“Ride away . . . ride away . . .”
John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) opens with the arrival of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) at his brother’s home in southern Texas, three years after the Civil War has ended. What appears to be a friendly and welcome family visit soon takes on sinister overtones. When Ethan’s nephew asks him about the war, the youngster is cut off in mid-speech by his father, as if this matter might bring up other, more unpleasant topics. While the children rally around their uncle, demanding presents and ingratiating themselves with him, the adults among Ethan’s family and friends react suspiciously. It is also typical of the character, we soon learn, that he nurtures their suspicions about what he has been doing for the last three years and why he has returned by dropping tantalizing hints about his recent past. His brother Aaron remarks that Ethan had, before the war, wanted to clear out but stayed “beyond any reason” — the latter phrase an early key to the puzzle of his personality. In moments of stress and frustration, the commanding, pulled-together Ethan can become unhinged.
Aaron takes note of Ethan’s plentiful supply of gold — “fresh minted” — and this increases familial distrust. The Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) emphasizes Ethan’s outcast status by referring to him initially as “the prodigal brother.” When the Reverend wants to deputize him, Ethan refuses. “You wanted for a crime?” Clayton inquires, and Ethan replies, “A man’s good for only one oath at a time. I took mine to the Confederate States of America.” The bitterness of this statement comes from the feeling (established even in the early scenes of the film) that Ethan should never have picked the losing side, being a man too epic in scope to topple easily. So we learn that Ethan is a man with a personal code of ethics. Soon we also see that the battle that tore the country in half still resides within Ethan, in a man torn between the epic impulse toward integrating man (the white man) with nature (the Western wilderness), and his own sense of isolation from the very civilization he’s driven to rebuild. This attempt to reconcile these warring impulses is what the film details throughout the “search.”
One of the reasons for the family’s mixed reaction to Ethan’s return soon emerges — Ethan was, and perhaps still is, in love with his brother’s wife, Martha, a feeling that’s apparently reciprocal. This is revealed in the celebrated scene where Martha, apparently thinking she’s alone in the house, picks up Ethan’s uniform and sensually hugs it to herself, burying her face in the cloth. The Reverend Clayton observes this but tactfully looks away. Now we know that Ethan is a man with neither country nor love.
The protective, life-nurturing potential of Ethan’s character is shown in the ominous moments before the Edwards family is massacred. Ethan’s nephew, Ben, sensing his parents’ nervousness and “something in the air,” expresses the wish that “Uncle Ethan” was there. After the massacre, surveying the smoldering ruins of the Edwards home (once merely a solitary sign of civilization in a barren desert, now a cinder), Ethan refuses to allow Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the part-Indian “adopted son” of Aaron and Martha, to look inside. In fact, he knocks Martin down in order to spare him the sight of the murdered family, an indication of Ethan’s direct, instinctive approach to problems that is sometimes appropriate and sometimes almost psychotic. In protecting characters from the sight of Indian violence — later he shields Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) from the sight of the ravaged Lucy Edwards, Brad’s fiancé — he calls to mind Ford’s elliptical treatment of the film’s violence. The film similarly shields the audience (suggesting the horrific content of the act) by consistently cutting to close-up reaction shots, or by stylizing the violence through a montage of events leading up to and away from it. The massacre itself, a key event in the film, is never shown. It is only indicated in an ironically almost peaceful way, with the shadow of the Indian leader Scar (Henry Brandon) falling across the gravestone by which the youngest Edwards girl, Debbie (Lana Wood), huddles clasping her doll.
