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Debating ‘The Searchers’ and its place in the Western canon

Debating ‘The Searchers’ and its place in the Western canon

the searchers poster

As Sound on Sight’s Western month reaches its conclusion, two of the hosts of your favorite Disney movie podcast, Mousterpiece Cinema, Josh Spiegel and Gabe Bucsko met in the show’s vaunted and secretive HQ to discuss and debate what many people would claim is the greatest Western of all time: the 1956 John Ford film The Searchers. One of your hosts considers that claim perfectly accurate, and the other one is Josh. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Can this debate ever be settled? It’s up to Josh and Gabe to answer these hard questions, so read on for the answers!

Josh: I don’t remember much about my freshman year in college–thanks more to an unfailingly poor memory than to partying, I assure you–but one clear memory is that of my fall-semester film professor blowing his gasket when I told him I hated one of his favorite movies. The class syllabus was, shall we say, sketchy, in that we watched and discussed that cinematic classic Fatal Attraction in the first week. However, I wasn’t slagging the Glenn Close-Michael Douglas drama to my teacher. No, I’d dared to besmirch the good name of John Ford’s seminal Western The Searchers. Then and now, I’ve never been a huge fan of the genre, and this 1956 tale of an ex-Confederate soldier hunting down and attempting to rescue his niece from a vicious Comanche tribe turned me off instantly. Yet today, I find myself struggling to figure out exactly why.

I could chalk up my initial loathing of the film to not liking John Wayne as an actor or presence in cinema. And that’s true: for the most part, I’m not a fan of John Wayne, no matter which film of his I see, be it Red River or Rio Bravo. (Stagecoach is the only Wayne film where his presence doesn’t either bother me wholeheartedly or make me snicker ironically. I know this is my problem.) Or, maybe it’s that I dislike most Westerns. But it’s safer to assume I was just being a punk, in the least punkish way possible. I don’t want to characterize my first-blush reaction as a lie. I didn’t like The Searchers at all. Yet I almost was prideful when telling my professor so. After revisiting the film a decade later, was I wrong to be so blunt? (Well, yeah.) And did my initial interpretation of the film miss the mark?


Oh my, yes. I’m not about to place The Searchers on my all-time favorites list, like you have, Gabe, but as I watched the film this time, I found much more to appreciate, even in simple filmmaking techniques. Ford was the iconic Western director, and the imagery he presents, not just in the mountainous tableaux in Monument Valley, but in the artfully simplistic yet direct choreography of the Edwards family sitting down to breakfast in the first act, is gorgeous. That I classify it as such while watching it on a standard-definition feed from TCM bolsters the notion that the Blu-ray is likely a must-buy for any film fan. The characters also didn’t repel me as they once had. Ethan Edwards, as played by Wayne, is still a virulent bigot who reverses his stance at the very end. But then, I’m not meant to hold Ethan in high regard. The memorable final shot always rubbed me the wrong way, as some half-hearted plea for sympathy. “Why should I feel bad for this ass?” I wondered, probably out loud. Perhaps the only sympathy worthy of extending to Ethan is this: he doesn’t act terribly civilized in mixed company, not hiding his more primitive notions. Those around him try to be civilized, and often fail miserably. Their pretense allows them to look down on him, which is unfortunate.

But I’ve gone on long enough, Gabe. Tell me why you love this film so much, and be honest: are you a bit let down that I didn’t hate the film as much the second time around as I did back in 2002?

Gabe: My love for The Searchers has been a slow burn throughout my life. In 1998, the American Film Institute released their initial list of “100 Years…100 Movies,” and my father decided, after several days of pleading on my part, that I should see all the films on the list. There were still some that would be held for last, until I was older (Midnight Cowboy & A Clockwork Orange were two of the final films I’d see, at age 16). But one of the films on the immediate roster was The Searchers. At that point, I’d seen Stagecoach and The Quiet Man (which I’d also rediscover much later down the line), but otherwise I had yet to be exposed to John Ford.

