“Welcome home, Ethan,” Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) utters to John Wayne’s lead character as he emerges from the horizon of the barren western landscape. A wanderer and bitter individual representative of the identity of contemporary American culture, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is on a mission to rescue his niece, Debbie, from the clutches of the Comanches in John Ford’s classic western.
Released in 1956 in an America still bruised from the effects of WWII, The Searchers is far from a normal patriotic film of the genre. One of the earliest examples of a revisionist western, Ford’s film is critical of America’s chequered past and places Hollywood icon John Wayne front and centre as a venomous defender of the country’s troubled ideals.
Tracking his niece’s whereabouts with Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Wayne’s Ethan soon discovers that, to his horror, Debbie is alive but has also integrated with the Comanche community. It was troubling him like a shot to the stomach; Wayne attempts to kill Debbie in order to fulfil his longing pain before Martin steps in. It’s a deeply painful, haunting moment of realisation for Ethan where we see a man blinded by his own obsessive hatred of Comanches and all Native Americans, for that matter.
Though, his attitude is merely reflective of a cultural identity that poisoned America throughout the 17th century, with The Searchers crucially identifies the futility of such beliefs.
A previous confederate soldier during the American Civil War whilst also fighting in the Mexican revolutionary war, Ethan is an all-American man, a vehicle for the country’s history who is burdened with its peppered troubles. The hatred for those that disrespect ‘his’ America permeates through his very being, illustrated in one particular scene where he and his search party find a Comanche buried underneath a rock. Instead of leaving the man’s body, Ethan shoots out their eyes so that they will not be allowed to enter the spirit lands, a heavenly plain of eternal grace. It’s a bitter, callous act that has no impact on his life or his posse’s. His hatred simply runs that deep.
So, when he finally tracks down his niece, despite his ten-year search, he is incessant on one thing, blind slaughter and revenge. The fixation of Ethan’s crazed racist hate is called into question, and whilst forced into a moral dilemma, he is numbed. Reaching the long-desired goal of his ten-year journey Ethan is not relieved or in joyous rapture; he is broken and seemingly ashamed, his moral purpose thrown into the winds of the west.
This powerful characterisation and historical importance of John Wayne’s central character make Ford’s film the greatest western film ever made, shying away from redundant iconography of the genre to access a deeper American truth. Taking Debbie back home, Ethan leaves the homestead he so heroically arrived in, on his own, clutching his arm as a lonely victim of the harsh wild west in an iconic piece of cinematography.
Lonely and ashamed, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards retreats to the barren western wastelands like tumbleweed rolling in the wind. Without the purpose of perpetual hatred, Wayne is a lonely searcher and a relic of old America.