John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) creates a monolithic anti-hero in the character of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). Ethan is a man so intensely driven by unknown passions that his journey searching for his lost niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood) becomes a psychological parable of identity in post-McCarthy America. In Ethan’s first scenes, he picks up his niece and remarks, “Lucy, you ain’t much bigger than when I last saw you,” (0:03:14) yet Ethan has been gone for years. That he doesn’t recognize Lucy, now a young woman, but mistakes her for a little girl gives us our first hint at Ethan’s arrested development as a wanderer. Ethan’s ignorance of the facts of growing children is the second sign of his inability to find his roots, the first appearing in the theme song during the opening credits, “What makes a man to wander?” (Steiner, 1956) asking the question rhetorically as though the movie to follow will give us an answer, but never really providing us with a satisfactory one. Instead, the answer to Ethan’s wanderings are found in Ford’s deconstruction of the American hero, the man’s man, the rugged outlaw in Wayne’s towering status as a hero of Westerns, here shown as a petty, racist, cowardly person. Ethan wanders because he hates. He hates his environment, he hates his friends, he hates his enemies, and he hates himself. Ford demonstrates this throughout his film with Freudian imagery in his framing leitmotifs, the most famous of which is the opening and closing doorway shot — though this shot appears in many forms throughout the film — and in the psychological relationships between characters. Nothing is accidental in Ford’s recreation of Alan Le May’s novel, published only two years prior to the film’s release, and nothing is accidental in Ethan’s five year search.
Intentionality can be seen in Ethan’s first appearance in the film. The camera looks outward through a doorway, from the dark into the light, as Martha sees him approaching and raises her hand to block the sun so she can get a better look. Ethan however, is not particularly far away, nor is he riding in line with the sun. There is no reason for Martha to have difficulty seeing him, but the fact that she does implies disbelief and curiosity. The film is already asking us, who is this man? Furthermore, Ethan treats Martha more like a long-lost lover than a long-lost sister-in-law, kissing her on the forehead rather than the cheek. We later see Martha go to great lengths to keep her children from realizing they are about to be attacked: she suggests that they enjoy the dusk instead of lighting the lanterns, and tells Debbie to play the hiding game instead of telling her to run away. Martha’s actions are as intentional as Ethan’s, and this sets up a chemistry between the two of them that may explain Ethan’s later affections for Debbie. After all, he seems to barely even know who she is, yet he spends years of his life searching for her. In fact, Ethan seems to be afraid of women’s sexuality. He barely acknowledges Lucy’s intended, Brad, and after discovering that she has been killed, hides the truth from the one person who most deserves to know it. He will not, perhaps cannot, see Debbie as a young woman either, but views both of his nieces as little girls. In comparing the book to the film, Arthur Eckstein remarks on the similarity between Martha and Debbie and suggests that Ethan’s drive to find Debbie stems from his being in love with his brother’s wife (1998). Ethan has no family other than that of his brother’s, but his quest to find and, as he makes clear several times, kill Debbie begs of more than mere familial concern. Surely a man would spend years searching for his daughter, but a niece that he not only seems to have only met once but is hell-bent on murdering? A lover, on the other hand, would easily drive someone to such obsession.
Ethan is not, of course, in love with Debbie, not explicitly, but he undoubtably loves her, or at least he loves what she represents. Debbie is his last link to home, she is innocence, kindness, stability. She is everything Ethan has not found in his search thus far. Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), however, receives no affection from his uncle, for his is “impure” (Marty is one-eighth Cherokee), but Debbie is white and therefore worth saving. That Ethan is determined to murder her in order to “save” her from becoming a Comanche lends understanding to Ford’s doorway framings. We always see Ethan from the inside looking out, or rather we see him outside looking in, looking for a home. Curiously, after Ethan scalps the film’s villain, Scar, we see him for the first time coming out of a home, with murderous intent. Ethan sees Debbie and she flees to a cave. Again Ford presents us with his doorway framing, but this time the setting is feminine, natural, as Debbie runs to safety. Here again is Ford’s intentionality showing, for why would Debbie seek safety in a dead-end? She has lived the last five years of her life in the wild, presumably, and should by now be more familiar with the terrain than Ethan is, yet she runs toward the vaginal opening of the earth, which can symbolize either the birth canal, or the tomb. Earlier, Debbie expresses a desire to remain with her Native American family, so we must now see Debbie as two people: Debbie the White American, and Debbie the Comanche. As Ethan chases his niece, she retreats into herself, into nature, and Ethan knows that if she gets to the cave, she will get away (according to movie-logic, which would state that if there is a goal to be reached, then it can be reached, even if logically that is physically impossible). Debbie the White American will truly be gone beyond Ethan’s finding, but Ethan already believes that Debbie the White American is dead, and he now intends to kill Debbie the Comanche. When he grabs her then, he pulls her back, away from her second identity and, holding her up just as he did in the opening scenes, proclaims, “Let’s go home, Debbie,” (1:56:14, emphasis added) at last acknowledging her identity, not as White or Comanche, but as a whole person. Debbie does not reach the cave, but she “dies” in Ethan’s eyes, and is reborn in his arms.
