The story that Alan LeMay wrote, that Frank S. Nugent adapted, and that John Ford in his usual fashion pared down, is simple although abounding in incident. In Texas, 1868, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, where he lives with his wife Martha, his young son, his daughters Lucy and Debbie, and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an adopted son whose parents were killed by Indians. Rapidly we are given to understand that Ethan’s recent past is mysterious and dubious; gestures and exchanged glances also establish that Ethan and Martha love each other.
The next day Ethan and Martin ride with a posse to investigate the theft of cattle from a neighboring family, the Jorgensens. Too late they recognize the theft as a diversionary ruse by Comanches. Aaron, Martha, and their son are killed in a massacre we do not witness; the girls have evidently been taken captive. Ethan and Martin, at first accompanied and then on their own, set off in pursuit; Lucy is found raped and murdered, but they continue hunting for Debbie (played as an adult by Natalie Wood). Seasons turn into years; the search advances through snowy landscapes and stretches of desert.
Martin becomes aware that Ethan, appalled at the idea of Debbie becoming a Comanche, may not want to rescue her but to kill her. When she is at last found it appears that he will do just that, but instead he lifts her into his arms and takes her to the Jorgensens, whose ranch has now become a surrogate home replacing the one destroyed in the beginning. Debbie and the others enter the house; Ethan, the eternal outsider, goes on his way.
This broad outline hardly conveys the experience of watching a movie of such measured and detailed expressiveness. Virtually every shot in The Searchers has the density of a composition whose implications have been nurtured over a lifetime; Ford’s collaboration with cinematographer Winton C. Hoch yields images that seem fundamental and inescapable, virtually abstract, yet teeming with the human life that inhabits them. Each scene establishes a distinct geography; we move through many worlds in a film that feels hauntingly extended although only two hours long.
Ford creates epic feeling through compression. What for some filmmakers would be a scene with him might be a fragment of dialogue or a glance, like the glances that convey all we are told about the emotional bond between Ethan and Martha. Frank Nugent, whose superb script was made even better by Ford’s cuts, wrote that “Ford never has formally surrendered to the talkies” and “detests exposition.” Remarkably, the film was shot out of sequence, with different moments of crucial scenes (like Debbie’s rescue) shot in separate locations. “He never shot in continuity,” according to his frequent collaborator William H. Clothier, “it didn’t mean a damn thing to him…. He could shoot a close-up here and put it in a scene that was shot three weeks later.”
The uncanniness of The Searchers—I don’t know another word for it—is the impression it creates of emanating in one piece from a single perception. There is an aesthetic unity, expressed through color and geometry, the movements of actors and animals, the texture of landscape and language. (The landscape is mostly Monument Valley, substituting for the altogether different Texas Plains setting of the story; the language incorporates a mixture of near-biblical archaisms and folksy turns of phrase, often drawn directly from LeMay’s text.) That sense of unity vibrates against the roiled and contradictory currents of the material. The movie is all about violence and incompatibility, about families ripped apart and individuals torn down the middle, about traumas that cannot be forgotten and losses that cannot be made up. There is a ragged sense of pain at its heart.
Yet we are talking about a work of popular entertainment marketed with great success. Part of Ford’s genius lay in doing precisely what he wanted without declaring it, often hiding his subtlest implications under seeming obviousness. His is an art of concealment, appropriate to a man who managed to conceal himself within the domineering, sometimes cruelly bullying persona he perfected to protect his domain. (By Maureen O’Hara’s testimony, Ford “built walls of secrecy, lies, and aggression.”) He made The Searchers at a bad moment; he had withdrawn in mid-production from Mister Roberts after punching Henry Fonda and then, contrary to his usual practice, beginning to drink heavily on the set. (Ford’s alcoholism was deep but controlled; he made the movies sober, then collapsed into binges.) He was sixty and had serious health problems; his eyes were getting bad.
The Searchers feels like a challenge undertaken. In the early 1950s Ford made a string of beautiful, entirely personal films—Wagon Master, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright—in which private allegorical worlds were disguised as the Old West or Ireland or the Old South. The Searchers lets in a ferocity previously kept at bay—lets it in primarily through its star. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards becomes a medium for expressing a race-hatred and lust for vengeance all the more disturbing for being only a part of a complex and, despite all, sympathetic personality—he is, after all, the hero.
Of the Cynthia Ann Parker story and the world in which it unfolded, The Searchers keeps only fragments, yet it channels a live current of emotion directly from some unhealed hurt, some old well of fear. Right at the start we are made to experience the fear of massacre, of being set upon in the middle of nowhere and violated, tortured, wiped out. I don’t know if anyone has compared The Searchers to Psycho, but the destruction of the Edwards family just after we make their acquaintance—a destruction all the more terrifying because we are not allowed to see it, just as Ethan knocks down Martin to prevent him from seeing his aunt’s body—surpasses Janet Leigh’s shower scene in intensity. There, a person kills a person; here, a group annihilates another group. Psycho makes us worry about getting killed; The Searchers makes us worry about people we love getting killed while we can do nothing about it.
