Ford is responsible for the film’s visual poetry — its skill in moving from the intimacy of domestic interiors and family life to the terrible beauty of the gothic sandstone cathedrals and vast obliterating plains of Monument Valley, where its outdoor scenes were shot — as well as its deep and unsettling emotions. But at the heart of “The Searchers” is Wayne’s towering performance as the angry, vengeful Ethan Edwards. From the beginning of his quest, it is clear he is less interested in rescuing Debbie than in wreaking vengeance on the Comanches for the slaughter of his brother’s family. And as time goes by, and she grows from a child into a young woman, he resolves to kill her because she has come of an age to become a Comanche wife and has been physically and spiritually polluted by her contact with Indians.
This dark knight is determined to exterminate the damsel and anyone who stands in this way. He shoots the eyes out of a Comanche corpse, scalps another dead Indian, disrupts a funeral service, fires at warriors collecting their dead and wounded from the battlefield, and slaughters a buffalo herd to deprive Comanche families of food for the winter. Still, because he is played by John Wayne, we identify with Ethan’s quest even as we recoil from his purpose. His charisma draws us in, making us complicit in his terrible vendetta.
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.) - Jeffrey Hunter (left) and John Wayne in the film THE SEARCHERS (1956).
“Wayne is plainly Ahab,” wrote cultural critic Greil Marcus. “He is the good American hero driving himself past all known limits and into madness, his commitment to honor and decency burned down to a core of vengeance.”
Ethan represents the macho, war-without-end, take-no-prisoners solution to ethnic conflict and terrorism. His modern heir is Maya, the do-whatever-it-takes heroine of “Zero Dark Thirty” — like Ethan a loner who alienates potential allies and co-workers in a single-minded pursuit of justice and retribution against the enemy. Martin Pauley’s goal, by contrast, is to rescue his adopted sister and reunite the remnants of their shattered family. It’s a classic struggle between love and hate, as relevant to today’s extended savage wars as it was when it was released 57 years ago.
Based on Alan LeMay’s taut and powerful novel (which is loosely based on a true story from frontier Texas), “The Searchers” presents a troubling and at times racist portrait. In the opening scenes, Ford depicts Comanches as rapacious barbarians. Yet later in the film, we see a smoldering Indian village in which the corpses of men and women are sprawled in the snow, having been slaughtered by soldiers. And still later we learn that the evil war chief Scar, who led the raid on the Edwards family, had lost two of his own sons to whites. Scar and Ethan become two sides of the same coin, wounded warriors united by hatred.
What will happen when Ethan Edwards catches up with his niece? Will he wreak his terrible revenge? Film critic David Thomson said that “because of its mystery,” he has been compelled to watch “The Searchers” again and again. “And every time, I find, I’m not sure how it’s going to end . . .”
Glenn Frankel teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. This article is adapted from his new book, “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend” (Bloomsbury 2013). He’ll introduce the film at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at the American Film Institute, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring.