbie so he doesn't have to. Marty, wise to his vengeful uncle’s plan, persuades Rev. Clayton to allow him to sneak into camp and rescue Debbie before the charge. It is agreed and Martin successfully slips in. As Martin rescues Debbie, Scar enters the tent, but Marty draws fast, killing him. The Rangers and Ethan charge into the camp, guns a blazing. When Ethan finds Scar's body and scalps it, he sees Debbie, who runs for safety. Ethan, pushing Martin aside, chases Debbie into a cavernous part of the terrain where she cowers for her life. Ethan who towers over her, reaches down and picking her up, he cradles her into his arms and says, "Let's go home, Debbie."
Ethan and Marty take Debbie back to a neighbor’s ranch. Once she is safely inside the homestead, Ethan stands outside, then turns and walks away as the door closes on him..
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So much has been written about this timeless classic that it almost can be considered redundant. While the plot is deceptively simple, the themes are epic and universal and the richness of this John Ford masterpiece warrants discussion in particular regards to its’ physiological makeup of the central character: Ethan Edwards.
Listed as No. 12 on AFI list of 100 Greatest films of all time, The Searchers presents a constant steam of moral ambiguity, particularly in Ethan Edwards, who is masterfully played by John Wayne.
True, the overtly racism of Edwards is ever present, however this is not the cause but the symptom of something darker, more sinister, as this kind of hatred can never be satisfied as its’ quenching depends on the destruction of others in order to achieve superiority. This is the lowest form of achievement and should one see past the iconic presence of John Wayne, one can see how deftly this actor is portraying not a noble hero, but a frightened and insecure man masking his own inadequacies through rage and an imposing selfishness. These are not the qualities of John Wayne’s prior characters but more in line with the anti-heroes portrayed by some of the actors out of the Actor’s Studio of that time.
This is why that Ethan Edwards is perhaps John Wayne’s most complete and complex portrayal as he eschews the iconic patina of the American icon and unleashes a base individual where jealousy is the fuel that drives his engine.
A walking complexity, Edwards was a Confederate solider in the Civil war, who maintains his oath to the Confederacy while operating as a mercenary in Mexico. However, he will not be sworn in as a Texas Ranger, due same said oath. He rescues Martin Pawley, a ‘ half-bred Indian’, yet hates American Natives. He has disdain for seemingly everyman, except the ‘town idiot’ Mose Harper who poses no threat or competition to him as a man. Now, to add to his moral complexity, and in the grand tradition of any Gothic Romance novel, Ethan is clearly in love with his brother’s wife, who is the embodiment of the strong and pure prairie woman; her only flaw being is that she is love with Ethan. Had the novel on which the script is based upon were written in another century and on another continent, it may have very well been written by one of the Bronte Sisters.
It is the situation of his unrequited love for Martha that not only depicts one of the many moral ambiguities which makes The Searchers more than an ordinary Western, but it is also the true motivation of Ethan’s hatred for the tribe that wiped out his family. True, the slaughter of Ethan's brother and his family is reason enough to fuel the vengeful passion that he exhibits. However, Ethan Edwards is not a simple minded racist. He is a man who is haunted by unrequited love and the shame that failure brings. Ethan Edwards is haunted by the loss of the Confederacy in the Civil War. So much so that he stays away from his family and stakes out a life as a mercenary in Mexico. He is haunted by the success of his brother who created a beautiful family with Martha while he wanders the desert lands, with no sense of stability and belonging. Often men who float through life project themselves onto other men’s lives, taking undue ownership of the success built by others. For Edwards, this is particularly true when Martha is ravaged and murdered by the virile and highly intelligent, Chief Scar This is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back, when all that is meaningful for him, another man’s wife, is ‘taken from him’. Now Edwards, haunted by the rape and murder of his true love at the hands of the Comanche has the true solidifying reason for his racist sentiment. For Edwards the quest to destroy Chief Scar is not about freeing Debbie and providing her with a safe home, but to even the score for the sexual conquest of Martha as it serves as a bitter reminder that in this area, Ethan had failed. With Martha gone, he will never be able to redeem himself.
This is the true tragedy of this cinematic classic: Ethan’s ability to redeem himself in his own eyes. Although Ethan does change and redeems himself with the audience by bringing Debbie home, when all is said and done, Edwards does not join in the rejoicing of Debbie’s return. Instead he banishes himself into the wilderness without taste the just rewards of this one moral victory, as if it has true meaning for others and unavailable for himself.
The Searchers without question is a must see film and defies the oft misunderstood dismissal due to it being in the Western genre. For The Searchers is not so much a tale of saving a young girl from a ‘ pack of murdering savages’, but this is a tale of a man driven to redeem himself as a man.