None of Ethan’s conflict regarding women comes close to his conflict regarding race, but the two work in tandem to criticize America’s fear of the “other,” stirred up anew by the age of McCarthyism. Distrust of foreigners is ingrained in America’s lifeblood but in the wake of Joseph McCarthy’s broad proclamations that, “this is a time when all the world is split into two vast, increasingly hostile armed camps” (1950) Ford’s vision of an unapologetically racist monster in the form of idealized hero sharpens itself into a biting commentary not just on race, but on all forms of superficial alienation. Ethan’s distrust of Native Americans first rears its head when Marty appears on the scene, immediately clashing with Ethan simply by having darker skin than the former Confederate. Ethan’s racial hatred is mirrored back to him directly in the face of Scar, Ethan’s double. The casting of Scar reveals a particular decisiveness on Ford’s part in attempting to demonstrate that hatred that goes around, comes around. Scar is so obviously White, with his light skin and baby blue eyes, yet this portrayal is not intended to be parodic. Most of the casting of Native Americans reeks of egocentric racial bias, as they are portrayed as the typical “Indian” familiar to Hollywood. Scar, however, truly is Ethan’s double, as seen in their first meeting in which the two show a profound understanding of each other. Scar tries to scare off Ethan by displaying the scalps of his enemies, but after Ethan remains relatively unfazed, he deploys a more insidious trick in showing Ethan his Confederate medal, the medal he had given to young Debbie so many years before. This gesture, this attempt to unnerve Ethan again fails to achieve its desired effect, and Ethan leaves with a scoff at Scar’s treasure. We know, and Scar undoubtably knows, that Ethan has found his target, that Debbie is right in front of him. Why the gesture? Scar shows Ethan a piece of himself, of his core identity. Scar, not merely as a character but also an odd casting choice, is revealed by Ford to be Ethan himself, separated only by skin colour. It is clear from Ethan’s actions that he does not likely consider himself to be morally superior to many people, as he desecrates the body of a buried Comanche by shooting his eyes out, and later scalps his enemy. Really, Ethan is just as savage as he claims the Comanche are, and so the casting of Scar becomes a mirror to the audience as well.
If Ethan’s intentions toward Debbie were ambiguous up to the point of his meeting with Scar, Ford dispels of any doubt by having Ethan explicitly state his intentions to kill. This is a shocking moment in theory — finally, after years of searching, he has found his niece, only to try to kill her — but it plays out almost casually, with only Marty acting as the moral centre of the story. Ethan, on the other hand, doesn’t ever stop to consider what he is doing, he acts almost on principle. Instead of finding relief in the discovery that Debbie is alive, he sees an opportunity for revenge. Scar killed Martha and now Ethan will kill Debbie. A woman for a woman, and all will be well. Is this what Ethan has been searching for? We are never given any specific inclination that Ethan believed in the cause of the South during the Civil War other than by making assumptions, but rather that he acted more out of a sense of duty, but following the South’s surrender, Ethan disappears, perhaps in shame, perhaps out of spite, we are never quite sure. Regardless, now that he is faced with reunion with Debbie, he refuses, seeing her as a Comanche and therefore no good to him. All of Ethan’s hatred comes together into this decision, his distance from women, his distrust of Native Americans, and his fear of what he is capable of doing, which Ford paints using shadows onto Wayne’s scowl in shots that linger uncomfortably long. Ethan doesn’t merely despise Scar because he sees similarities between them, but because he knows they are the same. When he scalps Scar after he is killed by Marty, he takes back something he feels has been stolen from him. He takes back his identity by taking Scar’s, in essence, he embraces his identity not as similar to Scar, but as Scar himself. Of course he does so in a horrific act of violence, and Ford cuts away too soon for us to see the effect of Ethan’s knife, but this cut is the most violent moment of a movie filled with gunfights, fistfights, and murder. Ethan becomes who he hates the most and only after doing that does he see Debbie and give chase.
