The Searchers begins, as a lot of unabashedly old-timey westerns do, with a ballad. It poses a question and sets the thematic groundwork for the film to follow: “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam? What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home?”
As a lot of westerns do, The Searchers pitches itself as a grand adventure into the unknown, even if it’s not exactly a lark. It is a mission as traditional as James Fenimore Cooper: a journey into the wild to recover a stolen innocent; in this particular case, a young white girl stolen in a Comanche raid. Our heroes traverse between points of light in an unforgiving wilderness, finding themselves as much as anything else along their circuit of Monument Valley—and more than that, too.
Heroes in westerns, in the end, find America. They navigate between the niceties—and the hypocrisy and the cowardice—of “The East,” a catchall for the influences of European civilization, and the savagery of “The Land,” a catchall that includes natural hazards but also subsumes and dehumanizes theoriginal inhabitants of the land. The hero creates a synthesis through the action of the film: an innate, ingrown decency and the ability to use practical knowledge and incredible force to protect what is right and good.
It’s a bit like a national mystery play, really. In westerns like The Searchers, we see a hero define what it is to be American, and so we understand and are assured of what we are, of who we’re supposed to be. The vast, murky unknown of this hodge-podge continent, the destiny of our country, becomes as familiar and certain as saddles, spurs, and big funny hats. It’s a huge bummer that being an American means being an unrepentant killer, though.
Most American westerns make a virtue of it—and even the spaghetti westerns, which tend to stare, mouths agape, at what incomprehensible, sexy psychopaths we all are, rely on it. The Searchers understands exactly how to create a western hero, too. We meet John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, as he rides up to his brother’s homestead, straight out of what seems like a collective Daughters of the Confederacy wet dream. He still carries his gray coat and saber, it’s heavily implied he’s continued to fight the Yanks as a guerilla or a Robin Hood-esque outlaw. And to pair with his loyalty to The Lost Cause, there’s his relationship to his sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan); there’s a Lost Cause romantic-something going on there, too.
Not that we ever go into any details, because Martha, Ethan’s brother Aaron, and two of their children are killed about 20 minutes in. It’s actually a very gripping little horror short, as, one by one, the homesteaders realize they are about to be attacked by a “Comanche murder raid” and try to retain their composure in the face of death—right up until the moment they lose it. Martha and Ethan do manage to send their youngest daughter, Debbie, to hide out in the hills with her doll—her doll Topsy, named after the young slave character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, lest you assume John Ford isn’t reflecting back how slavery is imbued into every single thing that white Americans build or do. But a shadow falls over where Debbie is trying to hide. A shot reveals what is meant to be the menacing (even if now it is only squirm-inducing) face of her new captors. This is one of those cliffhangers that aren’t. We don’t see what happens to Debbie, but if you’ve watched any western movie you don’t need to.
We spend our first real significant amount of time with Ethan when he takes part in the posse that goes after the Comanche raiding party, hoping to find Debbie and her sister Lucy still alive. They pause at the shallow grave of a Comanche who died after the raid. One of the members of the party voices concerns to the effect of he Has A Bad Feeling About This™, and Lucy’s fiance, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carry Jr.), throws a rock onto the dead man’s face in an act of impotent grief. Ethan takes out his pistol and shoots the body through both eyes—because, as he explains when the posse asks what on earth he was trying to accomplish, the Comanche believe they can’t enter the spirit lands without their eyes. He then tells Aaron and Martha’s adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to, “C’mon, blanket-head.” Nothing says machismo quite like a racial slur, I guess.
Martin is part Cherokee, a foundling, and although he’s reflectively referred to Wayne’s character up to this point as “Uncle Ethan,” Ethan denies they have any true kinship. Over and over, throughout the film, he says, “I’m not your uncle” and that Debbie isn’t his sister. Only blood counts. Unlike another local, Mose Harper (Hank Worden), of whom it’s implied that he’s gone slightly mad because he spent too much time among Native Americans, Ethan knows the Comanche and it hasn’t broken his will, it’s given him a strength and toughness the rest of the posse lack. This is the exceptionalism that makes him seem like a hero, as much as Clint Eastwood wants his character in Grand Torino to seem tougher and also more grounded, closer to the truth, because every third word out of his mouth is an insult to somebody.
