Z To A: The Searchers (1956)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate who sets out to find his niece, captured by Comanches who massacred his family. He won’t surrender to hunger, thirst, the elements or loneliness. And in his obsessive quest, Ethan finds something unexpected: his own humanity.

– From DVD Production Notes

The Searchers was an interesting and unexpected challenge for this series. Seeing it again proved that American classics don’t (and can’t) change but the times do, especially when it comes to political correctness. After all, the most walkouts I’ve seen in a theater were during a screening of Birth Of A Nation (1915). Like The Searchers, Nation is embedded in American myth, defining a time that may be embarrassing or infuriating to future generations.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that The Searchers is a well-made film, perhaps John Ford’s masterpiece. In spite of its tragic subject matter it has a little bit of everything: comedy, romance, suspense and action as well as incredible landscapes (thanks to cinematographer Winton C. Hoch). What makes it challenging is its racial and sexual implications, as well as its portrayal of American-Native American relations in the 1860s. It could work a commentary on moral ambiguity and the futility of revenge, but I doubt that was the film’s original intention.

This time around I found myself wondering if its premise was a complete fiction. Would Native Americans really draw white men away from the homes and kill their livestock as a ruse? Would they really burn down their homes, murdering and raping whoever they found inside? May I add that these attacks are portrayed as unprovoked? I couldn’t help but think that Natives had better things to do, and killing isolated and nearly defenseless families would be a waste of time and resources, not to mention an invitation to war.

With a little research I found out that the events in The Searchers were very real. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Alan Le May, and his research indicated there were dozens of child-abduction in Texas during the 19th century. There are particular similarities between the abduction of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, her pursuing uncle James W. Parker and the Texas legend Brit Johnson. There is also evidence that similar raids/massacres took place in Texas, in which Natives would execute settlers and their families without provocation.

Needless to say, The Searchers portrays these acts as cold-blooded and senseless. They are the point where the uncomfortable issues of racism, interracial sex (in this case, never consensual) and the cycle of revenge constantly collide. As Ethan tirelessly searches, aided by his adopted “nephew” Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), their differences in opinion become impossible to ignore. For one thing, Martin is an admitted “one-eighth Cherokee,” which disgusts Ethan from the get-go. His hatred for Natives precedes the story, and is most likely due to his mother’s death at the hands of Comanches.

This is important since it explains Ethan’s hatred for Natives, separating it from straight-up racism. His feelings are motivated by pain and loss. Interestingly this fact is never stated in the film and it takes a quick eye to catch it. We discover the fate of Ethan’s mother through text on a headstone moments before his niece, Debbie (played by Lana Wood as a child; Natalie Wood as a teenager), is kidnapped by the film’s main villain, Scar (Henry Brandon):

The inscription reads: “Here lies Mary Jane Edwards, Killed by Comanches May 12, 1852, A good wife and Mother in her 41st year.”

However, Ethan’s motivation for pursuing the Comanches who take Debbie and her sister Lucy (Pippa Scott) isn’t what you’d expect. He isn’t trying to save them from a similar fate. He isn’t even after them for the sake of their deceased mother and his long lost love, Martha (Dorothy Jordan). The truth is that he wants to kill them since they have been “ruined” by rape and integrated into a culture he loathes. As he surveys similar victims recovered from another tribe a bystander comments, “It’s hard to believe they’re white.”

“They ain’t white,” he replies, and as he looks at these broken, frightened women his face darkens with hate.

In contrast Martin’s only intention is to save Lucy and bring her home. Somehow this makes him the simpler and less interesting of the two characters. It also makes him the brunt of Ethan’s abuse. Nevertheless he argues with anyone who insists that Debbie is expendable or beyond help, whether it is Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) or his love interest Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), who supplies one of the most disturbing, racist speeches in the film. Even Ethan’s attempt to get him personally involved falls flat.

Ethan: “I didn’t mean to speak of it, but I’m gonna tell you now. You remember that scalp strung on Scar’s lance? Long and wavy?”
Martin: “Yeah, I saw it. And don’t try to tell me it was Aunt Martha’s or Lucy’s!”
Ethan: “It was your mother’s.”

After that Ethan begins to saunter away, figuring the damage has been done, but Martin shouts, “That don’t change it. That don’t change nothin’!” The idea of a tainted Debbie, blindly hating the Comanches or exacting revenge for his own pleasure holds no interest to him. He simply wants to return his little sister to the life she had before.

It was Martin that I rested on so heavily while re-watching this film. It is through his character that the film transcends the idea of revenge. He isn’t perfect by any means, and oftentimes he comes across as too naive or the comic relief. His throw-down with rival Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) is one of the funniest fight scenes I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t add much to the narrative; it nearly stands on its own- a short story within a longer novel. As childish as he can be at times, he remains committed to his ideas until the very end.

Surprisingly it is Ethan who experiences an unexpected change, that his hatred can’t override all of his feelings. We can only speculate how this change will effect his future. In my case I didn’t care enough for Ethan to dwell on this.

In fact, I couldn’t remember why I had purchased The Searchers in the first place. It’s possible I might not own it much longer. I suppose its placement in this series will foreshadow entries to come, films that deal with morally ambiguous heroes or the rape-revenge genre. I was troubled by its inherent racism, and for a while I wondered if Ford and Wayne were making a statement about it.

Instead I found this famous quote from Wayne: “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans], if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Yeesh. I guess not. Ethan Edwards is pretty close to the real thing, and his justifications were 100% real.

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2 thoughts on “Z To A: The Searchers (1956)

  1. this movie would actually make for an interesting remake today. and i’m usually one of those who thinks originals should be left alone, but having this story redone would make for interesting cast and story.

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