Title: The Searchers
Release Date: May 16, 1956
Director: John Ford
Production Company: C.V. Whitney Pictures
Cinematically, The Searchers is a beautiful film, shot in the scenic Monument Valley and featuring shots of the landscape and lead characters framed by a doorway as the opening and closing scenes. Conversely, the subject matter of The Searchers is one of the ugliest things I’ve seen in a movie.
In 1868, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his family home in Texas (despite being filmed in Monument Valley which is in Arizona & Utah) three years after the Civil War ended, but still wearing his traitor’s uniform. Ethan is dismissive of the family’s adopted child, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), because he is 1/8 Comanche. Soon afterwards, a Comanche tribe attacks the family homestead, killing the adults and abducting Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adopted sister Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, and Natalie Wood later in the movie).
The better part of the movie is Ethan and Martin spending five years searching for Debbie. Ethan continues to mistreat Martin, and I could make a litany of the racist depictions in this movie, the worst among them being when Martin “accidentally” buys a Comanche wife, which is played for laughs. The villain of the movie is Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), who likes like a German man with shoe polish on his face, because the actor who plays him was in fact born in Germany. Worst of all, Ethan’s goal in this obsessive, years-long quest is not to rescue Debbie, but to kill her because he believes she’s better off being dead after being raped by the Comanche.
This is a very ugly movie and I found it very difficult to watch. Critics like Roger Ebert grant a generous interpretation that John Ford and John Wayne were deliberately portraying Ethan as an evil and racist man. There is a lot of plausibility in those intentions. But audiences then and even some now see Wayne as a hero and ideal representation of what Makes America Great. I think The Searchers is far too easy to be taken at face value, and in that it stands as a representation of the ugliest parts of the American character.