In Ethan’s protective attitude toward Martin — typically only one aspect of his complex reaction to his racially mixed adopted nephew — we are reminded that it was Ethan who saved Martin as a baby, after his parents were massacred. Here we see Ethan as not only protector but godlike life-giver. Yet this aspect also has its unpleasant side, strongly present in the post-massacre burial scenes. Ethan abruptly ends Reverend Clayton’s services for the dead family by saying, “Amen! There’s no more time for prayin’!” When Mrs. Jorgensen, overwrought at the thought of her son Brad accompanying Ethan on a search for the two remaining Edwards children, Lucy and Debbie, begs him, “Don’t let the men waste their lives in vengeance!”, he says nothing. In seeking the remnants of the splintered family unit, Ethan is embarking on a quest unmoved by the pleas of women and unsanctioned by God. He seems, at times, incapable of mercy. When he shoots out the eyes of found-dead Comanche, Reverend Clayton asks what good this does. Ethan says with a smile that emphasizes his perverse nature, “By what you teach, none,” but explains that a Comanche without eyes must wander in the spirit world “without peace or rest, forever.” His destruction of the dead Comanches’ eyes recalls the Biblical cliché “an eye for an eye,” and shows that Ethan has a dire, Old-Testament sense of justice, but also a deep engagement with the subtleties of Comanche culture that connects him directly with the thing he’s seeking to destroy. Besides revealing his grim amusement at what he has done, the scene demonstrates Ethan’s casual breaching of the standards of conventional morality (embodied by the only other leader figure in the group, Reverend Clayton). He disclaims the use or presence of God in his revenge quest by telling Reverend Clayton, “I don’t need you for what I gotta do.” While he is seeking to reconstitute the family unit and by extension “normal” (white) civilization, his methods are those of the wilderness he lives in and fears, that he must use to survive at the same time he hopes to suppress them. The search on one level expresses Ethan’s desire, in keeping with his larger-than-life nature, for a peaceful, ordered world. More personally, it expresses his wish to find and place himself, to belong. His return to his brother’s family indicates the initial point of this striving. When the Indians massacre the Edwards family, they thwart Ethan’s goal by destroying any possibility of his belonging, so that he’s constantly searching for something that cannot exist for him. While this sense of futility overcomes him at various points in the search, triggering an irrational violence, he continues to buck fate by relentlessly pushing on.
The film emphasizes Ethan’s stubbornness-unto-death throughout in the catchphrase, “That’ll be the day.” We hear it first as a reply to a query of “You wanna quit, Ethan?” But Ford uses it also as a humorous deflation of the tensions aroused by Ethan in the other characters and in an audience not accustomed to seeing John Wayne in such an arguably negative role.
Ethan’s fanatic streak is first shown in the shooting of the dead Comanche’s eyes. This is also Martin Pawley’s first clue that Ethan may be the last person who should be seeking the girls, that he may in fact pose a danger more serious than that of her kidnappers. Martin’s fears for his adopted sisters are expressed early in the search when he plaintively asks Ethan, “Just one reason we’re here, ain’t it? To find Debbie and Lucy?”
The two men stop for a visit with the Jorgensens, the only neighbors of the original Edwards family and the only other family we see in any detail in the film. In thus narrowing the number of homesteaders, Ford can focus on the pathetic struggle of these few stubborn pioneers. Mrs. Jorgensen, a schoolteacher as her husband proudly points out, says, “Some day this country’s gonna be a fine place to be,” and that perhaps the “bones” of her generation (which includes Ethan) must be in the ground before American civilization can grow and flourish there. This degree of self-sacrifice (her son Brad dies during the search) is not, however, so evident in Ethan, in spite of his headlong leap into a quest that constantly puts him in violent situations. His continual references to blood ties and racial purity (which idea he uses to insult Martin) reveal a fearful, beleaguered personality beneath the powerful, assured exterior. One of the most intense moments in the search comes just after Ethan has seen Lucy, apparently raped and murdered. He seems to sit helplessly, digging at the ground, as if to bury someone. And for the first time he seems to have lost his way. When pressed by Brad and Martin for information about Lucy, he cries out in anguish, “What do I have to do, paint you a picture? Don’t ever ask me, as long as you live don’t ever ask me more!” During a conversation with Martin, as if to impress an obvious bit of knowledge on a slow-witted schoolboy, Ethan says of the one survivor of the massacre, Debbie, “She’s been livin’ with a buck!” as if this fact alone should settle Martin’s doubt that she deserves to die. A powerful irony becomes clear — as Martin realizes Ethan intends to kill Debbie when he finds her, the audience must puzzle over exactly what is driving Ethan. Revenge? Racism? Duty? Professionalism? Unsuppressable violent impulses? Ford abets the character in this cat-and-mouse game by similarly playing with audience expectations and comprehension of the character.