Consider this final chase scene in which Ethan pursues Debbie on horseback as Marty scrambles helplessly to stop the murder of his sister. Up to this point, Ethan is so blinded by his hatred for the other that he is driven by a lust to dispose of this impure visage of Debbie he sees before him. Debbie, now a grown woman, and a “turned” Comanche, is Ethan’s prize in two ways: she is what he has been searching for the entire movie, and she is the object he is in pursuit of in this particular scene. Debbie’s humanity has been all but stripped away for Ethan, at a pivotal point where he will have to decide who she is. For the audience however, this is the big climax and we are expecting action, perhaps a shootout. Ford denies us this and instead moves in close for a mere gesture of Ethan towering over Debbie, bending down, and picking her up over his head. In that moment, Debbie absorbs Ethan’s fears and reverses them. She is afraid of the White man standing before her. Ethan is not, however, the man she had hoped would save her. First of all, Ethan is not trying to save her but kill her, but more importantly, she does not need saving. Ethan may have intended to save Debbie by killing who he considers to be her impure double, but he cannot do this anymore. To kill one version of Debbie would be to kill both versions, and Ethan would be doing what we and Marty knew he was going to be doing all along: committing cold-blooded murder. By making this small callback to the beginning of the film, Ford reminds us just how far hatred can remove us from our humanity. In the exact same position in which he once marvelled at how much Debbie had grown (or rather, how much Lucy had not grown, as Ethan first thought), he now stands ready to destroy his own kin. Ford has essentially flipped the script several times. First he has Marty, not Ethan, kill Scar — a Native kills a Native — then he has Ethan scalp Scar — a White man performing a “Native” act — then he has Ethan attack Debbie — a White man attacking a White/Native woman — and finally, he has Ethan embrace Debbie and call her by her name — a White man embraces a Native woman. Each step takes us from the us vs. them mentality that Ethan brings to his world closer and closer to an acceptance of all people, and it happens all through small gestures that feel much larger than they appear. This is not just a mastery of cinema, it is a mastery of psychological analysis. The climax of The Searchers feels like a cleansing of hatred, and it is one of the great emotional moments of cinema, but the movie still has one more trick to end on. Parallelism is one of cinema’s finest techniques for showing change in character across time: put a character in two situations that are almost identical but have them make a different choice the second time, and everyone in the audience understands that they have learned something. Ford repositions his camera in the doorway of the opening shot but this time instead of moving out, everyone is moving in, everyone except Ethan. Instead, the searcher ponders for a moment, turns, and walks away as the theme song begins to remind us, “A man will search his heart and soul… His peace of mind he knows he’ll find, but where, oh Lord, Lord where?” (Steiner). Ford undercuts the happy ending by reminding us that hatred is poisonous and deathly hard to get rid of. Ethan, despite all his change, will still roam, somewhere out there in the wilderness, forever banishing himself.
That The Searchers manages to pull off such an ambitious analysis of the American psyche within the Western genre, Hollywood’s greatest (at the time) form of escapism is no small feat. Ford fills his film with metaphors and doubles: Ethan and Scar, Martha and Debbie, Marty and Ethan, as well as Debbie and Debbie as her two identities drive Ethan’s quest are all posed against each other in a labyrinth of psychoanalytical reflections. The leitmotif of Ford’s doorway shot gives us imagery of the subconscious intruding into the conscious, or the conscious retreating into the subconscious. Shadows cast on Wayne’s face darken his complexity as he morphs into his opposite, while Scar’s bright eyes cast a revealing light onto his own opponent. Even Ethan’s repetition of “that’ll be the day” tells us something about the irreversibility of hatred, as he refuses to change his views. Ford spares no detail in brutally remaking the iconic image of John Wayne, American hero into a reflection of America’s underworld of racial paranoia. The other that Ethan is so afraid of is not off in some faraway land, but rather right here among him, echoing the Red Scare of the 1950s, but so too is salvation, like Debbie, right in front of us this whole time. The Searchers may or may not have a happy ending depending on which character you ask, but even in all its cynicism and biting satire, it is still hopeful. Perhaps, some day, Ethan will indeed find what makes him wander, even if he must wander a ways yet.
Eckstein, M. Arthur. “Darkening Ethan: John Ford’s The Searchers from Novel to Screenplay to Screen.” (1956). Cinema Journal, Vol. 38, No.1, pp. 3-24. 1956.
McCarthy, Joseph. “Enemies From Within.” Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950.
The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne. Warner Bros., 1956.
Steiner, Max. “The Searchers.” The Searchers Soundtrack. Warner Bros., 1956.