The Searchers (1956)

March 30, 2010

“They ain’t white. Not any more. They’re Comanch.”

The Searchers is the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who begins the film by returning to his brother’s holding. Edwards is a loner, a civil war veteran who refused to surrender his sword and has been doing… something, in the three years since the war ended. There’s hints of some kind of relationship between Edwards and his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and of unease between Edwards and his brother, before the Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), a man who represents a kind of frontier authority, church and state conflated, turns up and takes Ethan and the Edwards’ ward Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), to find a group of Indians who have stolen some cattle.

The cattle raid is a diversion, and while they’re gone, the farmstead is raided, Ethan’s brother and Martha killed and their daughters carried off. The rest of the film is the story of Ethan and Martin’s quest to get Debbie (Lana and, later, Natalie Wood) back from the Comanche Indians who have taken her.

“The Searchers” is a flawed and fumbling attempt to re-address the myth of the West, and a statement by director John Ford, one of the genre’s foremost exponents. There are few “good guys” here. Ethan is a loner, rejected by just about everyone – he’s out of place and there’s an uneasiness about his presence in his brother’s house, he’s a Confederate soldier when there aren’t any confederate soldiers any more. He speaks several of the Native languages, but he’s driven by a hatred of the Comanch and a disdain for the others – his rejection of Martin Pawley, early on, because of his mixed blood, is the first taste of one of the film’s themes.

That theme is miscegenation. Debbie, the captured daughter, grows up with the Comanch. Martin Pawley, one eighth Cherokee, in many ways rejects this part of his heritage, though Ethan sneers that he is “a buck”. This theme is combined with outright racism from pretty much everyone in the film, even Martin’s love interest Laurie, who urges him to “put a bullet” in Debbie’s head when they find her. Ford is deliberately deconstructing the “classic western”, turning over the rock and showing the dirt beneath.

The US Cavalry, so often arriving to save the day, here are butchers – they raid an Indian camp, take prisoners, kill indiscriminately. There’s a parallel between the behaviour of the whites and the behaviour of the Indians that’s drawn explicitly.

“The Searchers” can’t escape its tropes, though, and the portrayal of the Comanche is at best ham-fisted – they are stereotypical “Red Indians”, even if the leader “Scar” is given at least a hint of motivation.

There’s also “Look”. Martin Pawley believes he’s trading for a blanket but, no! it’s a wife! When she tries to sleep next to him, he kicks her violently out of bed, to much hilarity from Ethan. This scene is almost incomprehensible. It looks like it’s played for laughs, but I can’t believe anyone ever actually laughed at it. It’s possibly an inversion of what’s happened to Debbie, but that doesn’t leave you anywhere other than confused and muddled.

It’s typical of early attempts to engage with issues of racism and sexism that they end up being racist and sexist themselves, and “The Searchers” is no exception to this. It does, however, mark the ending of the “Cowboys vs. Indians” – although there would be more Westerns to follow, and really the ending of the JOHN WAYNE character. At the end, Ethan is excluded from the happy family reunion. Whatever reconciliation or redemption he has found, it isn’t there – he’s still a man without a people. We see him framed in the doorway, and then he turns and walks away. In many ways, Ethan takes the classic western with him.

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