Almost everyone is familiar with the image of John Wayne, especially from Westerns and war films. He is often a cowboy or a lawman, a loner who seeks justice either for himself or for others. Wayne’s mere presence has become iconic, and long ago entered into the American consciousness. He transcended his own being, and became a symbol of something different than himself.
In John Ford’s 1956 Western, “The Searchers,” Wayne takes the image of a soldier and a loner to another aesthetic level. In general, Westerns have a tendency to resemble the great tragedies, be they Greek or Shakespearean, and “The Searchers” certainly fits into that category. But the film’s distinctly American essence also reveals tensions brought on by man’s conception of God and faith. “The Searchers” is essentially a religious film.
Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man who, after many years, returns to his brother’s homestead in Texas. It has been three years since the Civil War ended, and Ethan had fought for the “Confederate States of America.” He’s a man fatigued from fighting the war, yet that is all he knows how to do. He is welcomed by his brother, Aaron, and Aaron’s family: wife Martha, and their children, Lucy, Debbie, and Ben, as well as an adopted young man, Martin Pawley. The family is happy that Ethan is alive. Perhaps finally, there will be some peace for everyone.
But living on the frontier also means living among others, namely various Native American tribes. Some tribes are more peaceful than others, some downright homicidal and horrific. The entire atmosphere is tinged with a constant looming threat in which “the white man” and “the Indian” are caught in a destructive relationship based on hatred and revenge.
Texas Rangers pay a visit to Edwards’ home, seeking help. One of Aaron’s neighbors, a Swedish immigrant, Lars Jorgensen, has had his cattle stolen. The Rangers, Ethan, and Martin set out on a trail, only to find the cattle dead, pierced with Comanche arrows. The entire act appears to have been a ruse to get the men away from the Edwards’ home. The result is devastating: the home is set on fire, Aaron, Martha, and Ben have been killed (and the suggestion is that Martha may have been raped as well), and Lucy and Debbie are missing.
The Rangers agree to come with Ethan to search for Lucy and Debbie. On their journey, Ethan finds Lucy, raped and dead. He wraps her in his coat and buries her. Now, all that’s left is to look for is Debbie. Against Ethan’s wishes, Martin joins him in the search. The two men don’t get along, but it’s mainly due to Ethan’s prickly demeanor. There isn’t a shred of vulnerability or compassion in this man, and his moral code is guided by something other than faith. Even when they bury Aaron, Martha, and Ben, Ethan quickly stops the service—there is no use to praying, the time is to act.
The mission to rescue Debbie drags out for days, then months, then years. Martin remains hopeful but Ethan doesn’t even know if she is still alive. He is not a hopeful man, and finds faith to be a waste of time. While Martin is driven by love, Ethan appears to be driven only by rage, hatred, and revenge. Yet for both men, the common reason for being is finding Debbie.
As they’re journeying, Ethan and Martin receive information that Debbie has been taken by a Comanche chief, Scar, and has been living with him as one of his wives. Ethan’s interest in the mission at this point changes. He now wants to find Debbie in order to kill her. She has been “stained” by the spirit and the body of the Comanche and she does not belong to the world of “the white man” anymore. She might as well be dead, according to Ethan.
Ethan and Martin eventually do find Debbie, but she is confused. She tells them that the Comanche are her people now, yet there is some small shred of regard for her previous life that awakens her from the surreal and unfamiliar nightmare in which she’s been living. The battle between Ethan and Martin rages on. They can’t agree on anything, and as Ethan is reaching out to get Debbie, nobody knows what he will do, although the suspicion rests in Ethan’s desire to kill her.
John Wayne’s towering figure and the way he is portrayed cinematically leads us to an uncertain search for who this man really is. Is he an honorable man or is he a monster? Yet as he takes Debbie’s tired body, in one moment, everything changes. “Let’s go home, Debbie.” It is as if then this weary man awakened from his own slumber, as if he was blind and was suddenly cured, as if he has finally found peace.
Ethan, in essence, is a nowhere man. He doesn’t fit into the emerging new world. He is tired from the war, which for him, was lost. He has no home, as if God spoke to him just as he spoke to Cain, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” He sees nothing welcoming on the horizon, only an evil that always lurks. He certainly doesn’t find any comfort in God, yet he is burdened by an understanding of what is good and what is evil.
But as the film shows, the lines between good and evil are often blurred. Almost no one in the film is fully innocent. The Comanches are merciless and ruthless. They are not “noble savages” but murderous marauders. Scar seeks justification for his heinous acts through his own conception of religion and spirit, while at the same time, enacting pure violence of a primal nature. Yet he, too, is led by some sense of justice: “Two sons killed by white man. For each son, I take many . . . scalps.” However, this is not “an eye for an eye,” but a multiplied rage of revenge.
It would be far too simplistic to say that “The Searchers” is about a clear difference between the Christian God and the spirits of the Comanche tribe. There is no room for forgiveness in this film, only judgment and justice. The Jorgensens welcome Debbie back but earlier in the film, Laurie implies to Martin that Ethan may not be wrong about his insistence to kill Debbie. According to her, Martha would have put a bullet in her head as well.
Among the questions that arise in “The Searchers” is to what kind of “tribe” do we all belong? What kind of scars do we carry? For all his rage and tension, it is Ethan alone who appears to be free, but even for him it is only to a certain extent. The rules of society don’t apply to him at all. He has seen war and murder, and he fully rejects any aesthetic superficialities of the “white man’s” society. He considers Christian religious ritual meaningless. Any belief in God is useless because of what men do to one another.
Everyone is stained by war (be it the Civil War, the Mexican War, or the continued fights with the Native American tribes), and the characters wonder if America can ever be whole. Lars’ wife sees nothing good. Only when her bones are in the ground, she says, and once another generation passes through, things may get better. The struggle continues. The land is unforgiving and so are the people.
After Debbie returns to the home of Lars Jorgensen, she and Martin are greeted by the members of the Jorgensen family. Lars’ daughter, Laurie, is reunited with Martin, and there is a semblance of peace. They all walk through the door, except for Ethan. In what is one of the most beautiful and emotional scenes depicted in cinema, Ethan looks on with pride and a smile but turns around and leaves. Just as he came from nowhere at the beginning of the film, he leaves into nowhere.