An American Civil War veteran embarks on a years-long journey to rescue his niece from the Comanches after the rest of his brother’s family is massacred in a raid on their Texas farm
Thank the lord, this is the last Western that I have on this list. I hated it.
Hate may be too strong of a word. Maybe not.
Directed by John Ford and starring the Western icon himself, John Wayne, The Searchers takes place in Texas, 1868, as the giant title card will tell you at the beginning of the film. We meet Ethan Edwards (Wayne) as he returns home for the first time since the ending of the civil war, having fought for the Confederacy. We quickly learn that a Comanche tribe is killing one of the neighbors cattle, so Edwards along with the Police Captain (who also happens to be a reverend. More on that in a moment) go after this Comanche tribe. They find out that they’ve actually been duped and the Comanche tribe wanted to lure Edwards and the like away so they could burn down Edward’s family’s home. They kidnapped Edward’s niece, Debbie, who, at the time, is a mere 8 years old. Everybody else has been murdered. What follows is the longest search for somebody I’ve ever seen in a film, I think.
Edwards and his adopted nephew, Martin (who is 1/8th Cherokee and the film never lets us forget it) head out on a 5 years long trip to find Debbie, across the “wild west” of the United States. Spoiler: eventually they find her, and we have the pleasure of seeing a young Natalie Wood decked out in native American garb, so that’s great.
There are a couple things in this film that I really want to touch on. First, the whole “Cowboys vs Indians” trope. Correct me if I’m wrong, but none of the other Western’s on this list had the native’s being the “bad guys”. The Searchers, however, did and it made me very uncomfortable. Mainly, because, we are never really given a reason to view the native’s as “bad”. We are meant to immediately take the side of the “civilized” people, which is baffling. Because they’re not on the right side of this. Edward’s whole reason for villainizing the Comanche tribe is that a member of said tribe killed his mother, as can be seen on the gravestone shown briefly towards the beginning of the film. That’s part of the reason for his tunnel vision vengeance. Like, my guy, take a look inside yourself. Figure out how to heal that way. Don’t take it out on an entire tribe of people and let it fuel hatred forever. All this film really showed me is that toxic masculinity really has been around for way too long. Because this film is dripping with it.
With the native’s being portrayed as “bad” comes some very cruel moments. Edward’s, at one point, mutilates a Comanche corpse by shooting two bullet’s through their eyes. In trying to justify this, Edwards responds that he did that so the native would have to now wander the spirit world forever, per their beliefs. Edward’s throughout the film uses derogatory language toward his adopted nephew, calling him a “half-breed” right from the start and refusing to acknowledge Martin as part of his family. Martin, however, is not free from this cruelty. He, without realizing it, buys himself a bride from a native tribe referred to as Look (actual name Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky). When Look tries to merely lay next to Martin to go to sleep (because she doesn’t speak any English and doesn’t know what else to do since, in her culture, she’s just been sold to this man for marriage), and Martin kicks her down a goddamn hill. It was such a dehumanizing moment.
The racism, as you can tell from everything above, is rampant throughout the film. And those moments mentioned above isn’t even the last of the racism. There’s a moment when Ethan and Martin are being taken by some troops to see some young Caucasian girls who had previously been held captive by Native’s. One of the calvary men says “Can’t believe they’re white.” in which Ethan’s response is “they ain’t anymore”, implying that the native’s took the “whiteness” from them. Which is literally impossible and everybody in this film just needs to calm down. Being a white person myself, I can tell you we are not superior to anyone. It’s just disheartening to realize how long that narrative has been pushed and how long it’s been ingrained in everything in this country.
Ethan feels the same way towards his niece Debbie when they finally locate her. She’s been living as part of the Comanche tribe, as a bride to the chief. And, in Ethan’s eyes, she deserves to die. Literally. He tries to kill her and then disowns her in a very overdramatic, eye rolling moment. It’s the only moment in the film where I thought there was some character development happening with our main character of Ethan. At first, I thought he was now accepting Martin as his kin. But, turns out, his writing Martin into a Last Will and Testament was just so he can show that he disowns his only blood kin left, Debbie. Because to choose to stay with the tribe and dress that way, that’s the worst thing you could do in the eyes of Ethan Edwards. And that’s disgusting.
Ultimately, Debbie does end up going back with her step-brother and her uncle. And, listen, her situation is more messed up than anybody else’s. Girl was kidnapped at 8 years old and was forced to live with her kidnappers for 5 years, eventually becoming a very young bride to the chief. That has to mess with your head. But, god forbid Ethan have any sympathy for that.
Speaking of disheartening narratives that have been pushed for far too long, let’s talk about how the head of the law enforcement for this little area also happens to be a reverend. At one point, one of his men is about to die. So, what does he do? He tells him exactly this: “Here’s the bible. Hold it. It’ll make you feel good”. And then the dude dies. Like, y’all couldn’t have done anything with bandages? Tried to cauterize the wound? Put in literally any effort to help keep that man alive?
When I realized that the police captain and the reverend were one in the same, it was a major red flag for me watching this film. It’s perpetuating “American values” that are really just the values of one group of people. Yet, this film remains on a list of greatest films ever.
For those that would argue that John Wayne’s character of Ethan Edwards is supposed to be seen as an “anti-hero”, I would argue back: is Wayne still an “anti-hero” if the film is framed in a way to make him the hero?
I understand that this is a Western from the heyday of Western’s. But does a Western with these “values” still deserve to be seen as one of the “greatest films of all time” as the title of the AFI list implies? Honestly, I don’t think so. The only thing truly remarkable about this film is Ford’s ability to film vast, sweeping landscapes in Technicolor. When the American Film Institute re-evaluates their list, maybe they’ll think about removing this Western. Or, at least removing most of them. There’s nearly 10 on this list. Keep Unforgiven. Keep Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Keep Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Get rid of the rest. Film has evolved into so much more and there are so many other films that deserve to have a spot on this list, with more cultural impact. The only thing this film seems to have spawned (besides references to the closing shot pictured above) is the spot-on impression of John Wayne in The Birdcage.