It’s no surprise that the AFI’s choice of the greatest western of all time is a John Ford film featuring John Wayne. To those who grew up watching “old-er West” Westerns, though, the relatively late setting of The Searchers makes for a different feel. It’s post-Civil War here, set in Texas rather than the Old West, and rather than confining itself to the stereotypical Western town, it’s a journey across landscapes and vistas. It’s known largely for its cinematography, and for good reason. Ford has faith in the lone American man with his rural wisdom and ability to dominate the land without seeking to be anything more than a terrestrial creature. Ethan (Wayne) is anchored to the earth while the hybrid Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond), part captain of the Rangers and part preacher, is reaching toward heaven. He’s idealistic while Ethan’s realistic. He conducts lengthy funeral eulogies while Ethan cuts them off early to get a head start on the job he’s got to do. Clayton is principled and Ethan is pragmatic, Clayton is absolute and Ethan is relative. When, early in the film, the men come across a half-buried Indian, Ethan fires a bullet into each of the corpse’s eyes. When he’s chided, he tells the pastor, in so many words, that under his worldview the deed was pointless, but under the Indian’s, Ethan just cursed him to wander the afterlife without sight. Ethan doesn’t “believe” one or the other; it’s the relative meaning of the action that matters.
The interesting fact of Martin’s part-Indian blood was brought to my attention. Ethan rescued Martin as a baby from Indian’s during a raid or war of some kind, bringing him to his brother’s family to be adopted and raised. It would seem that this fact is lost on Ethan when Debbie is kidnapped by Indians and incorporated into Chief Scar’s harem. Once Ethan realizes that she’s been fully integrated and at first doesn’t want to return, he sets out to kill her. It’s Martin who puts himself between Ethan’s gun and Debbie, insisting that she should live and be brought home. Ethan even says that it would be better to kill her than for her to live “with a buck.” Ford reveals the racism so prevalent among “Americans” and “Indians” in this era. Ethan is the hero of this film, but Ford doesn’t hesitate to show his ugly side. Indeed, even Laurie, the sweet woman so easy to trust in, makes a comment about putting “a bullet in [Debbie’s] brain” that reeks of the ugliest kind of prejudice.
Ethan’s classic “colonialist” tendencies here are put into full light. He sees no problem with rescuing a half-breed raised from birth by Indians and adopting him into a white family, but the contrary deed committed by the Indians (as revenge for taking Martin?) will not be tolerated. The film spans a five-year period of Ethan and Martin searching for Debbie. Nothing is so important as finishing this quest, even if it ends in killing the girl. Every time Martin states or implies that Debbie is his sister, Ethan reacts angrily that they are no blood kin. Martin, as a half-breed, was never more than a glorified foster child in Ethan’s eyes. No matter how integrated Debbie might become, from Ethan’s point of view she’ll always be part of the family, unlike Martin.
Ethan’s turnaround at the film’s end is provocative for a John Wayne figure. On the other hand, this is a John Ford film. Ethan was the hero, but always a kind of anti-hero at the same time. He was a product of his time, and Ford depicts him as such. In a different way, Ford depicted the titular character in his earlier Young Mr. Lincoln not so much as a product of of his time but as an image within the American memory, tainted with hero-worship and caricature. Fonda’s Lincoln is unreal and intentionally so, while Wayne’s Ethan is all too real and uncomfortably so. Ford doesn’t withdraw the suggestion that the Indians were savages, though he does give us examples of perfectly kind and personable Indians in the film. He neither vilifies nor aggrandizes any character, exactly. They’re all contextualized in all their confused beauty and ugliness. Ethan rides off just the way he rode in, the kind of character than clearly inspired Ford’s protégé, by his own admission, Akira Kurosawa, in films like Yojimbo and Sanjuro.