Another Perspective

Searching for the Duke

The Searchers has its critics -- but who seriously believes John Wayne had a drop of racist blood?

By 4.25.13

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Film critics, a tense and peculiar family (with apologies to the late Max Beerbohm), have spent a half century praising John Ford and John Wayne’s tense and peculiar movie, The Searchers, beyond all-reason. They do this because they believe it gives them a clean shot at calling the Duke a racist, something they enjoy doing, and which appears to be required by a Film Critics Union work rule. For those who haven’t seen the movie or don’t remember it, The Searchers tells the story of a Texas frontier family in 1868, some of whose members are murdered and two of the women kidnapped by Comanche raiders (a terrifying but far from uncommon event during the period), and the five-year search by two men to recover the kidnapped women. One of the searchers, played powerfully by the Duke, is Ethan Edwards, perhaps the toughest, most intense, most vengeful, most morally ambiguous, and least likeable character of the Duke’s long film career.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that film critics and other liberal thumbsuckers like The Searchers, or at least profess to like it, because the Duke’s Ethan Edwards is so unlikeable for much of the two hours he’s on the big screen (to accommodate the Duke, it has to be a big screen).

The latest contribution to this ritual is Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Bloomsbury – 406 pages – $28). Frankel, a card-carrying member of the liberal hive, is not a film critic but a former Washington Post reporter and now director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He bagged a Pulitzer in 1989 for, as his bio puts it, his “balanced and sensitive” reporting of Israel and the first Palestinian uprising. Searchers is his third book. 

Frankel’s treatment is well-researched. Its strength is in its account of the filming of The Searchers, and of the novel and the historical events the movie is loosely based on. The weakness is that readers will have to filter out a good deal of liberal nonsense and quirky conclusions from Frankel’s otherwise informative narrative.

There are things to like about Ford’s 1956 horse opera. It’s beautifully filmed in Utah’s and Arizona’s Monument Valley (it’s almost impossible to make a visually uninteresting movie in Monument Valley, which location is some of God’s most arresting work). The Searchers is well acted by members of the Ford repertoire company: the Duke, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Vera Miles, Jeffrey Hunter, Hank Worden, et al. The movie has many of Ford’s brilliant story-telling touches, his mastery of cinematography, his genius for action shots, his ability to blend the big picture of the American frontier, its myth and its realities, with the small picture of family and personal struggles.

But for all these fine things, The Searchers and Ethan Edwards, for most fans of the Duke, rate well behind his other movies and more palatable characters, e.g.: Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Will Anderson in The Cowboys, Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man, Sheriff John Chance in Rio Bravo, Hondo Lane in Hondo. Sergeant John M. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima, whom Frankel dismisses as “brutal” (apparently under the impression that war-time Marine squad leaders should be non-directive counselors), demonstrates how the Duke was able to mobilize his toughness in the name of something higher, i.e. prevailing over a Japanese enemy and getting his squad members home alive. Even the anger and obsessiveness of Tom Dunson, the overbearing cattle owner and drive boss in Red River is more understandable than that of the Duke’s Ethan Edwards, who has hardly a cuddly on-screen moment.

For a good deal of The Searchers, viewers fear, for good reason, that Ethan wants to kill Lucy, his niece and the remaining live kidnap victim, played adorably by a 16-year-old Natalie Wood in full Pocahontas kit. This gives film critics full rein to roll and snuffle in all matter of psycho-sexual speculation and racialist name-calling. In the end, Ethan embraces his niece and takes her home, putting period and paragraph to an ambiguous search and chase movie.

Viewers never fully understand Ethan’s early desire to kill Lucy. Nor is there any coherent reason at the end for Ethan’s change of heart, other than that shooting an attractive young woman would be a hell of a downer to end a movie on. This ambiguity, the sometimes-hard-to-endure tenseness and hostility of Ethan’s character, probably account for why the movie did only moderately well in theaters on its release in May of 1956, and gathered no Academy Award nominations.

While in theaters, the movie got generally good reviews, which didn’t mention any of the racial or sexual obsessions of later critics, and was embraced lightly by movie viewers. Ford and the Duke pronounced themselves disappointed that the movie didn’t do better. But they, the critics, and movie viewers moved on to the next project. Only years later did critics make almost a fetish of a movie viewers didn’t embrace because of its very real weaknesses, mainly its dark, very un-Duke-like central character.

While praising the acting, the cinematography, and other aspects of The Searchers, later film critics, like liberals everywhere, have obsessed about race and sex. The charge of racism against the Ethan character, the rest of the band seeking to rescue Lucy, and by association the rest of white settlers of the period, is truly odd. In this story, which parallels real 19th century stories, the Comanches have killed and scalped, along with other family members, the woman that Ethan Edwards was in love with before he departed to fight in the Civil War. They have captured other family members and plan to keep and maltreat them, as was the historical practice.

Pray tell, exactly how is a non-racist person to respond to these events? Should Ethan have ignored the horrors perpetrated and announced, “Boy, these Comanches are a swell bunch. I really ought to have them over to dinner some night”? I doubt even Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce could react in this way.

Critics and Frankel ding Ford and other makers of western movies for treating American Indians as “savages,” which not all western movies, including not all Ford’s westerns, do. But murder, kidnapping, scalping, and rape by Comanches, and members of other tribes, were real enough when Indians and settlers were competing for the same space. As were murders and other savage acts by white settlers. But it should be obvious to even the most highly-trained film major that the conflict between American Indians and white settlers was based on the fact that they were in each other’s way, not on the fact that they were of different racial groups. 

American movie-goers in the fifties didn’t embrace The Searchers as much as some other John Wayne westerns because these folks went to movies for entertainment (which the Duke almost invariably delivered), not for sociological analysis or for a pretext for indignation. Racial and sexual obsessions may give film majors, and directors of journalism schools, something to talk about. But they needn’t detain normal, productive Americans long. So the next time a film major friend starts to tell you what a great movie (he would say “film”) The Searchers is, try to change the subject before the other shoe drops. And for an evening’s viewing pleasure, rent She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.