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There's a Film in the Percolator: The Searchers

Ben Ostroff


John Ford facilitated in the death of numerous Native Americans throughout his life. By the end of his filmmaking career the protagonists in Ford’s Westerns depicted the murder of Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne, and more while presenting the settling of America’s final frontier. In Ford’s later films he tries to reconcile the racism of his earlier films.


On the surface The Searchers (1956) is more racist than Ford’s (and John Wayne’s) breakout hit Stagecoach (1939). Stagecoach follows a coach’s dangerous ride through Apache territory from Tonto to Lordsburg. Apache are nameless and faceless. The characters on the coach speak in fear about an attack, but Ford barely gives the menacing force screen time. Instead the viewer is shown what the Apache do to the white folks. The coach rides through a settlement that was raided and burned down by the Apache. The soundtrack is mournful as Hatfield, a self-proclaimed gentleman, covers a maimed woman with his coat. When the Apache do attack the coach, the film plays triumphant music as the cavalry comes to save the day and kill and scare off the Apache attack.




The Seachers chronicles Ethan Edwards’ (Wayne) seven year quest to find Debbie, his niece, who was captured by the Comanche after an attack on their home. The antagonists in The Searchers are the Comanche, but the main threat to the film’s characters is Ethan Edwards, the protagonist. Ethan is a staunch, unapologetic racist, and a former proud, uniform-wearing member of the Confederate Army. He calls Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a man he saved as a child after a Comanche attack, a “half-breed” and “a quarter breed” because of his dark complexion. Early on in the quest to find Debbie (Natalie Wood), the men find a buried Native American. Ethan shoots out the Comanche’s eyes because he knows of the Comanche belief that a man will be unable to enter the spirit land without them. The pure hatred that Ethan feels for the Comanche does not go unnoticed by Martin. When he is talking to his love interest Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), Martin remarks, “I’m afraid of him [Ethan] finding her [Debbie]. I’ve seen his eyes light up at the mention of Comanche.” Martin’s fears are not unwarranted.  After Ethan and Martin see Debbie with the Comanche, Ethan reads his will to Martin; he claims that he does not have any blood kin left and leaves his belongings to Martin. Martin protests that Debbie is still alive, but Ethan scowls, believing that Debbie is now a Comanche, and no longer his blood kin. Ethan’s racism acts as the main threat to solve within the narrative arc of the film. When Ethan and Martin (with the help of the Texas Rangers) go on their rescue mission to free Debbie from the Comanche, Ethan overcomes his racism and brings Debbie back home.


The way the two films view their two main characters demonstrates Ford’s views of the characters. In Stagecoach, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) is introduced in a long shot, from the point of view of the coach. The camera zooms in for a close-up while Ringo smiles. Ethan is introduced in a similar long shot, as he rides through Monument Valley to his brother’s house. The family yells, “look it’s Uncle Ethan.” This time the camera does not bring in John Wayne closer. Instead, the next two shots are of the Edwards family watching their uncle ride to closer to their home. By denying Ethan a close-up shot in his introduction, Ford distances the audience from the film’s main character because of his morals.


The final shot of The Searchers further distances Ethan from the audience as well as from the remaining characters of the film. The camera is placed inside the Jorgensen home looking out into Monument Valley, the front door framing the Valley. Ethan carries Debbie onto the porch of the house, and Debbie, Martin, Laurie, and the Jorgensens enter. Ethan looks into the home, and then walks away, alone, into Monument Valley. Ethan is not allowed to enter the home because of his inability to reconcile his racism.



Ben Ostroff immigrated to Pittsburgh about five years ago. He can be found wandering the streets of the East End wearing Montreal Canadiens paraphernalia.