Ford’s engaged in a different project, though. This is the first instance in which the director shows us that the things which make Wayne’s character steelier, more confident, and more knowledgeable also all make him cruel. The things that make him extraordinary make him extraordinarily hateful. But I really (like, really) don’t want to talk too much about John Wayne. No, I want to talk about everyone else.
To briefly pull in another movie that’s minding its own business and wants absolutely nothing to do with Texas: if you look at the ensemble cast of Casablanca, it’s consciously constructed to mirror the composition of the Allied Powers. You’ve got Bogart’s heroic Yank at the center, of course, running Rick’s Café Américanbecause subtlety is for the weak. But there’s the Scandinavian Ilsa, and worldly and cultured Euro-Wonder-Boy Victor Laszlo. There’s a Russian waiter and a Spanish singer and a (good!) German maitre’d. There’s Dooley Wilson’s Sam, loyal and decent and we’ll just gloss over how he only ever addresses Bogart as “boss” or “sir,” as well as Claude Rains’ Captain Renault, who is a little iffy because, well, he’s French. But he pulls through in the end—and with elan. By rooting for these people, you’re rooting for the Allied cause.
Something similar is going on in The Searchers, although it’s slightly subtler. Ethan, the ostensible hero, is still a loyal Confederate—an allegiance which seems to be at the root of a lot of “Real America” talk but that’s an essay for another time. Martin takes on the role of Ethan’s apprentice, helping him track down Debbie. He’s a bit of a mixed bag, in every respect. There’s the Jorgensens, fellow settlers. Mr. Jorgensen (John Qualen) is of that now-extinct breed of stock character, the Comedy Swede, always saying “by yimmy” and “by golly!” We never learn his wife’s (Olive Carey) first name but are assured several times that she’s a former schoolteacher, and indeed she is much more grounded and sensible. Their daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) is sweet on Martin, and epitomizes, 50 years early, the phrase “I’m Not Like Other Girls.” That is, she wears pants. There’s also Charlie McCorry, (Ken Curtis) who is somehow both a bit of a hick and a dandy at the same time, but has a grand singing voice. Sam Clayton (Ward Bond), an ex-Confederate, is both the local Reverend, and the local Texas Ranger. I did say subtler, not actually subtle.
Ford is, very consciously, constructing an American community out of this cast of characters. “We be Texicans,” Mrs. Jorgensen says. “A Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be.” There are lines of tension, of course, and an unspoken hierarchy of Anglos being smarter and more serious people than those of exotic, uh, Scandinavian ancestry, or Scots left out in the sun for too long. But the American myth is fully present in the makeup of the ensemble. Those who can stick it out, those who endure whatever the land has to throw at them, those who work hard? They achieve a community bond that’s warm and right and good and true. They be Texicans.
Most westerns would stop here. They are engaged in the work of defining what that Texican or Sooner (or, indeed, stagecoach) community is by having John Wayne or Randolph Scott or Jimmy Stewart or whoever shoot a guy with a bad mustache in order to defend it. But The Searchers wants to do more than construct the American community. It wants to show what it costs to be left outside of that community, and what it costs to be a part of it, too.
In many westerns, and pretty much every one of Ford’s, there’s a dance scene. The Searchers’s comes towards the very end, after Martin and Ethan have discovered the now-grown up Debbie (Natalie Wood), living in the tribe of a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon, trying to hold onto menace in truly cringeworthy, not to mention wildly inaccurate, Hollywood Indian getup). Scar got his name from the giant gash across his face given to him by a white man, and lost both of his sons to white men. He is, in many ways, Ethan’s mirror.
