Alan Le May, Frank Nugent, and John Ford, 1956
#2 of 28 in the 20th century series
So, how did a John Wayne western end up on this list? I took lots of film classes in college, and The Searchers was on almost every syllabus. And every time it appeared, I wound up writing my midterm paper on it — it just always seemed like the most palatable option — and over time I came to start thinking of it as a favorite. Looking at it now, with its unnatural ’50s acting and painfully broad supporting characters, I don’t know whether I would even call it good, let alone keep it in my cinematic pantheon. But I do find myself giving the filmmakers a lot more credit than I expected to, and as the sled warns, I’m going to have to spoil the entire movie in order to explain why.
John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, who shows up at his brother Aaron’s place out in the Texas panhandle, fresh off of four years of killing United States soldiers and three years of, apparently, robbing stagecoaches. And he’s no lovable rogue — he’s a gruff sonofabitch, but he does show a soft spot for his brother’s kids: teenage belle Lucy, hero-worshipping Ben, and spunky little Debbie in her ribboned loop braids, whom he affectionately lifts up to the ceiling. We also quickly pick up on some unspoken history between Ethan and his brother’s wife, Martha. But before things can get too soapy, almost everyone dies! While most of the local menfolk are off on a wild goose chase, a band of Comanches raids the Edwards farm, kills Aaron, Martha, and Ben, and abducts Lucy and Debbie. The settlers form a posse to seek revenge and rescue the girls, but Ethan clashes with the captain, who eventually agrees that the numbers are unwieldy: “This is a job for a whole company a’ Rangers or it’s a job for one or two men — right now we’re too many and not enough.” Ethan announces, “Me, I’m goin’ on alone,” but ends up with a couple of sidekicks. One is Lucy’s beau Brad Jorgensen, who almost immediately gets killed attacking the Comanche camp by himself after Lucy is found having been gang-raped and murdered in a canyon. The other is Martin Pawley, who had been taken in as an infant by the Edwardses after his own parents were killed in a Comanche raid.
A big part of Martin’s job in the movie, it seems to me, is to signal what we’re supposed to make of Ethan. If Ethan’s not supposed to be the hero of the story, then the filmmakers have a lot of work to do to overcome two obstacles: the fact that he is the main character of the story, and the fact that he’s played by John Wayne. You might think that, especially with the Cold War raging, having Ethan fiercely assert his ongoing allegiance to a group of insurrectionists who took arms against the United States would establish him as a villain, but given that about a third of the contemporary audience believed that the slaughter of Americans in order to preserve chattel slavery constituted a noble heritage, giving Ethan Edwards a giant CSA belt buckle wasn’t enough. Even less inherently disqualifying was Ethan’s seething hatred toward indigenes, particularly Comanches — a lot of movies prior to 1956 shared the opinion that the only good injun was a dead injun, and audiences wouldn’t necessarily have blinked at scenes like the ones in which Ethan desecrates a Comanche corpse. But when he directs bottomless contempt at Martin for the sin of being one-eighth Cherokee, and even uses him as unwitting bait in a dangerous ambush… treating the second lead that way may have made at least a few viewers question Ethan’s racism. When Ethan starts blazing away with his rifle at a herd of buffalo, barking through spittle-flecked lips that “they won’t feed any Comanche this winter!”, Martin’s protests that this “don’t make no sense”, to which Ethan responds by calling him a “blankethead” and punching him in the face, may have made at least a few viewers think, “Hey, wait — this guy is kind of a maniac!”. And while recent events have demonstrated that all too many people are happy to cheer on a racist maniac, even more tend to mimic what they see modeled. And Martin models resistance.
Martin takes his resistance to a new level in the third act. At this point, he and Ethan have spent five years looking for the last survivor of the Comanche attack: Debbie. And at long last, they find her alive — she was young enough for the Comanches to raise as one of their own, and now there she is before them in Comanche clothes and long, colorfully wrapped braids, a concubine of the local band’s chief. It’s quite a reveal! But a few moments later, in a scene that famously plays with foreground and background, we learn that Ethan has spent all these years and all this effort hunting for Debbie, not in order to rescue her, but to kill her: Comanches have fucked her, and to Ethan, that is tantamount to a vampire’s bite. I have to hope that even in 1956 not too many viewers would agree, but when Martin leaps in between Debbie and Ethan’s gun, and draws his pistol on Ethan in turn, it serves to verify that, yes, murdering the damsel in distress is in fact wrong. And that in turn frees the movie up to make an interesting move in a later scene: it allows Martin’s love interest to plead with Martin not to risk his life to save Debbie, because Debbie is now a whore whose mother would want her dead, without the audience taking her endorsement of Ethan as a reflection of the filmmakers’ views. It may have allowed the movie to make one other move as well. The moment that secured The Searchers’s place in cinematic history comes near the very end, when Ethan pistol-whips Martin and charges after a fleeing Debbie on his horse, corners her against a wall of rock, roughly grabs her, hoists her up off the ground — and cradles her in his arms, murmuring, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” I always took that as a sort of spontaneous miracle — that in the process of lifting up Debbie the “woman grown”, he remembers lifting up Debbie the little girl, and in that moment, love trumps hate. But it now occurs to me to wonder whether we’re supposed to gather that having seen Martin repeatedly put his life on the line to save Debbie, having seen Martin model love and heroism, is what makes Ethan’s miraculous change of heart possible.
I didn’t have time to read through the decades’ worth of scholarship on this movie before I wrote this article, but I did swing by Roger Ebert’s website to see what his “Great Movies” writeup had to say, and I was surprised to see him totally dismiss the romcom B-plot about Laurie Jorgensen’s longing for the oblivious Martin and her aborted wedding to the dimwitted mailman. In the past I had also dismissed it! But this time around I thought it added another layer: it raises the stakes by showing us how Martin is risking his own chance to have a wife and a family in order to follow Ethan around in his search for Debbie. That meta-question, of when it’s time to give up on resolving a tragedy, of when you have to learn to accept it and build a new life, makes this story significantly deeper than it would have been without that B-plot. On the other hand, I have to say: Martin comes very close to losing the girl who waited years to be with him, in order to chase after his lost little sister, but in the end he is able both to salvage his relationship AND to get his sister back. I can attest from personal experience that this is not how life works. This movie is a bad influence.