The Searchers (1956) has many details within the film that a viewer can analyze. With so many details to look at, one can spend a good deal of time breaking everything down in depth and finding underlying meanings within the film. A few of the conflicts or elements in The Searchers that can be analyzed include: the storyline, the character of Ethan Edwards, the culture clash between Whites and Indians, and the visual elements and meanings in the film.
The Searchers is the story of a journey two men take in an attempt to rescue their niece from a Comanche Indian tribe after she was abducted. The story follows Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a soldier who returns home three years after fighting for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. The other main character is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Ethan’s adopted nephew, who is part Indian. Together, they set off to rescue Debbie (Lana Wood) from the Comanche.
Shortly after Ethan’s arrival, the Comanche steal the neighbor’s cattle herd as a distraction to hit either the Jorgensen, or Edwards’ home. A group of Rangers alongside Ethan and Marty set out to look for the missing herd, but when they find the herd killed many miles away, Ethan realizes that it was a diversion and that they needed to get back. When Ethan and Marty finally return home, they find the house on fire and Ethan’s brother Sam (Walter Coy), his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and their son Ben (Robert Lyden) dead. They also find out that Debbie and her older sister Lucy (Pippa Scott) have been abducted.
After a brief funeral, Ethan insists on leaving immediately so they may track the Comanche and get Lucy and Debbie back. When tracking the Comanche, Ethan and the men fall into a trap, they manage to fend them off by getting to one side of the river and the Comanche retreat. After the battle, Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) realizes that they will not be able to be successful, so the men leave and Ethan is left with only Marty and Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr), Lucy’s fiancé.
The three men set off under the circumstance that Ethan is in charge. Ethan investigates a canyon near the camp and discovers Lucy’s dead body. When Brad hears the news, he wildly charges into the Comanche camp and dies.
Ethan and Marty lose the trail of the tribe in the winter and return to the Jorgensen ranch. Upon arrival, a letter is waiting for Ethan, telling him there may be information on where Debbie is. Ethan leaves once again in search of Debbie, and Marty catches up with him later. Ethan learns that a Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon) has Debbie. After failing to find Debbie, Ethan and Marty head to New Mexico where a Mexican man brings them to Scar. The men find Debbie there and she has been made one of Scar’s wives. After Ethan and Marty leave, Debbie runs after them and tells them to leave without her. Ethan does not want to stand for this and tries to shoot Debbie, but Marty blocks his shot. The Comanche shoot Ethan with a poison arrow and the two narrowly escape.
The two men return home yet again, and when they arrive, an old friend by the name of Mose Harper (Hank Worden) knows where Scar is. Clayton gathers a group of men and they find the Comanche camp. Ethan wants to go straight in for a direct attack, but Marty insists that they allow him to sneak in and make sure Debbie is safe. They let Marty go in and he gets to Debbie’s tent and is able to kill Scar. Samuel and his men, with the help of the U.S. Calvary charge into the camp and kill the Comanche. Ethan finds Scar’s dead body and scalps him.
When Ethan sees Debbie, he chases her down on horseback. Marty is unable to stop him and Ethan catches up to Debbie. Instead of killing her, however, he picks her up and carries her home to her family. The final scene shows Ethan at the doorway walking off into the distance as the cabin door closes.
There are many interesting conflicts in The Searchers, so it is not difficult to find a couple to analyze. The conflict I chose to examine was the character of Ethan Edwards. This man is full of conflicts from the very start. At the beginning of the film, we immediately see Ethan’s hatred for Indians when Marty enters for the first time. Ethan clearly despises him even though Marty does nothing but try to learn from him. Throughout the film, there were many instances where I thought Ethan had turned the corner and was able to look passed Marty’s heritage, but then he would destroy all hopes by pushing him away.
