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Shortly after this exchange, Edwards, his brother’s adopted son Martin (played by Jeffrey Hunter), and other local men form a posse to track down some cattle rustlers. Too late they learn that the missing cattle are in fact a diversion by Comanche Indians on the warpath. By the time Edwards returns to his brother’s home, they’ve all been slaughtered — all except the youngest, Debbie, who’s been carried off by the Indians.
Edwards and Martin take up pursuit, vowing to go to the ends of the earth if necessary to find them. Their quest ultimately takes five years. By the time Edwards finally does catch up with the Indians, Debbie is a grown woman.
The film, directed by the great John Ford, walks a subtle line. Edwards is never presented as a really evil guy. There’s usually ample justification for his on-screen actions. And much of it plays like a regular John Wayne film, right down to the occasional cornball humor and familiar character actors in supporting roles. It’s well made too, with some starkly beautiful cinematography.
But Ford, a famously complex, contradictory man as well as New Deal liberal — he also directed the left-wing classic The Grapes of Wrath — nevertheless paints a dark picture of clashing cultures.
LIKE HAROLD MEYERSON, MOST CRITICS see Edwards’ obsessive quest as motivated as much by racial hatred as it is by a desire to rescue Debbie. In all honesty, it’s a fair reading of the film. Ford drops broad hints throughout.
Edwards makes it plain that he has not renounced his allegiance to Confederacy. He makes constant derisive reference to Martin’s own partial Native American ancestry. In one scene, Edwards gratuitously shoots out the eyes of a dead Indian because he knows in the Indian’s religion a man without eyes is condemned never to enter the spirit world.
Most tellingly it’s made clear early on that Edwards is particularly enraged by the (probably correct) thought that Debbie will eventually become the wife (in all senses of the word) of one of the Comanche tribe’s braves.
By the end, Martin — and the audience — begins to wonder if Ethan’s intention is not to rescue Debbie but to kill her because she’s “one of them” now. In one chilling scene, only Martin’s intervention prevents Edwards from doing just that.
Ultimately, Edwards does rescue Debbie but the key scene is oddly anti-climatic. It involves a sudden, unexplained change of heart by Edwards that contradicts everything we’ve been led to assume up to that point. Had the scene followed the earlier logic of the film, Edwards would have killed her.
In fact, the film’s actual ending feels so contrived that maybe it was Ford’s intention that we not take it seriously. After all, it’s not as though he could have released a film with John Wayne killing his own niece.
As Ebert has noted: “Ethan’s redemption is intended to be shown in that dramatic shot of reunion with Debbie, where he takes her in his broad hands…and says, ‘Let’s go home, Debbie.’ The shot is famous and beloved, but small counterbalance to his views throughout the film — and indeed, there is no indication that he thinks any differently about Indians.”
It’s because of such unresolved questions that so many film critics — especially, yes, the liberal ones — love the film. How often do you get to see the assumptions of politically correct history played out in a film with a conservative icon like Wayne in the leading role? To create something comparable today Bill Bennett would have to appear dealing drugs in a gangster rap video.
For Wayne’s fans (and if you haven’t guessed by now I include myself in that crowd) it is long past time that they realize that the praise heaped on The Searchers is in most cases backhanded. The film is honored precisely because it knocks its hero and the western genre. There are other, better films we can put forward to honor the Duke, ones that don’t make him out to be a racist.
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