For the Fourth of July, here are my reflections on one of the great cinematic investigations into the nature of America: The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
At the beginning of the film, John Wayne’s character Ethan returns home from a mysterious absence. It is never fully revealed where he has been or what he has done, but it is clear that his travels have made him ill-suited to a peaceful life on the homestead. He is an adventurer at heart, with the possibility of violent action just beneath the surface. So when his brother’s wife (with whom Ethan is clearly in love) is murdered in an Indian raid and her daughter is kidnapped, Ethan goes in search of his neice and revenge.
But as the movie progresses it becomes more and more clear that Ethan is not trying to rescue his neice Debbie — he is trying to kill her. He knows that she will have been raised as an Indian and later given as a wife to one of the Indians. And Ethans’s racist hatred of Indians will not allow them to have her. He would rather she be dead. And yet when Ethan finally finds Debbie at the end, despite the fact that his worst fears have been realized and she has indeed been married to an Indian, he does not kill her. In a surprise move, he lovingly sweeps her into his arms just as he did when she was a child.
So why doesn’t Ethan kill Debbie? Well, like so much else in this film, this point is left unexplained. But there are clues. Note that just before finding Debbie, Ethan has scalped his nemesis, the Indian chief named Scar. The film has set up numerous parallels between Ethan and Scar, culminating in Ethan’s enacting the “barbaric” Indian ritual of scalping his foe. Why would he do this? On one reading it is because Ethan has recognized that Scar is indeed a mirror image of himself. They are both violent men driven by revenge and hatred of the Other.
Likewise, the movie wants us to see that we, too, are just like that. This is true not only because we, as a willing audience, have desired revenge against Scar (and enjoyed watching Cowboys kill Indians) but also because we need the violence of people like Ethan to sustain the kind of civilization we enjoy in America. (This theme is explored further in Ford and Wayne’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) Finally, note here how the film’s closing shot mirrors the theater itself, placing the audience in the position of being in the house Ethan cannot enter. Thus the film suggests that, while we may need images of heroes like Ethan, we likewise need them to remain in the movie theater and not enter our community.