'The Searchers'

Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.

Contentious as the debate remains, even today, about the strident racism expressed by Ethan Edwards and others throughout The Searchers, there can be no such argument about what the film has to say about American masculinity. 

Director John Ford’s masterpiece - well, one of them at least - positively oozes testosterone. That’s to be expected, I suppose, in a cowboys-and-Indians Western, but it’s still jarring even upon repeated viewings, perhaps because Ford is so adept at getting the blood pumping in this particular instance.

Ford’s star John Wayne first appears in the film framed by the doorway to a home. His arrival has been trumpeted with not only the excitement of his brother’s family, but also with a song that’s lyrics explicitly ponder the nature of manhood.

“What makes a man to wander,” croon Sons of the Pioneers on the title track. “What makes a man to roam,” they continue.

“What makes a man leave bed and board. And turn his back on home? Ride away, ride away, ride away”

Wayne ends the film in almost the same exact position, gazing inside a homestead, the darkness of the shelter a stark contrast to the light pouring in from out. At the beginning of the film, he enters the home with his job not yet begun. By its end, he won’t step foot inside. His niece rescued from kidnapping, he seems unsure where to go, only that it can’t be inside there. 

This is, of course, all an absurdly idealized treatise on American masculinity, if, indeed, it is to be taken at face value at all.  

Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is at once a savior and a force of nature. He is susceptible to human emotion - flying in to a rage at even a passing mention of Indians, staring longingly at his sister-in-law - but also seems to have mastery over it, just as he is, at different moments, master or at the mercy of the wilds of West Texas.

He spits three- and four-word responses in a monotone that feel like they must have instantly become part of the pop culture lexicon.

“That’ll be the day." 

“Never occurred to me.”

“It’s your funeral.”

They certainly are part of the lexicon now.

The interesting thing about trying to analyze The Searchers now is that it becomes a sort of Rorschach test for what you think of Ford and Wayne, and more broadly of American history and society then and now and the messaging of films put out by Hollywood during its Golden Age. 

Put another way, there’s this inescapable “are they serious with this shit” feeling throughout the film that I’m sure wasn’t present for someone viewing it in 1956.

Reckoning with it is a big part of what makes it so compelling now, that is, of course, beyond the glorious panoramic shots of Monument Valley in Cinemascope and the indellible sequences that influenced everyone from Martin Scorsese to George Lucas. 

There is danger in either answer to the are they serious with this shit question.

If you say yes, you ignore the very likely possibility that Ford and Wayne knew exactly what they were doing in crafting such a cartoonish rage-filled expression of American masculinity. I have trouble buying an argument that they weren’t at least partially sending up the stories this pair collaborated on prior. In the beginning, there are vague allusions to Ethan’s criminal past. In the end, he can’t walk through that door. His inability to do so hardly seems like a triumph or something to aspire to - as it might for, say, the Man With No Name. Indeed, it just seems deeply sad.

On the other hand, if you answer the question in the negative, you ignore both the history of the American West and Hollywood. Read Empire of the Summer Moon or any other accounts of the savagery perpetrated by white settlers and Comanches against each other during much of the 19th century - many of which form the basis for this film - and you will begin to understand how genuine and realistic the hatred expressed by Ethan is.

“Livin with Comanches ain’t being alive,” says Ethan. 

Over the top as it sounds to modern ears, it’s a sentiment that likely would have been shared by most whites in West Texas in the 1850s.

Beyond the period being depicted, there is the question of the audience first viewing this story. And there it’s hard to argue that the average viewer of the 1950s would have taken this at anything other than face value. I spent a long time talking to my mother about this - she is a child of the era and also someone who spent her adult life urging her anthropology students (and me) to reconsider the supremacist attitudes so prevalent when she was growing up.

All the kids in her Southern California neighborhood played cowboys and Indians growing up. There’s no doubt how they would have seen Wayne’s character, she said. 

Yes, mother, but that doesn’t mean Ford and Wayne weren’t going for something else. It just means their audience wasn’t ready for it to connect.

Me? I think The Searchers is mostly subversive by being realistic.  

In one of the film’s least picturesque but perhaps most telling scenes, Reverend Clayton sets out the ground rules for a fistfight between Martin Pawley, Wayne’s half-Indian sidekick in the film played by Jeffrey Hunter, and Charlie McCorry, a simpleton competing for the affections of Pawley’s love interest.

“Fight fair. No biting or gouging,” the good Reverend declares.

Martin and Charlie scuffle in the dust. The women, especially Laurie, the one at the center of this love triangle, are bizarrely engrossed by the fisticuffs. Both men adhere to the rules laid out, and by the end come to some sort of agreement. 

This is about where I see Ford coming down. The fight he’s showing is a nasty one - the kind that leaves everyone dirty in the end. There might be some sort of code to live up to, but, out there on the frontier, no matter what side you were on, it wasn't much of a guide.