Strange how I’d never seen this film before. It played on TCM and I watched it on-demand. It wasn’t the film I was looking for but took a chance on it. The Searchers is one of John Wayne‘s most famous film and yet I’ve never seen it. I’m more of fan of Wayne’s films after 1960 which accounts for sidestepping this film, until now.
John Ford and John Wayne’s Western films involving Native Americans have always bothered me. Yes, I grew up in the era of kids playing “Cowboys and Indians” imitating films where Native Americans were usually depicted as blood-thirsty savages. The majority of Westerns stereotyped Native Americans in this manner, The Searchers, included.
While John Wayne’s Ethan is the hero in this film, his actions are often not heroic, he is filled with rage and hate, and at times, savagery. It will appear in the synopsis that Ethan carries on a years long search through the Southwest for his niece, who was kidnapped by the Comanches after her family is brutally murdered and her sister raped before being killed. The niece, Debbie, is now the teenage wife of Scar, the tribe’s chief.
The film, directed by John Ford, is considered one of the best Westerns and films of all-time, by a variety of polls including the American Film Institute. Filmed in Technicolor and VistaVision, partially in Monument Valley, this is a big, sweeping film with extraordinary visual appeal. Ford is a visual storyteller, his characters emote, the backdrop is beautiful to look at, and he stages the action better than any director of his generation.
Ethan is dark and complex, one of his more complicated performances. The only sense of happiness, although tinged with sadness, is when he visits his brother and family at the beginning of the film. It is three years after the Civil War and eight years since his last visit, he is a man who has been at constant war, having come back from conflict in Mexico. The unanswered question is whether Debbie is his his niece or his daughter. The film hints at it and both critics and fans through the years have favored the daughter.
Ethan is accompanied on this quest by his nephew (who is part Native American), who leaves a woman he loves at home while he spends years away. In his absence, another man enters the picture. Ethan has no other life, he is consumed by this search.
The rage is just below the surface, when his camp is ambushed by a man who sold him information and who is there to rob him, Ethan lies in wait and kills them all. When Ethan and posse come upon a dead member of Scar’s tribe, Ethan mutilates the body, shooting out the eyes to prevent him from finding heaven. Ethan also scalps Scar toward the end of the film. Actions by a vengeful and broken man.
There are harsh racial issues in this film. Martin, the nephew, who Native American blood, isn’t fully accepted by Ethan, despite his commitment to finding Debbie. Ethan has no love for Native Americans and the portrayal of them adds to this his vengeance. There is an undercurrent running through the film of white women being compromised by the Comanches. Debbie’s sister is assaulted and murdered, as is their mother. During their search, they come upon an army post where they have raided a Comanche camp to rescue white prisoners, including several women who have been traumatized by the experience. The rage in Ethan’s eyes convey the key to his motivation. These women, not older than girls, are forever ruined, emotionally and physically.
Eventually, they meet up with Debbie at Scar’s camp, now as a teenager, and to Ethan’s realization, she is now Scar’s wife. And to go further, these are her people and she doesn’t want to leave. Ethan is ready to kill her but is stopped by Martin, and they barely escape the Comanches.
The Searchers has everything for an exciting Western: beautiful photography, exciting action, attractive lead characters, even well-placed humor. It also had an undercurrent of a psychological thriller.
In the next decade, both Ford and Wayne would make films that had a vastly different approach to Native Americans, although society would take much longer to begin to change views, something still underway.