Two scenes come to mind here. The first is when Ethan insists on Marty staying at the Jorgensen’s place so he can have a good life there. This may mean Ethan just does not want the “half-breed” with him, or he genuinely wants Marty to live a happy life. To me this looked like Ethan wanted Marty to be safe more than anything, so we see Ethan’s good side here. Shortly afterwards, however, Ethan uses Marty as bait when Futterman and his men try to kill the two and steal their money. This is the kind of ups and downs that I see from Ethan.
The two continue to disagree on things throughout the film, as Ethan insists on killing Debbie after learning that she has become a Comanche. Marty, on the other hand, wants to save her at all costs, even if that means battling Ethan. This puts yet another strain on their relationship, one that was on shaky ground to start with. Before the final battle, we see Ethan surrender his plan of killing Debbie to allow Marty an attempt to save her. This situation is another one where I do not know what exactly is going through Ethan’s mind. He could want there to be a chance that Marty saves Debbie, or he could just be fine with Marty going on a possible suicide mission. It is uncertain whether he hopes they are both fine in the end.
The second conflict surrounding Ethan in this film that is interesting is tied into the first one I chose. The conflict is seen throughout the entire movie and it is Ethan’s attitude toward Indians. We see a clash of cultures here as Ethan’s anger towards the Indians is unmatched. This may be an indication of how the genocide of the American Indians was. If there were thousands of people like Ethan, this genocide can be explained very easily. Ethan shows his hatred does not specifically target only pure Indians, but also extends to half breeds and even whites who are abducted and become part of the tribe.
For all of Ethan’s hatred of the Indians, he clearly understands them very well. He is able to speak their language and knows their beliefs and parts of their culture. An example here is when he shoots the eyes of a dead Indian warrior so the man’s soul will not be able to pass into the afterlife. His obsession with killing them has not clouded his judgment. Ethan is not one to just blindly charge in like Brad did after letting emotions get the best of him. Instead, Ethan is able to channel the anger into strategic thinking which allows him to survive despite overwhelming odds. One example is when the Comanche lead the men into a trap. Ethan knows not to just try to shoot his way out of the trap, he instead is able to maintain his cool and lead them across the river so the men can set up a good defense. This ability keeps him and Marty alive throughout the film.
Touching on Ethan’s hatred of the Indians, we come back to seeing how he despises them from the beginning of the film when Marty enters for the first time. Ethan is extremely racist and has no problem shooting the Comanche in the back as they retreat at the river. There are not too many places where Ethan does not go above and beyond his previous racist act. He hates them from any way you look at it. Ethan shows he hates full breeds, half breeds, anyone who joins them, defiles their dead bodies, and even kills as many buffalo as he can so they are unable to have food. The character of Ethan shows the most racist a person can be towards one group of people.
There were many visual elements in this film that can be looked at as well. John Ford’s depiction of the wilderness in this film was astonishing. Unlike Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, we see nothing but openness in Monument Valley. Apart from a few isolated homesteads, there is nothing but rugged wilderness that the characters in the story must deal with. There is nothing to compare the wilderness to because we see no towns or settlements at all. The people living there show they must be equipped to handle all kinds of conditions. This is shown when Ethan and Marty must deal with weeks of constant snowfall. We see their horses jumping through many feet of snow and the two men bundled up to stay warm. This gives a viewer some indication of what the people living out there must deal with.
Ford also goes a different direction when it comes to the portrayal of the Indians. In other films such as Stagecoach, we see the Indians portrayed as nothing but savages who kill the settlers for no reason. In The Searchers, many of the attacks are justifiable from their standpoint. Ford does this with the scene showing the aftermath of the massacre of Indian women and children carried out by the U.S. Calvary. It seems like no violent acts the Indians do are any worse than what the white men do, such as Ethan performing the only scalping in the movie. This interesting move was one that steered away from the vision of Indians being wild savages.
The Searchers is one of the classic Westerns for a reason. There are so many underlying meanings, conflicts, and elements that one can examine and analyze that it would be a difficult task to accomplish without making it a large research study. A few of those meanings, conflicts, and elements include: the storyline, the character of Ethan Edwards, the culture clash between Whites and Indians, and the visual elements and meanings in the film.