When I was thirteen, I saw the movie The Searchers for the first time. My parents both warned me, that despite starring John Wayne, this was not the John Wayne I had already grown to love and respect. John Wayne in this movie was the embodiment of unreasoning evil. To say I was appalled while watching the movie would be a massive understatement. I refused to watch the movie again until I was well into my twenties and curiosity compelled to watch it again to see if my memories meshed with the reality of the film.
My memories were correct. John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards was as vile and unreasoning as I remembered, but with age also came an ability to see what a masterpiece this film is. It is listed time and again on the top one hundred movies of all time, and often is in the top ten for westerns.
Ethan’s racism and hatred for anything that didn’t fit into his “white’s only” worldview, however, continued to haunt me. When I started work on my master’s degree in English, during the first semester of master’s work, all master’s students must take a class on bibliography and research. The culmination of that class is a term paper of no less than fifteen pages, not including the “works cited” pages. I decided, early on, I wanted to write about The Searchers. Because I’m inherently lazy, my favorite method of analysis is deconstructionism—revealing where and how the text (in this case, the film) is at odds with itself, with society (either in general or the society presented within the text), and how the opposing forces within that text cause instability and ultimately cause the text to unravel.
I spent weeks researching this movie, watching it over and over, and even went to the John Ford Archives, housed at the Lilly Library on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. I was allowed to view an original script from the movie, complete with Ford’s own notations in the margins. Like a bolt out of the blue, while reading Ford’s notations and comparing those notes to the movie, it became very apparent there were things that Ford changed literally moments before a shoot.
Ford takes the character of Ethan Edwards and makes him into a katabatic hero (the hero who has to descend into the depths of hell and return). Ford also took great pains to portray Ethan as an unbending, narrow-minded, vicious racist and at one point in the movie, uses Hollywood film-making short-hand to hammer home the point that Ethan is not the hero of this film. In the scene at the fort, when Ethan and Marty (the half-Indian who is also searching for Ethan’s niece, Debbie) arrive to discern if one of the white girls “saved” from the Natives could be Debbie, the tightening of the scene to only Ethan’s face, twisted with hatred and half shrouded with darkness makes it very clear that Ethan is not the hero. Tight shots like that were reserved for the villains in Hollywood.
Anyone who has ever seen The Searchers for the first time cannot help but spend the whole movie wondering if Ethan is going to kill his own niece because, in Ethan’s own words, “she ain’t white no more.”
Another change that Ford did, on the day of the shooting, because it is not in the script and it isn’t noted in the margins, is the scene where Ethan rides into Scar’s tent (Ethan’s foil in the movie, because in his own way, Scar is just as much a racist and just as narrow-minded as Ethan), kills Scar and scalps him. Heroic white men did not do that. In the movie Cheyenne Dawn, another Ford movie, the white men who arrive in a saloon with scalps taken from Native Americans are treated with less than contempt.
So, with all that going on in The Searchers, what makes this such a cinematic masterpiece, that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorcisi all claim to watch it at least once a year, and that garners top rankings in “Best of” lists? A lot of things. First of all was the landscape porn that Ford was so in love with. We, as viewers, are granted breath-taking panoramic views of Monument Valley, where the men searching for Debbie are juxtaposed against this huge vista. Ford’s use of light and shadows goes into the realm of artistry. Secondly was the manner that Ford darkened the character of Ethan, and then did not give us any forgiveness or redemption for Ethan. The movie opens with a shot through an opening doorway and ends with the movie being shot through a door which closes on Ethan, leaving him out in the wilderness and denied acceptance into society. Marty, the half-Indian, is welcomed back into society. The girl who “ain’t white no more” is welcomed back into that society. The unbending racist is denied acceptance and return to society.
I strongly recommend watching The Searchers, more than once. Watch it several times. At the least, watch it once a year.