Another Perspective

The Searchers at 50

A John Wayne movie only a liberal can love.

By 9.21.06

"We'll find 'em, just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth."

That line, spoken by John Wayne in the 1956 film The Searchers, is pure, classic "Duke." From that moment on, you just know that he is going to keep on pursuing the Comanches that kidnapped his niece until the very bitter end -- and God help those Indians when he finally catches up. Recently re-released on DVD in a special 50th anniversary edition, The Searchers makes for one hell of an adventure at times.

A lot of people think the film is even better than that -- including the type of high-brow film critics who aren't otherwise big John Wayne fans. As Stephen Metcalf recently wrote in Slate: "[I]t is widely considered, by the initiated [i.e. serious film scholars], at least, to be among the four or five best movies of all time." (Emphasis added)

He's not exaggerating. Among other accolades, it was among the first films chosen for the Library of Congress's National Film Preservation Board in 1989, designating it a "national treasure." That's awfully high praise for a western shoot'em up.

But why this particular horse opera and not any of the scores of others that Wayne starred in? Few of the Duke's fans have thought to ask this. Most have been content to echo the praise. If the pencil necks think The Searchers is as good as all that, who are we to argue, they ask? It's nice to have them recognize the Duke's greatness for once.

Well, the Duke's fans should be a bit more wary of this particular film. There's a fairly simple reason why The Searchers is so highly rated by critics. Whether by accident or design, it is ultimately a liberal telling of the settling of the western frontier.

Specifically, the film's theme is race. It portrays the settling of the west as an explicitly racial struggle for dominance between the Indians and the whites. More to the point, it subtly but unmistakably subverts Wayne's heroic image by making his character's motivations all about race. Which is exactly why liberals love it.

As the Village Voice put it, The Searchers is "a perverted odyssey of xenophobic self-hatred and waste, with Wayne at the center in arguably the most profound portrait of macho monstrosity ever delivered by an American movie star."

Roger Ebert has more mixed feelings regarding the film but agrees with the Voice's basic assessment: "Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it."

The Washington Post's resident lefty columnist Harold Meyerson picked up this theme in an op-ed yesterday, seeing the film as a metaphor for the Iraq War.

Wayne's character, Meyerson argues, is "possessed by a raging hatred of Indians...his hatred culminating in a shot in which he scalps the Comanche chief he has tracked for five years...."

"Defend civilization by becoming as barbaric as its enemies, [The Searchers] suggests, and you are no longer really part of that civilization," he wrote.

FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T seen it, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in the film, a veteran Indian fighter and former Confederate officer. A few years after the Civil War he rides west to visit his brother and his brother's family. They are the only family Edwards apparently has.

"Ain't seen you since the surrender," remarks the local reverend, played by Ward Bond. "Come to think of it, I didn't see you at the surrender."

"I don't believe in surrenders," replies Edwards. "Nope, I've still got my saber, reverend. Didn't beat it into no plowshare neither."

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.

Anybody seen Fort Apache lately?

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About the Author

Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.