I’d love to say I fell for The Searchers on that first viewing, but that would be revisionist history. I liked it quite a bit. I laughed at the Mose Harper scenes. I became quite terrified at the climax, wondering what Ethan would do when he lifted Natalie Wood in the air. I breathed a sigh of relief when the film had its “Hollywood ending” and homecoming. Then I moved on. I watched something else. And I thought nothing of it.

Several years later, I caught the film on TCM, and this time, I became very invested in the love story between Martin and Laurie. I scolded myself for waiting so long to revisit the film. TCM aired it again and again that year, and I watched every showing I could. Eventually, I taped it on a VHS (at the time, this was a significant ritual for me – before I owned my own film collection), and watched it over and over. I looked past the love story, which I now recognized as a B-plot put there to provide comic relief, and focused instead on John Wayne. Growing up, my dad always decried Wayne’s acting abilities, loudly protesting any time I tried to put on a Wayne vehicle.


The only two films of his my father never complained about were The Searchers and The Quiet Man.  I’d like to think that’s because Wayne’s performances as Ethan Edwards and Sean Thornton are undeniable. Both men are haunted by the scars of their past, driven to new lands in an attempt to start over, only to be pulled back into a situation that tests their resolve and forces them to confront their worst flaws in the ugliest manner conceivable. Of course, The Quiet Man‘s tone is much different; it’s a lighter film, though I’d argue the darkness is bubbling underneath. By that story’s conclusion, however, Sean Thornton has found a partner willing to help him confront those demons and lead him to a place of healing; there is no such guardian angel or shoulder to lean on for the perpetually tormented Ethan Edwards.

On our podcast, you’ve often mentioned that The Searchers is my #4 film of all time, almost as if you’re willing it to be false. Sorry to disappoint you. Those initial curious feelings, that desire to return to the film again as I entered middle and high school, gave way to a passionate love for the film that still burns to this day. Ethan’s literal and figurative search is one of the most profound journeys I’ve ever experienced, in any art form. In fact, it’s through analyzing this film that I’ve come to realize how similar the protagonists of my top four films are to one another. Michael Corleone, Jake LaMotta, and John “Scotty” Ferguson are men whose sense of meaning has been ripped asunder by a daily fight for survival, be it in the European theater of World War II or in the boxing ring. Ethan, too, is a grizzled veteran of the Civil War, a Confederate loyalist now considered a deserter because he refused to surrender. The displacement common to these men sets them adrift and leads them down darker paths as their stories progress.

For Ethan, the search for the lost Debbie may be his way of continuing the War; it may be his quest for vengeance, not just for his brother but for the death of his forbidden love Martha; or it may be his way of tempting fate, asking God to punish him for his transgressions. I don’t think any of these readings are “correct,” necessarily. The ambiguity of the “Why” is what gives The Searchers its meaning. It’s what keeps me coming back to experience Ethan’s search for condemnation, crucifixion, absolution. And it’s what reduces me to flowing tears each time the film concludes with what I believe to be the greatest shot in the history of motion pictures, that last look at this anguished, vicious, cursed murderer of a man – the searcher.

Now tell me, am I crazy to love the film as I do? Do I give Ford and Wayne too much credit? Am I projecting my own failures and ambitions onto Ethan? And no, I’m not disappointed that your hatred has dissipated. I’m mainly curious to see how charitable your newfound appreciation for the film will make you toward my worship. I’d also like to hear more about your initial dislike for Ethan and the film, and if, as I suspect, there are still some characters, plotlines, or themes you find troubling or misguided.


Josh: So many questions, and I’ll start with the simplest: you’re not crazy to love the film as you do. I think part of my fear in rewatching The Searchers was that I’d be so separated from seemingly every other film buff in despising the movie again. Obviously, that didn’t come true but I imagine mine is still roughly a minority opinion if only because I haven’t vacillated from hatred to unabashed love, even after maturing between viewings. And if I may, I’ve been so quick to mention your high placement of the film on your all-time list less as a way to push you toward doubt and more to emphasize the ocean of difference between us. Lord knows you wouldn’t be the first, hundredth, or thousandth person to rate this film so highly.

