For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
In 1956 the tastes of the moviegoing public were shifting. They no longer needed their protagonists to maintain untarnished reputations. The good guys could get a little dusty and a little rough like the title character in “Shane,” or they could show weakness and doubt like Will Kane in “High Noon.”
The audience could take subtle shifts and the possibility of imperfection, but Shane and Will Kane are still pretty reserved by today’s standards. It seems that many people weren’t quite ready for Ford’s brilliant intuitive leap, which pushes the sullying of a protagonist to its logical conclusion.
In “The Searchers,” Ford gives us Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a hard and often despicable man, whose racism dominates his actions. Many did not understand the complexity of Ethan and would either accept his prejudices as justified or simply dismiss that part of his character.
The critical response was lukewarm at the time of its release, but “The Searchers” would inspire Spielberg — and Scorsese and would lay the groundwork for “Taxi Driver,” a reinterpretation of “The Searchers” 20 years later.
The film opens with Ethan returning to the farm of his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy). Aaron’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), goes out to wait for Ethan as he approaches.
Spielberg would all but lift this moment for the letter delivery scene in “Saving Private Ryan,” but why is Martha, Ethan’s sister-in-law, rushing to the porch to welcome Ethan?
Throughout the early scenes, Ford hints at a less-than-honest relationship between Ethan and Martha. Ethan rushed off to fight in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, and then wandered for a number of years after the war’s conclusion. Could an illicit love affair with his brother’s wife be the cause for his long hiatus? When Ethan is questioned about his extended absence, he becomes gruff and irritable and Martha quiets the discussion.
There are even subtle hints that Debbie (Natalie Wood), the youngest of Aaron and Martha’s children, may not be Aaron’s, but Ethan’s.
During these early moments, Ford and Wayne also develop Ethan’s racism. When Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a son adopted by the Edwards after Indians killed his parents, sits down to dinner, Ethan exclaims that young Martin looks like a “half-breed.” Martin states that he is one-eighth Cherokee, but that doesn’t satisfy Ethan, who sneers and makes comments about Martin’s character.
The Ethan’s romance with Martha and growing racist hatred of Martin take a backseat when a group of Comanche steal and slaughter a local farmer’s cattle. The move is a diversion to draw out the sheriff, Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), and his lawmen, leaving the farmers and their homes unprotected.
The ruse works, and when Ethan and Martin, having both joined Clayton’s posse, return to the Edwards homestead, they find the house in flames and the entire family slaughtered, except for Lucy (Pippa Scott) and young Debbie. The Comanche raiders have taken both girls.
Again a posse forms to pursue the Comanche, but it soon becomes apparent that Ethan wants more than getting Lucy and Debbie back alive. He wants to slaughter as many Indians as he can. There is a telling moment when Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche the group finds on the trail. When Clayton says the gesture was a waste of bullets, Ethan explains that according to what Clayton believes that’s true, but according to the Comanche’s beliefs that now eyeless warrior must wander forever, unable to find his way to the afterlife. Ethan wants not justice, but the physical and spiritual destruction of the Comanche.
Clayton realizes that Ethan’s fervor cannot be satisfied. He and his men head back, leaving Ethan, Martin and Brad (Harry Carey Jr.), Lucy’s lover, to continue their pursuit.
The three chase the Comanche, and when the trail splits, Ethan follows the smaller group through the mountains. Ethan catches Martin and Brad on the other side of the ridge, but he is distraught and missing his Confederate overcoat. Brad presses him, and we learn that Ethan has found Lucy’s body and buried her in his coat.
Forget your preconceived notions about John Wayne the American icon. In this hugely important but small moment, Wayne gives an incredible performance. Wayne has scant dialogue to convey what has become of his niece, but with just a line or two and Ethan’s pained expression we know that his niece was savaged and killed by her captors. Wayne builds a man that is burdened with his own troubling character traits, and here is cleft in two by sorrow and hatred.
Brad, consumed by the loss of his lover, rushes into the Comanche camp and is shot down. The Comanche have become Ethan’s white whale, and he and Martin will pursue them until they find their quarry or death takes them.
In 1956, the loss of Ethan’s family was seen as the sole cause for his passionate pursuit, but that was never the intention. Ford wanted to explore how racism could be stoked and grow to consume a person. Ethan’s hatred is not focused on the Comanche that stole his niece and killed his family. It falls on all Indians, regardless of their tribe or outlook. It comes to bear often on his relationship with Martin as they pursue the Comanche.