The shot of John Wayne leaning on his saddle as Ethan grasps that he will be unable to reach his brother’s home in time is like a photograph of the moment when suffering turns into vengeful bitterness. It is the face of a sorrow that can justify unlimited hatred. Frankel, writing about James Parker’s narrative of his travails, notes the persistent self-pity that informs it, while acknowledging that his sufferings were doubtless real enough: “I pursued my journey with little hope of being alive at night, or ever again beholding the face of a human being.” Ethan clearly derives from James, a man with a dubious past and capable of murder, a stark early wilderness figure right down to his occasional biblical utterance: “We’ll find them just as sure as the turning of the earth.” Everyone else in the film seems modern and forward-looking alongside this ancient wanderer who cannot forget or forgive—everyone, that is, except for his opposite number, the Comanche chief Scar, Debbie’s abductor and consort, whom Ethan will finally scalp.
The Searchers is not a liberal western in the mode of Broken Arrow (1950) or Apache (1954). Ford’s son Pat wrote in a preproduction note: “We hope to portray the Comanches with as much barbarism and savagery as possible.” The film’s premise is pretty much that of the original Texas settlers: they saw it as their destiny to settle on the land and would remove any obstacles to that end. Mrs. Jorgensen’s eloquent speech (“Someday this country will be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come”) could just as easily have come from the pen of James Parker, who wrote:
If this region was not infested by hostile Indians, it would be very soon settled, and when once settled and cultivated by civilized man, it will approximate to an earthly paradise.
Rhetorical ornaments aside, the story is about one implacable force colliding with another. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, the wealthy heir who largely financed the film, lobbied Ford to make it explicitly patriotic and suggested changing the title to The Searchers for Freedom. In fact the American nation is represented here by the army, depicted variously as comically inept and needlessly brutal; we see the aftermath of one indiscriminate massacre of Indians, and the final cavalry assault on Scar’s camp looks uncomfortably like the Pease River Massacre. Otherwise we are dealing with small isolated groups struggling to assert a place in a merciless landscape.
The Comanche enemy as such is not the problem: Chief Scar is merely the alien other to be dealt with like any other opposing force. That is the stuff of clean heroic tales. Mere death and torture were common elements even for the most innocuous adventure movies. But the poison that seeps into The Searchers is the mixing of bloodlines. Ethan’s rage is focused on sexual violation by which a woman is irrevocably alienated. Aunt Martha and Lucy are killed after being raped, and Ethan assumes that this is preferable to Debbie’s living on after being married to a Comanche.
Frankel ranges through the nineteenth-century record to exhibit the constantly recurring theme of the Fate Worse Than Death. Yet strangely enough in a 1956 movie it had a shocking effect. We were on the edge of being shown some ultimate image of degradation and cruelty, and there was only John Wayne to spare us by blocking the view, as when Ethan refuses to say more about Lucy’s fate: “What have I got to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live don’t ever ask me more!”
Those blacked-out images, the scenes we are not permitted to see, have, as their counterpart, the images we do see of the violence their memory provokes: Ethan shooting out the eyes of a dead Comanche because “by what that Comanch believes, ain’t got no eyes he can’t enter the spirit land, has to wander forever between the winds,” or slaughtering a buffalo herd to help starve Indians, or simply plunging his knife repeatedly with main force into the sand: perhaps the most subtly troubling of all, pure violent energy lacking only a target.
But Ethan is the hero; and so when the moment arrives when according to all that has come before he must shoot Debbie down, he relents and lifts her up: “Come on, Debbie, we’re going home.” Here we enter definitively the country of legend. The unlikeliness of Ethan breaking out of the circle of vengefulness is written on John Wayne’s face again and again, most vividly in the scene—Frankel singles it out as “the richest and most troubling”—in which he looks in horror and disgust at the deranged white women recovered from a Comanche camp.
That Ethan should be liberated in an instant from history is a miracle. It is the resolved chord that the film needs and that history lacks. Ford does not wish to deny history or offer the kind of specious happy ending that movies of the era were generally glad to provide; so while he lets us rest in the possibility that the restored Debbie will find in the bosom of her new family the serenity that Cynthia Ann Parker never knew, he severs John Wayne from the reunion and sends him out into the howling wilderness. We may, as in the hymn sung twice in the film, gather at the river; but there are chasms that cannot be bridged.