Regarding your description of Ethan, I think my problem does stem from Wayne. Like your father, I’m no fan of his acting, if we’re going to be so charitable as to dub his awkward gait and arrhythmic delivery of dialogue “acting.” I admit that I haven’t seen The Quiet Man. (Yes, I know.) As such, I can’t judge his work in that film, though I can look forward to it as another time to spend a couple hours with the lovely Maureen O’Hara. Where your father and I differ, though, is that I don’t totally give Wayne a pass for his work in The Searchers. Ethan is written as a complex character, no doubt; even in the opening act, when it’s almost laughably obvious to the local reverend that Ethan and his brother’s wife share a love for each other that will never be requited, Ethan’s layers are evident. That he’s also a former Confederate soldier with a harsh streak of stubbornness adds to his dimensions.

Too bad Ethan is played by an actor whose ability to offer multiple dimensions to his characters is weak. Wayne is best at extremes–one memorable moment in the film comes when one of the young men accompanying Ethan on the journey begs him to describe the fate of one of the Edwards daughters, his girlfriend. It’s obvious to us that the young woman met a viciously nasty end, so much that Ethan can’t fathom explaining it. His visceral response is appropriately intense and something of a jolt. But I’m not sure I see through Wayne’s performance a wrestling of ideas and thoughts, a man trying to come to terms with a changing landscape. I can read into it based on the script and the character history. The ideas are there. I don’t think Wayne’s able to execute it as fully. So I still don’t buy the film as a whole, but the complexities being present makes me respect it.

My initial dislike of The Searchers mostly was encapsulated in that last shot, which remained vivid in my memory. We don’t need to debate its unparalleled visual power. The separation of civilization and the wild, of humanity and something primitive, is present in the framing, where we see Ethan standing on the precipice of joining the survivors of the deadly Comanche attack, instead turning back to the wilderness. Because, however, I don’t totally buy Wayne’s performance, I don’t totally buy Ethan as a fully-lived character. And so, I don’t have anywhere near the emotional reaction to the ending that you do. (I would also say that spilling any tears for someone whose change at the end of the film is important, even though he’s exceptionally obstinate and unlikable, is something I can’t understand. Ethan Edwards does not deserve my tears.)


Something else I cringed at in 2002, and I still do now, is the depiction of the Native Americans in the film. (You knew I was going here, didn’t you?) A very strong argument could be made that because this film is set in Texas 3 years after the Civil War, the characters’ insensitivity is appropriate. Something I noticed and thought was impressively complex this time is that, as I mentioned earlier, every other white character in The Searchers is about as racist as Ethan. The romance you mention between Martin and Laurie tends to slow the pace of the film for me, but it also holds the key to the difference between Ethan and everyone else. He’s too honest in his prejudices. Laurie, in a late scene, seems content to let Debbie be taken for good as a Comanche squaw, presuming the worst of these supposed savages, as do the other white characters.

I realize that people harbored these stereotypes about Native Americans during the 1860s; however, it’s awfully difficult to watch The Searchers and truly sympathize with the plight of, say, a man whose true sin among his family isn’t that he’s stereotyped against Native Americans, but that he’s too proud of that fact. More than that, for a film willing to deepen its main character and offer such layers, I find the opposing side almost comically villainous. (Leave aside, for a second, the fact that the actor playing the main Native American was a white man.) In case we weren’t supposed to already dislike the Comanche tribe, guess what their leader’s name is? Scar. Hmm, I wonder if he’s got nefarious intent in mind for Debbie? The simplistic nature in which these symbols of the Other are portrayed–I hesitate to call them characters, because they really aren’t–is frustrating, especially because they don’t inspire change in Ethan. He’s probably still aggressively prejudiced toward Comanches after this journey. His specific obsession may be at an end, but I don’t think he’s changed his outlook on life in any real capacity. And though he may not be meant to, I’m not sure the film isn’t somewhat on his side at the end.

But what say you? Outside of, I’m sure, knowing that the issue of race and identity in The Searchers was a topic I was champing at the bit to discuss, have you ever found any level of distaste regarding the Native American representation in the movie? And what do you think about the external and internal battle the white characters wage in trying to be civilized?


