THE SEARCHERS (1956)

   John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, Henry Brandon, Ward Bond, John Ford (director)
   In 1956, communism was the fear at the front of most Americans’minds, not just a fear of invasion or destruction through intercontinental ballistic missiles, but also the fear of those who were indoctrinated, or “brainwashed,” by communists. In such a cultural environment, The Searchers appeared and immediately touched a nerve with American culture. Here was a film that took the myths that had made America great and used them to explore contemporary concerns.
   The film revolves around a classic revenge plot. Ethan Edwards’s (Wayne) two nieces have been captured by Comanches. Edwards sets out in chase and pursuit. With him is Martin (Hunter), half Indian and half white. Staying at home is Laurie, Martin’s intended. The chase lasts years. One of the nieces’ bodies is found mutilated and, we assume, sexually violated. It soon becomes evident that the evil Comanche chief, Scar (Brandon), has taken Debbie (Wood) for his own wife. Martin keeps postponing his wedding with Laurie, but in a scene of comic relief, he accidentally marries an Indian maiden. She sacrifices herself at one point to save Ethan and Martin. When they finally find Debbie, years have passed and she now is a young woman. Ethan has dedicated his life to pursuing the Indians who kidnapped her and killing as many of them as he can. When at last he finds Debbie, he has become so much an Indian hater that he cannot bear the thought of her being an Indian’s wife. In a fit of revulsion, he rushes at her with intent to kill; in his mind, she would be better off dead than red. Martin saves her and in a final fight to the death, he kills Scar.
   The Searchers illustrates a number of basic assumptions, basic conventions, of classic Westerns—and particularly of John Ford’s Westerns—that would be strongly questioned less than 10 years after the film’s release. The Indians attack, burn the cabin, and brutally kill all except the little girls, Lucy and Debbie, clearly establishing who the good people are and who the savages are. Martin Pawley determines to follow Ethan Edwards, yet Edwards feels nothing but contempt for Pawley because he is half Indian and, therefore, only half white (Jeffrey Hunter, who played Martin, was a very white Hollywood actor). The cavalry brutally slaughters an Indian village. The film attempts a slight bit of remorse, but very little. Later, a bumbling cavalry assists the rescue. As so often happens, the weak woman, the love interest, Laurie Jorgenson (Miles) begs Martin not to go, asking him to stay time and again. He always goes. For five years he is gone, so she agrees to marry the obviously inferior Charlie (Ken Curtis). Martin returns on their wedding day. She is distraught but understands why he did what he did and accepts him back. The 1950s audience must have considered Laurie’s actions and attitudes commendable. The other woman in the film, often neglected, is Look (Beulah Archuletta), Martin’s Indian wife. She is clearly a prized Indian maiden, but Martin does not realize he is marrying her. Ethan does, but he sits back and observes with amusement. Look becomes one of the few admirable characters in the film as she seeks to be a dutiful wife, following the two men as they try to shake her loose. Eventually, she sacrifices her life for her husband, but he never seems to appreciate her at all.
   The issues emerge, though, when we consider Ethan. For some reason Edwards feels contempt not only for Martin’s race but also for his lack of masculinity (at one point the younger man even cries). For some reason Ethan feels that Martin must prove his manhood; he must develop some version of masculinity that Ethan feels (and the audience accepts) he himself already possesses. Interestingly, at the end of the film Martin’s compromised masculinity triumphs—he is the one who kills Scar. Ethan’s chase and pursuit after the Indians who captured the girls is understandable, but eventually his mission changes from a rescue mission to a mission of revenge. When Ethan finds the captured Debbie and sees that she has become a savage, he starts to kill her. Later he even says she is already dead since she is now Comanche. Yes, Martin saves her, but how many in a 1956 audience would have thought that Ethan had a point? Ethan is so manly that he is superior even to the Texas Rangers, even to the effeminate Cavalry, to the settlers, to Martin—to everyone but Scar, the embodiment of evil (played by a white actor). The film leaves open the question: Who is worse—Ethan or Scar? Does either ever change? In the end, Ethan scalps Scar after he kills him. The Searchers, then, explores the rampant racism that was finally receiving serious attention. Emmett Till had just been brutally beaten in 1955, and the nation had witnessed the subsequent patently corrupted murder trial. The same year Rosa Parks started the Montgomery bus boycott. Adirector with a social conscience such as Ford, who wished to treat America’s racist character, could not have dealt with the issue directly in the tense atmosphere of the day. In a way similar to how he used the Cavalry Trilogy, Ford distanced the issue in the historical past and placed it in the context of the foundational Western myth.
   Many critics today consider The Searchers to be John Ford’s best film and possibly the best acting of John Wayne’s career. The premise is significant—the classic Indian captivity narrative. The film should be compared to The Missing(2003) for a 21st century version of a similar situation.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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