Lucy and Debbie gradually take on symbolic significance — the former unseen after the first few moments of the film, the other seen only at the beginning and the end. They represent the twin possibilities open to Ethan: his failure to find himself, hence his self-destruction (Lucy); and his potential self-realization and “belonging” (Debbie). That he attempts to kill Debbie also points to his self-destructive tendencies when we view her not only as a symbol of his searching after self but from the more pragmatic view of the girl as his own flesh and blood, and as the basic link between Ethan and his lost family. His near breakdown on finding Lucy’s body is the reaction of a man being forced to face his own failings. Even the massacre of the Edwards family does not elicit such a strong response. In fact, though a detailed, credible group, the family is removed so quickly from the narrative that they too take on symbolic resonance, again internalizing the drama as a deep self-struggle within Ethan.
The film initially presents Ethan and the Comanche chief Scar as opposites and enemies, but their similarities soon become clear. Both are men of deeds rather than words, both have mythic reputations and are feared more than loved by those around them. Ford neatly communicates Scar’s role as a mirror image of Ethan in a scene where the two men meet and exchange identical words. Ethan’s “You speak pretty good English for a Comanche. Someone teach you?” is later mocked by Scar: “You speak good Comanche for a white man. Someone teach you?”
Other characters share Ethan’s professed horror of racial desecration, though with less fanaticism and less pure, single-minded motive than Ethan. For example, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), trying to convince Martin to stay with the Jorgensens, abandon the search, and marry her, insists Debbie is not worth bothering with. She echoes Ethan’s words in calling Debbie merely “the leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder.” And Laurie’s frustrated suitor, Charlie, rebukes Martin for his accidental marriage to an Indian squaw, insisting he is no longer fit to be around a “decent” woman like Laurie. Ethan’s obsession does not stem from such common human motives as wanting to obtain or get rid of a suitor; when he declares a group of half-mad white girls victimized by “bucks” are not white “anymore,” this is his belief, which we perceive as his vision of a breakdown in order, boundaries, and the white man’s hoped-for “sacred” civilization. This epic obsession resides in a man the film treats with mythological power. Early in the search Ethan orders Brad and Martin to “move!” and the surrounding canyons emphasize the importance of his command, and the stature of the speaker, by echoing it.
Yet the film also details Ethan’s increasing detachment from and irrelevance to the mainstream of the small but growing “civilization” around him. The Civil War ended three years before, but Ethan’s almost inhuman persistence and his sometimes frenzied outbursts (as when he hysterically shoots into a herd of buffalo) show that he’s still fighting. In the background of the search is Martin’s story, and casual reminders that the white settlers will go on living in spite of the war and in spite of Indian raids. This aspiration is noted in the protection-image of the Cavalry, which takes on increasing significance as the symbol of growing American civilization and order; in the romance by mail of Martin and Laurie and the suggestion of new generations rising; and in the reappearance of positive human traditions (a marriage replaces the earlier ritual of burial of the slain settlers, which in turn had obliterated the image of the peaceful, struggling-but-surviving family). The settlers’ ever more successful attempts to rebuild their society indicate the increasingly personal, and ultimately pointless, nature of Ethan’s search. Others cease to see the need. During Ethan’s stopover at the familial oasis of the Jorgensens’, the hosts privately express the wish that Ethan give up, Mr. Jorgensen in particularly noting with annoyance, “They’ll never find that girl,” which could be translated as, “Why go on living in the past?” But the past is where Ethan lives and must remain, as he fails to adapt to the future.
Variations of the family spring up throughout the search that divert and tantalize Ethan, potentially seducing him, like the Sirens, away from his task. The Jorgensen stopover tempts him with the warmth and pleasure of simple human relations (and a good hot bath), but also reminds Ethan that he must continue relentlessly onward. He stays there only one day, and tries to shake Martin as a complicating, civilizing influence, distracting him from his single-minded quest. He must go on, alone or accompanied, encouraged or not. We see another “family” in Martin’s unwitting marriage to the charming squaw Look (Beulah Archuletta), in Ford’s bittersweet portrayal of Martin’s Mistake. “Come on, Mrs. Pawley, join our merry group!” Ethan says with a laugh. But this “marriage” ends bitterly when the gentle Mrs. Pawley is kicked down a hill and brutally interrogated by Ethan about the whereabouts of Scar. Later she’s found dead in a teepee — in a village ravaged by the Cavalry, who, like the massacring Indians, don’t consider the individuals involved but the effect of their act on those still living. This brutalization of the natives by the Cavalry removes any clear sense of right and wrong, and further internalizes Ethan’s search by splintering any sense of morality.