Gabe: First, you must see The Quiet Man posthaste. The Blu-ray of the new restoration was released on January 22nd from Olive Films (they know where to send the money for this endorsement), and it’s a beauty. Second, do not besmirch the acting talents of one Marion Morrison. What about the scene in which Ethan adjusts his saddle, then pauses to look to the horizon, knowing the horrors that await his crew? What about the look on Wayne’s face as the dolly pushes in on him, Ethan’s utter disgust at having witnessed the insanity of the white women held captive by the “savages?” His line reading of “Cicatriz means Scar!” as he tosses the shot of whiskey into the fire, right on cue? His bemusement at Martin’s predicament with Look (“Come on up, Mrs. Pawley!”)? So much color is achieved there, and while I’ll grant you Wayne can be stiff in many of his other roles (a product of filming five or six parts per year), there’s something about his performance that elevates it above even his other heralded “darker” parts like Tom Dunson in Red River or Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

As further evidence of the physicality and emotion Wayne brings to the role, let’s look at the final scene again, and I’ll respond to your criticisms about its power and effectiveness. He rides up to the house, still carrying Debbie in his arms, perhaps contemplating snapping her neck. Next, we see a shot of Mose Harper nodding and smiling in his beloved rocking chair, a facsimile of a shot replicated in dozens and dozens of Hollywood endings then and now. “He found her!” we cry. It’s over! The titular search has ended and all is well! Ford even employs the same framing as the opening shot! Gosh, doesn’t that Pappy Ford love his bookends! Look, there’s Martin and Laurie, together at last! Ain’t they cute? Aw, Pa and Ma Jorgensen, we like them with their cute accents!

We think we know what’s going to happen here. Ethan will go into the house. He’ll hug Martin begrudgingly and his heart will melt like so many curmudgeonly Scrooges before him. But no. Ethan hands Debbie off to Mr. and Mrs. Jorgensen, taking a last curious look at her, trying to find that little girl who loved her Topsy somewhere in those eyes. He’s unsure of himself. He glances awkwardly at Debbie as she hugs Mrs. Jorgensen, still unconvinced he did the right thing bringing her back here. He looks to Mr. Jorgensen, asking for reassurance with his stance. None comes. The Jorgensens bring her inside, as the camera moves back. Ethan steps onto the porch, thinking of joining them, but hears the reunited lovebirds Martin and Laurie approaching from behind, blissfully unaware of him. He moves aside to let them enter the house. Martin dusts off his hat, signaling the end of his journey, and in response Ethan reaches out his right arm, only to clutch it in support, Wayne replicating Harry Carey Sr.’s most famous pose from the silent Westerns he made with Ford.. And now we have the composition that has entered the annals of cinema history. He looks longingly into the house, knowing he can never be a part of that love and happiness, then turns to meet whatever fate awaits him in the unknown, unwelcoming desert. The door swings shut. The End. Final Steiner music hit. No dialogue in the entire scene. No opportunity for the “arrhythmic delivery” to get in the way, just a beautiful composition surrounding that beautiful “awkward gait.”


Wayne says so much with body language in that scene. Look at how many beats he communicates with a look, a glance, a step, an arm clasp. To me, that’s great acting. I don’t believe, as you do, that Ethan’s sparing of Debbie is much of a character change. Some view the end of the film as Ethan saying, “Hey, I changed! I didn’t kill her like I said I would! Now let me into the house!” and the Jorgensens responding, “No, you racist! Stay outside with the other disreputables!” I don’t see that at all. Ethan decides in the moment not to kill Debbie. He may have intended to kill her as he lifted her up. He doesn’t go through with it because he remembers the other lives lost along the way. He’s sorry the Jorgensens lost Brad. He’ll live with his pain the rest of his life because it’s his, but why do the others need to go on hurting? When he says “Let’s go home, Debbie,” I believe he intends to do exactly what he does in that final scene. It’s a handoff. The song that opens and closes the film states, “His peace of mind he knows he’ll find, but where O Lord, Lord where?” I’m not sure Ethan believes he’ll find that peace, but he knows it won’t be waiting for him with the Jorgensens. There’s too much history, too much pain to be found there. He saves Debbie and brings her home, but Ethan Edwards cannot coexist with someone who lived as a “squaw” to Scar, the man who murdered his brother’s family, especially his unrequited love, Martha.

