When The Searchers begins, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his home in Texas in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, in which Ethan fought on the side of the South. Because the idea of returning home has a connotation of reconciliation, acceptance, and even resignation, the three years delay in Ethan’s return suggests that none of those things apply to him. And indeed, the grim look on his face as he is greeted by his brother Aaron tells us that this is far from being a happy homecoming.
One thing Ethan is definitely not reconciled to is the defeat of the South, as we learn from a conversation he later has with Reverend Sam Clayton (Ward Bond), who was a captain during the war and now is a captain of the Texas Rangers. Clayton says he didn’t see Ethan at the surrender, to which Ethan replies, “Don’t believe in surrenders. Nope, I still got my saber, Reverend. Didn’t turn it into no plowshare neither.” From further conversation, we gather that Ethan has been something of an outlaw since the war ended.
We are all familiar with the apologetic interpretations of the Civil War, how it was all about state’s rights and only incidentally about slavery, as if the war might just as easily have been fought over the rights of the states concerning eminent domain. But not only would the war not have been fought had the issue not been one of slavery, we can go one step further: there would have been no war had the slaves been white. In that case, slavery would have been phased out peacefully. But prejudice against the black race was even more fundamental than that of slavery per se. And that, in all likelihood, is the main reason Ethan cannot be reconciled to the defeat of the South.
Ethan’s racism against the black race, however, never explicitly comes up in this movie, but his animosity toward the red race certainly does. After becoming reacquainted with Aaron’s family, including Aaron’s wife Martha, their son Ben, and their two daughters, Lucy and Debbie, they all sit down to dinner. Then Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) arrives, and the look on Ethan’s face is one of hostility. “Fellow could mistake you for a half-breed,” Ethan says, though Martin replies that he is only one-eighth Cherokee. We find out that Aaron’s family took Martin in as a baby when he was discovered by Ethan after Martin’s family had been massacred by Indians.
As is typical of racism generally, it is not the other race as such that incurs the most animosity, but the idea of miscegenation and the offspring it produces, both of which are regarded as abominations. That Ethan’s ire can be aroused by as little as one-eighth “Indian blood” speaks to the degree to which this bothers him.
It is the next day that the aforementioned Reverend Clayton shows up at Aaron’s house, gathering up a posse to go after whoever it was that rustled some cows belonging to Lars Jorgensen. Aaron starts to go with Clayton, but Ethan says he’ll go instead, telling Aaron to stay close to home, since it might be Comanches that took the cows. It turns out that not only was it Comanches, but stealing the cows was only a ruse to get them away from the settlement. When they get back, they find that it is Aaron’s family that has been attacked, the Comanches raping and killing Martha, killing Aaron and Ben, and abducting the two daughters, Lucy and Debbie.
After the funeral for the family, the same posse sets out after the Comanches, but most of them return, leaving only Ethan, Martin, and Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.), who is in love with Lucy, to carry on. After Lucy is found dead, Brad gets himself killed charging into the Comanche camp alone. From then on, it’s just Ethan and Martin that 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.
This frustrates Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), who has been impatiently waiting for Martin to marry her, and who almost marries someone else, until Ethan and Martin return home briefly, interrupting the wedding. They had met with Scar and found out that Debbie is now one of his squaws. She seems to have adjusted to living with the Comanches, who she says are her people now. This surprises us, because Ethan and Martin had earlier visited an army outpost where there were some rescued captive girls. They were beyond traumatized, either screaming or laughing maniacally. Why the difference?
I can think of only two reasons, which have more to do with movie logic than with reality. The three girls at the outpost were all blondes, whereas Debbie is a brunette. Her dark aspect makes the difference between her and the Indians less stark than between those same Indians and girls that are blondes, who are extra white, as it were. Therefore, according to the thinking of those who made this movie, Debbie could tolerate being raped better than those blond girls could. The second reason is Debbie’s religious status. Early in the movie, Clayton asked Debbie if she had been baptized, and she replied that she had not, despite the fact that she was about nine years old. I suppose the idea is that technically she is not a Christian yet, but still a heathen. Hence, according to the thinking of those who made this movie, her being raped by Scar, who is also a heathen, does not constitute the outrage that it would were she officially a Christian. I know that seems like a stretch, but why go to the trouble to put that conversation about baptism into the movie if it wasn’t intended to have any significance?
In any event, Martin tells Laurie he has to go with Ethan to get Debbie back, because Ethan tried to kill her the last time they saw her. We expect Laurie to understand, but when Martin says he has to fetch Debbie home, she responds with a vehemence that almost exceeds that of Ethan: “Fetch what home? The leavings of Comanche bucks, sold to the highest bidder, with brats of her own?” When Martin says that Ethan will put a bullet in Debbie’s brain if he is not there to stop him, she replies that Martha would have wanted Ethan to do that.
But when they finally rescue Debbie, Ethan relents, and he and Martin take her back home to live with the Jorgensens. Martin and Laurie will marry. Ethan leaves, never to return.
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 wants to know if Lucy 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. A little later, Scar replies, “You speak pretty good Comanche. Someone teach you?” This symmetry of comments suggests that Ethan might once have been married to a Comanche woman, 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.
Early in the movie, 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 watching the movie who are supposed to notice it. However, when Clayton 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.
When it is just Ethan, Martin, and Brad searching for Lucy and Debbie, they 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 again, he sits on the ground and compulsively digs his knife into the dirt several times. 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. This is further confirmed by the fact that after finding Lucy, Ethan seems far more upset than he was upon finding Martha’s body after she was raped and killed.
In other words, it is possible to interpret this movie in a way that makes it 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 years ago all the Indians in the movies were replaced by Native Americans, and they never rape anyone.