Ethan’s fanaticism emerges more frequently as the search progresses. When the two men come upon a herd of buffalo, Ethan begins shooting at them, seemingly out of control. He knocks Martin to the ground when the younger man tries to stop him, reminding us of the scene of the massacre when the same action was used to protect Martin from the sight of the slain settlers. Ethan insists he is shooting to starve as many Comanche as possible during the coming winter, but shots of the vast herd make his efforts seem pathetic and unworthy, a frenzy of veiled self-destruction. Even in scenes that demonstrate Ethan’s mastery of the land and his understanding of men, a sinister touch creeps in. For example, his realization that Indian trader Futterman is following them with the idea of killing and robbing them triggers a defensive strategy that involves the real possibility of Martin being murdered as he sleeps. Ethan’s amusement at Martin’s role indicates not only a delight in his own enormous powers but a feeling that he is far beyond the law (nothing is made of the fact that Futterman was shot in the back until later). Ethan’s disregard for convention, regardless of the cost, is echoed in his impatience with prosaic social rituals. He boldly interrupts the marriage of Laurie and Charlie, knowing he is wanted for the murder of Futterman and others. He even has character flourishes to accent his bravado: when asked for his gun, he hands it over, but not before stylishly twirling it on his finger.
The moment at which all the contradictions of his character erupt is when he tries to kill Debbie (Natalie Wood). The one survivor of the Edwards massacre is now one of Scar’s wives, thus providing a tangible “blood” link between the two men the film has already established as mirror images. Scar’s search for revenge for his own two murdered sons — paralleling the two Edwards girls — has lasted almost as long as Ethan’s search. It’s important to note that Ethan, too, has left many bodies, by accident or design, in his wake. The search ends for Ethan before it ends for Martin — when Debbie is found and Ethan’s suspicion that she has been “living with a buck” (Scar) is confirmed. Ethan tries to kill her but Martin, always emblematic of Ethan’s better side, stands in front of her. (Ethan’s willing of his property to Martin confirms, in spite of bitter words, his acceptance of Martin’s view as the right one.) The impulse at work in Ethan is the paradoxical one of a man convinced he must destroy what he loves, what symbolizes those positive values of love or family or country that he seeks but of which he cannot feel a part.. Unlike Martin or Brad or the audience, Ethan has no one to shield his eyes from the violence and disorder around and within him. Indeed, he refuses to depend on, or trust, anyone. He links the destruction of blood lines with the collapse of civilization and peace and order, yet he stands always outside this imagined ideal or hope for the future that he’s trying to protect. He has no family and he has no past that anyone knows, no tradition, only an enduring consciousness of the violence of the world. Ford emphasizes Ethan’s alienation in the famous shot, bookending the film and repeated several times throughout, of the character framed in shadow in a doorway. He steps into the film’s action from the empty desert, first in silhouette, then within the dark doorway, in full human form in the Edwards home. After having “done the job” — at the expense of a grueling five years and a variety of miseries and deaths — he steps out of the Jorgensen home in an identical but reverse-order shot, and walks back to the desert while the others remain, united, inside.
Laurie and her impatience with the search further emphasize how little Ethan’s obsessive quest has meant to the growing civilization. The search took Martin away and left Laurie alone with the land, “this god-forsaken wind scowl,” which she perceives as an active, hostile, restraining force that must be conquered. She’s impatient with the old morality that Ethan represents. This feeling of wanting to forget the past and rebuild lives in spite of Indian threats and natural hardships is finally accepted with philosophical resignation by Ethan, who, guided by Martin’s steady morality, is able to find his own moral center and save Debbie. The passage of time, a time leaving him behind (as the last shot shows) is indicated by the marriage ritual and by a tiny detail the film underplays. The crazy old man Mose (Hank Worden) identifies a place called “Seven Fingers” as the site of Scar’s massacre group, but the soldiers can’t find it on the maps and insist there is no such place. It does exist, we learn, but under another name. The maps have already been revised, and will continue to be, and Ethan is unlikely to find a place there.