Their dialogue ping-pongs back on each other, even. One asks, “You speak pretty good American. Did someone teach you?” The other remarks a few moments later, “You speak pretty good Comanche. Did someone teach you?” Ethan and Martin evade their initial encounter with Scar, which gives Debbie the chance to slip away from the tribe and tell them to leave. Then Ethan does what Martin’s been afraid of him doing for over an hour of screen time, and four years of story time: he tries to shoot Debbie. In any other film, we might chalk Ethan’s obsession with quote-unquote ending Debbie’s suffering to his unrelenting nature, that toughness that makes him quote-unquote heroic. But when they stumble back to the Jorgensens, right in the middle of the dance, a couple of really important things happen which color how we understand the homesteaders, and the America they represent.
First, the dance is at Charlie and Laurie’s wedding party, and Martin’s untimely reappearance prompts a fight. It’s ungainly at first, revealing what adorable tiny boys these two men are. Clayton, who was supposed to be officiating a marriage, transitions seamlessly to refereeing the brawl—no kicking, no biting, no gauging. The men watch, amused. But the women? Y’all, the women thirst. It’s clear that especially Laurie, her dress Technicolor white, gets off on the violence being done for her benefit, but even decent Mrs. Jorgensen is, erhm, excited by it.
After things have calmed down and Charlie and Martin are made to shake hands, however, a young cavalry officer (Patrick Wayne) appears to inform Reverend-Captain Clayton that Scar is camped not far, will he join the cavalry for a raid on them? Martin and Ethan, naturally, are drafted to join, but Laurie doesn’t want Martin to go. Another western woman—Clementine Carter in My Darling Clementine, or Dallas in Stagecoach—would have an emotional reason for this. It would be, as the kids say, relatable content if Laurie didn’t want her clueless goofball to get hurt, not after they’ve spent so long apart. A hero’s love interest, even a sidekick’s love interest (Martin does occupy a weird liminal space between co-lead and punchline, but we’ll get into that more in a moment), tends to articulate a civilizing instinct, a moral impulse that tempers and strengthens the hero’s abilities. But that’s not Laurie’s reason. That’s not what The Searchers is trying to articulate.
Laurie tells Martin, when he insists he has to go and fetch his sister home, “Fetch what home? The leavings of Camanche bucks sold time and again to the highest bidder with savage brats of her own? Do you know what Ethan will do if he has the chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain. I tell you, Martha would want him to.”
Fetch what home. Not who.
I’m a white cis woman who never really thought a ton about westerns until I took a class on them in college. Then I liked them—I liked the ability they have to traffic in such grand and symbolic terms, the sort of mythic undertones and extra resonance they get to play with. A lot of movies want you to forget that what’s happening on the screen isn’t real. American westerns want you to see what’s happening on screen as something that should have been real. Something that’s not quite correct…but is spiritually true. This goes even for later examples of the form, your Wild Bunchesand your Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcias. The truth that they’re expressing is simply a much bloodier one. And even now, I can’t argue with any of them. There is nothing, spiritually or otherwise, that rings truer to me about white womanhood than the reason Laurie gives to Martin to stand by and let agents of the state kill his sister. The desperation, the desire, the righteous fury: it’s all there.
In that famous last shot of the film, John Wayne is framed by the open door of the Jorgensen’s house, after he has—completely inexplicably, by the way—done the right thing and brought Debbie safely home. Receding into the background, he shuffles back out into the desert. It’s about as fine a distillation of the western as you could ask for. The Greek Tragedy of the entire genre is that there’s no place in the fine, good country to be for the men who helped make the country, and he knows it.
The film tries to hold up Martin as an alternative model of hero. He’s tough enough to hang with Ethan and earn his respect. He’s unerringly brave—and, crucially, his bravery isn’t diminished by his kindness, or his love for his sister. The Search doesn’t make him cruel, or cynical. It doesn’t matter that Debbie’s lived with the Comanche (and had sex with a brown man, because Laurie says the quiet part out loud). It doesn’t matter that Scar probably killed his own mother. He defines his community not by blood, as Ethan does, or by location, as the Texicans do. It is made up of everyone that he loves.
