In The Searchers, a Western directed by John Ford, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns home years after the end of the Civil War. Shortly after he does, his brother’s family is attacked by Comanches, who raped Martha, his sister-in-law, killed his brother Aaron, along with their young son, and abducted the two daughters, Lucy and Debbie. After Lucy is found dead, Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) continue looking for Debbie. As the years pass, it becomes clear to Ethan that Debbie (Natalie Wood) is old enough to be raped by her captors, and the idea of miscegenation bothers him so much that he is determined to kill her. Martin, on the other hand, is determined to stop him from doing so. When they finally rescue Debbie, Ethan relents and he and Martin take her back home to live with her neighbors.
In most movies, what you see is what you get. Everything of significance is either depicted visually or is revealed to us through dialogue or narration. This is especially so in Westerns, which tend to have simpler plots and less complicated characters. But The Searchers is an exception, for there seems to be much in this movie of significance that is concealed from us. And just as the idea of searching consists of looking for something, of wanting to see what cannot presently be seen, so too is wanting to see and not being able to see a recurring theme of this movie.
For example, Ethan will not let Martin see the results of the massacre; Ethan shoots two bullets into the eyes of a dead Comanche so he will wander forever without being able to find his happy hunting ground; when Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) wants to know if Lucy, with whom he was in love, had been raped, Ethan yells, “Do I have to draw you a picture?”; and Martin accidentally gets himself a squaw, whom he inadvertently nicknames “Look.”
But there are things we do not get to see in a more figurative sense, as when we use the word “see” to mean “understand.” We keep getting the sense that there is more to this story than the movie is telling us, at least explicitly, for it does leave us some tantalizing clues. For example, it is peculiar that an Indian hater like Ethan would be able to speak Comanche. It is not as though when he was in high school, he might have opted to take a course in Comanche instead of Latin. We might have accepted his ability to speak the language of the Comanches without supposing it to have any special significance were it not for the emphasis it is given toward the end of the movie. When Ethan is speaking to Scar (Henry Brandon), the Comanche chief that abducted Debbie, Ethan comments that Scar’s English is pretty good, pointedly asking, “Did someone teach you?” implying that he learned it from Debbie. But earlier Ethan has spoken in the Comanche language, and Scar replies, “You speak pretty good Comanche. Someone teach you?” This has caused some to speculate that Ethan might once have been married to a Comanche squaw, from whom he learned the language, before the murder (and presumed rape) of his mother turned him into an Indian hater. His hatred for miscegenation might then be explained by the revulsion he feels for having been guilty of it himself.
When Ethan first arrives at his brother’s ranch, it quickly becomes clear that Martha is in love with Ethan. Presumably Ethan feels the same way about her, but whereas she is obvious about it, we would never suspect anything just from watching or listening to Ethan. At first we are not sure if the characters in the movie pick up on Martha’s behavior, or whether it is only those of us who are watching the movie are supposed to notice it. However, when Captain Clayton (Ward Bond), who comes by with a posse in search of some cattle rustlers, sees Martha stroking Ethan’s coat and gives a knowing look, we realize that Martha is being obvious to everyone, as people in love often are. And that means it is obvious to her husband.
The first time I saw this movie, I figured that Martha and Ethan had once been in love, but that Ethan was not ready to get married and settle down, and so she married Aaron on the rebound, which she soon came to regret. In most movies, there would eventually have been a scene in which their past relationship would have been made explicit, but we never get such a scene in this movie, because Aaron and Martha are massacred by the Comanches early on, and the relationship between Ethan and Martha is never even alluded to after that.
The second time I watched this movie, I noticed that Aaron is hostile to Ethan. When Ethan asks about a deserted ranch that he saw on his way in, Aaron says that the people who lived there decided to clear out and went back to chopping cotton. Then Aaron says that before the war, when Ethan had his own ranch, he could see that Ethan wanted to clear out too, and he asks him why he didn’t (implying that Ethan should clear out right now). Martha expresses dismay and Ethan takes offense.
Now, if we assume that Ethan had once been in love with Martha, who then married Aaron, it would be strange that he would stick around if he also was tired of trying to make a living on his ranch. He would then have had two reasons for clearing out, for it can be downright unpleasant to see the woman you love married to another man, especially your own brother. But if, on the other hand, Ethan and Martha fell in love after she married Aaron, and they started having an affair, then his sticking around would make perfectly good sense. And Aaron, suspecting as much, would naturally feel animosity toward Ethan.
And once we accept the idea that Ethan and Martha had an affair, the next thing that occurs to us is that Debbie might be his daughter and not just his niece, for she is just the right age to have been conceived before he left for the war. The idea that Ethan wanted to kill Debbie because she had been defiled by the Indians was already bad enough when we thought she was his niece. Once we accept the idea that Debbie is his daughter, the tone of the movie really becomes dark and disturbing.
When Ethan, Martin, and Brad come across some tracks going off into a canyon, Ethan says he will check it out. This is followed by what seems to be an unnecessary conversation about firing a shot as a signal as to where Brad and Martin will be, wherein Ethan responds that they have to be quiet, and he will meet them on the other side. When Ethan catches up with them, he sits on the ground and digs his knife into the dirt. Later, we learn that he found Lucy in the canyon, and that she had been raped. Now, if Ethan is determined to kill Debbie because she has been defiled, then we have to acknowledge the possibility that Ethan found Lucy alive and killed her for the same reason. If we grant that interpretation, then that explains the conversation about not making noise. Because he could not risk firing a shot, Ethan would have had to kill Lucy with his knife. And his digging the knife into the dirt could be explained as an obsessive desire to clean the blood off it, much in the way Lady Macbeth obsessively tries to wash the blood off her hands, despite the fact that they are clean.
In other words, it is possible to interpret this movie in a way that makes it darker and more disturbing than it already is, but such an interpretation could not be made explicit, owing to the Production Code in force at that time. But then, this movie could not be made at all today, because Indians have been replaced by Native Americans, who have not scalped or even tried to rape anyone in the movies for many years .