As to the film’s treatment and portrayal of Native Americans, while aspects of it remain troubling to this day, I don’t believe the film is trying to make a larger point or teach a lesson about the subject. That’s another reason I love The Searchers, but it’s also why many critics have come out of the woodwork to denounce it, as films these days need to say something, apparently. Ford merely presents us with a troubled, flawed man and asks us to do no more than follow him for two hours. We don’t have to like him, we just have to watch him. While the title suggests a built-in character arc of change, I don’t think that’s what happens here. Ethan is not much different as he walks away from the Jorgensen house at the end of the film than when he rode up to his brother’s home at its start. There are little nuances, to be sure. He’ll be kinder to Martin if he encounters him again. Should he come across future captives of Comanches or another tribe, he’s liable to be kinder to them, too – maybe. I don’t let Ford off the hook for casting Henry Brandon as Scar. Scar as written is a more interesting character than you describe, but Brandon’s stiff portrayal and angry blue eyes make him a cardboard villain, an obviously “racebended” one onscreen. I could go proceed with the tired film critic reading, “Who cares if Scar’s played by a white actor? ETHAN is really the villain here, Josh! Don’t you see, the protagonist is ALSO the antagonist! Look away, look away, Dixieland!” And while that’s accurate to an extent, Scar remains the man who took Debbie, offscreen though he is for much of the film. Brandon brings almost no presence to his few scenes, and with the casting of real Native Americans in the roles of Look and others, it’s troubling that the producers, casting directors, Ford, WB execs, whoever was in charge, weren’t able to fill that role accurately given the character’s spare but vital screen time.

My final point for this rebuttal will be an agreement (I said I agree, can you believe your eyes?). Over the course of the film, as you say, many of the supporting characters reveal their own bigotry in ways subtle—the look of disgust on some of the posse members’ faces when they encounter the Comanches—and unsubtle—Laurie’s sudden outburst against Martin’s desire to bring Debbie home. And I agree that Ethan gains the slightest sympathy from the viewer for being open about his hatred, rather than cloaking it with socially acceptable airs of righteousness and dignity as so many others do. And yes, he’s ostracized because of his big mouth. The others don’t like to be reminded constantly of their own failings and faults as a society. Ethan lives on the fringe and will continue to do so.

But I’ve rambled again. Have I convinced you of Marion Morrison’s thespian skills? Upon rewatching the final scene, do you finally understand the depths of my madness and obsession with the film? Am I projecting too much of my own sympathies onto an inherently unsympathetic character? And how stealthily did I dodge your questions about the film’s portrayal of race and whitewashed casting?


Josh: Gabe, the more you express concern that you’re projecting yourself onto Ethan Edwards, the more I wonder if you have some deep, dirty secret you need to get off your chest. You can tell me and all our virtual friends: are you a virulent bigot who’s only recently made a choice to save a family member after years of anti-Native American hate speech? Seriously, to your first question, I’m sorry, but you have not swayed me. Of all the moments you listed, the one that stands out most of all is when Ethan gleefully mocks the “relationship” Martin has with Look, only because it’s one of the few moments in the movie that still turns me off. I realize it’s a rare moment of levity, but one that serves to remind me of the cartoonish representation of Native Americans. See, it’s funny! ‘Cause she doesn’t understand English, and she’s got a schoolgirl crush on a pretty white boy! Don’t hurt yourself from laughing!

Other than that, I can’t say I found much to enjoy in Wayne’s work here. He’s no better or worse than in his other big roles (the ones I’ve seen), but I didn’t find nearly the level of subtlety that you’ve grown to appreciate over multiple viewings.

And dodge it or not, I do want to steer us back to the issue of Native Americans. To your argument, I don’t think a film like this is obligated to make a larger point. I wasn’t turning this film on for a second viewing expecting a detailed, honest presentation of the confrontations white people and Native Americans had after the Civil War. However, that doesn’t mean a film can’t avoid stereotypes or offensive casting. Even if we forget or ignore Scar and the actor who plays him, there’s still Look to deal with. Look is the most garish Native American on display, although Martin is written and played with a modicum of sympathy for her plight. (Of course, maybe that’s because of Martin’s Native American blood, which causes he and Ethan to butt heads almost instantly.) She’s a cartoon, which speaks to part of my frustration with the film.