I think about The Searchers way more than I really ever thought I would on a first watch, to the point where I wonder if I’m reading too much, or too deeply, into it—even for a film and a genre actively drenched in Myth and Meaning. I think about it when I think about people I went to high school with who I’ve lost touch with, but caught a Facebook photo a couple years ago through someone else’s timeline of them in MAGA hats. About my mom’s friends who, she will periodically lament to me, made jokes amongst themselves about “Sheniqua” long before Karens were a thing.
A part of me knows I could never in a million years get them to watch Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Do the Right Thing. Even something that hasn’t become so culture-war notorious like Sorry to Bother You would be a hard pass—“it just doesn’t seem like my type of thing, you know, Sarah?” But in idle moments, I think: if I still had any sort of credit with them, could I get them to watch The Searchers? Classic John Wayne western, big famous last shot. Seems harmless enough, right? But the film does something remarkable for a 1950s western: it teaches its white audience to be afraid of John Wayne. It wants us to actively dread what he might do. Even if The Searchers never positions him as evil, it helps us understand that when desire meets fear, violence is the inevitable result. Surely, surely that’s the start of how to reach a couple of these people?
I’ve always thought better of it. Because The Searchers doesn’t quite stick its symbolic landing. That’s partly because Martin is a giant doofus the entire runtime and Jeffrey Hunter, while possessed of blue eyes so sharp they could cut glass, does his character no favors. But partly it’s because Martin takes Laurie’s hand again and walks inside the house. The Searchers wants to position itself as the beginning of a search for a better world—but it’s too sad and tired to really do it. Because it gives up, because it doesn’t reject the white supremacist violence it feels so uncomfortable with, it’s entirely possible to view the film without realizing that Ethan Edwards isn’t the hero he’s cracked up to be. It’s possible for it to fall in the same trap that Taxi Driver and Fight Club and Joker would fall into later: glorifying the sickness and the hurt it seeks to examine and warn against.
What I really want, I suppose, is to make the unreconstructed racists at the periphery of my acquaintance take a westerns class, and assign Gunfighter Nationas required reading to go along with John Ford’s attempts to dismantle his own personal Old West Cinematic Universe. The Searchers doesn’t get it quite right, nor does Sergeant Rutledge, nor Two Rode Together, nor Cheyenne Autumn—but taken together, you do start to get the picture. Ford is trying to get us to realize that the Western Myth—and none knew it better than he did—is untenable. That while it tells white Americans who we are, that isn’t what we should want to be. There are much better things, it argues, for us to believe should be true. The film just doesn’t quite know what they are.
The answer, for my money, is wrapped up in how the film treats Beulah Archuletta’s Look. She is a Comanche woman (her actual name is Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky) who is sold to a hapless Martin in exchange for a hat. After being treated horribly—and purely for comedy—the heavy-set, but accommodating and kind woman leaves Ethan and Martin’s camp. Martin asked if she knew about Scar, or Debbie, and wonders after she leaves if she left to go find the Comanche chief for him. We never find out. The boys later discover she was killed by U.S. Cavalry, in what seems clearly meant to be a depiction of the Washita Massacre. Martin regards her actions as a sad, forever unknowable mystery, just one of those cruel twists of fate.
It is a mystery entirely of his own making, though.
It’s not Wayne who should be out in the dust and the emptiness framed so poignantly by that open door. It’s Martin, whose kindness is ultimately not enough. And it’s us, too. All of us who can’t understand Look, anyway. The Searchers never forges a better world out of the unknown, but it gets closest, perhaps, in the lyrics of the ballad when it reappears at the film’s end: “His peace of mind, he knows he’ll find, but where, Oh Lord, but where? Ride away. Ride away.”