Though Martin shows his courage and dedication to the search for Debbie, his adopted sister, Ethan continues to reaffirm that Martin’s Indian blood makes him incapable of feeling a kinship to Debbie. Ethan often blames small mistakes Martin makes on the fact that he is part Cherokee. Martin of course feels no real connection to his Cherokee heritage, having been raised by the Edwards, but Ethan’s racism keeps him from accepting Martin as an equal.
Martin and Ethan lose the Comanches’ trail in the snow, and are forced to return home. Since the Edwards’ home was destroyed, they stay with the Jorgensens, a family of farmers that were friends with the Edwards.
The time at the Jorgensen farm gives us the worst of “The Searchers.” Here we find out that Martin is involved with Laurie (Vera Miles), the Jorgensens’ daughter, and there is a romantic subplot to breakup the relentlessness of Ethan’s pursuit.
This developing romance and the comedic moments that come later — when Martin accidentally takes a Native American wife instead of trading for a blanket — rupture the film and date it in a way that distracts from the consuming quality of Ethan’s pursuit. Perhaps Ford wanted to breakup the steady march of the main story, or lighten the impact of his critique of racism, maybe he just wanted to give the audience a laugh or two. Whatever the reason, the comedic and romantic offerings are flawed at best.
Ethan and Martin continue on after receiving a letter from a trader who may know the whereabouts of the Comanche that have Debbie. After a run-in with the unscrupulous trader, a raid on an Indian camp with American soldiers, more years of wandering, the two men finally make it to the camp of the Comanche they have been looking for.
Posing as travelers wishing to trade, Ethan and Martin enter the camp, where they gain an audience with Scar (Henry Brandon), the war chief who leads this band of Comanche. In the camp, they see Debbie, but cannot communicate directly. She has become an adopted Comanche, and is one of Scar’s many wives.
After the meeting we realize that Ethan intends to kill Debbie and as many Comanche as he can. Ethan sees Debbie as defiled. She is a Comanche now, and as such must be destroyed. When Debbie comes to warn Ethan and Martin that a group of Comanche is coming to kill them, Ethan turns his gun on her, but Martin won’t allow Ethan to kill his sister.
Ethan and Martin are chased away, and again return to the Jorgensen farm for a brief respite. It seems that they have arrived on the day of Laurie’s wedding. Martin and Laurie exchange words, and there is a goofy fight between Martin and Laurie’s fiancé. Again the subplot pulls us away from what is best in “The Searchers.”
The Comanche led by Scar have pursued Martin and Ethan. A group of U.S. soldiers warns the Jorgensens and guests, and calls for anyone capable of fighting off the Comanche to saddle up. Ethan of course leads the charge.
Martin, knowing that Debbie will be killed in the attack, sneaks into the camp and rescues her.
Martin and Debbie try to flee the carnage of the attack, but Ethan gives chase. Ethan corners Debbie in the nearby hills, and descends upon her. In the final moments, he picks her up and carries her away to safety.
What!? Look at the confusion on Debbie’s face. Up until now, Ethan has been bent on killing Debbie, a child that could be his own, because he saw her as tainted by the Comanche he despised. Why the change of heart? Perhaps Ford thought the other outcome too repulsive.
Ethan’s change of heart is short-lived. After returning Debbie and Martin to the Jorgensens. Ethan leaves to wander the Western expanses alone.
Ford’s construction of a truly complex and difficult character gives us endless opportunities for discussion. One of the more interesting touches that Ford gives “The Searchers” is to directly parallel Ethan with Scar.
The two men are the same, but in opposition. Scar took Debbie and killed her family. Later Ethan will take Debbie and kill her adopted family. Debbie was ten when the Comanche took her. She is fifteen when Ethan takes her back.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Ford makes this parallel visual.
The way each shot is framed and the way the characters are blocked is purposeful, and perfect. These two men are the same, and each destroys the life of the child they descend upon. Does Debbie want to be saved from her life with the Comanche? The same question will drive the end of “Taxi Driver” years later with just as vague an answer.
Ford embeds so much information in his frame and both he and Wayne endow Ethan with such vibrancy, sorrow and hatred that “The Searchers” becomes a touchstone for limitless musings. There are so many questions without clear answers, but Ford poses those questions in such a satisfying way that we feel enriched from the interaction.
Ethan may be a largely unlikeable character, but our lives can be better for knowing him.
Next on the list #11 “City Lights” (1931)
For links to #20-29, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #20 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)
For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)
For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)