Audiences now–and potentially some in 1956–see such representations and wince because we don’t hold those stereotypes anymore. (Or, those who do are quieter about it because they may be subconsciously aware they’ll be appropriately ostracized for such points of view.) I can begrudgingly agree that, because the movie is set in a more blatantly racist time in our country, the bigotry should be expected. There is a way, though, to present racism as something “normal” while not feeding into that racism. Casting a white actor—an actor who is so clearly not Native American and has to essentially be spray-tanned like he’s John Boehner to pull off not looking lily-white—isn’t a way to step aside from the racism while commenting on it. All it does is make The Searchers murkier than intended or desirable. And as you say, Scar is the real antagonist of this movie. Ethan may have an inner battle to wage, and he may be an off-putting lead, but Scar’s the villain. Whether we agree with Ethan’s methods or opinions, he’s not wrong to want revenge against someone who kidnapped his family member. Scar, like Look, is outlandish and garish. Ethan may not win, but we’re meant to side with him simply because who could root for such grotesque caricatures?

I should get off my soapbox, though. On the whole, I’m glad I revisited The Searchers. This is a case where age has maybe not brought with it full wisdom, but a level of maturity. I appreciate this film more than I did at age 18, and if I could do it again, I would probably not tell my film-school professor that I hated the film. (But I do wish he’d never shown us Fatal Attraction.) Gabe, to close us out, I throw it over to you: where do you place this film in the world of Westerns? Is it the iconic entry, the most purely American film in the genre? Is this the poster child for all of the good and bad Westerns have to offer, the stereotypes we associate with them? Do you think it deserves such a vaunted status? I may not be there yet, but I can at least see why it’s so celebrated.


Gabe: I’ll cede you ground on Scar. I don’t find Look’s portrayal quite as grotesque, however. I think her final living appearance, in which she reveals she knows about Scar and possibly the presence of Debbie among his wives, gives her more shading than you give the writers credit for. That being said, the jaunty music Steiner employs when showing the three of them traveling does feel out of place with the rest of the film, as does the representation of Mose Harper, an equally problematic character for other reasons. For me, it comes down to one question, as listeners of our podcast know all too well: do these dated and troubling representations of racism and mental illness affect my love for the movie and its characters? Not really. I can’t defend the casting of Brandon or some of the tonal choices made with the sillier elements, but it doesn’t affect my viewing experience. These issues are present, but I’m able to look past them.

I’m glad you had a more positive outlook on the film upon your revisit, and I hope you’ll pick up the Blu-ray or catch it the next time it’s on TCM to further plumb its depths. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t until maybe the fifth viewing that the film started to move me in the way it does today. I find so much to enjoy and take away with each new screening, and I always look forward to sharing the film with a friend or colleague who’s never seen it, though the debates about race grow tiring since I find there’s much more to the film than that.

To bookend the conversation, the American Film Institute’s updated list in 2007 jumped The Searchers from 96 in the initial 1998 poll to 12, and in their genre poll a year later the film ranked as the best Western of all time. As one of my all-time favorites, it’s no surprise I’d agree with that placement. I love so many Westerns and Western filmmakers, be it Leone, Peckinpah, Hawks, or Mann, but no one compares to John Ford, and no Ford Western compares to The Searchers. I’d say Ford’s Stagecoach exemplifies most of the good and bad traits Westerns have to offer, as its portrayal of Native Americans is even more troubling and one-sided than you may find The Searchers‘s to be. The Searchers is more of a middle ground, while Ford’s final Western Cheyenne Autumn in 1964 attempts to rectify his earlier, racially troubling portrayals in a more direct way, to varying success, I’d say.

It’s been a real pleasure having this discussion. I entered into this fray expecting a cage match, but I’m glad I never had to take off the gloves. I sincerely hope you’ll discover more to mine from the film on future viewings, and I look forward to debating other films in the same manner!