Even if you’re not a big Western aficionado, the chances are that if you like film, then you’ve heard of The Searchers. Time and time again, the 1956 film makes its way into the top ten lists of the best films ever made, from the likes of the AFI, BFI and Cahiers du Cinéma. But what makes this Western so potent and enduring? Why is it still coveted by filmmakers and film-lovers alike, despite its inclusion of problematic touches that have made contemporary audiences dismiss similar films from the time as “cancelled?” How does John Ford simultaneously prop up conservative visions whilst subtly undermining them?
Set in 1868, Ethan (John Wayne) returns from the South’s defeat in the Civil War to the West Texas wilderness. Shortly afterwards, a Comanche tribe lure Ethan and some rangers away from their home and ransack the house, killing Ethan’s brother and wife and abducting his two nieces. Ethan, in blind range and hatred towards the tribe, sets out with his nephew to find the two girls and bring them home. This synopsis seems to make it clear whose side the audience is to be on – yet Ford, through subtle nuances, helps portray Ethan as a flawed hero whose deep-rooted racism undermines any redemptive arc in the film. Though not explicitly racist in tone despite era-related problematic touches, from redface to racial slurs, Ford takes the setting of the post-Civil War South and uses it to explore how families were struggling to come to terms with their new nation-home. Ford uses his setting and protagonist, Ethan, to undress the flaws in this way of thinking, turning nostalgia on its head to reveal its dangerous proclivities and making a comment on the state of collective American thought towards outsiders.
In The Searchers, at face value, there is seemingly an atmosphere of romanticism or a sense nostalgia for an idyllic past due to its genre, the Western, which by nature tends to revel in nostalgia. Western films are all set in the past, focusing solely on the turbulent 19th century, and so their unending popularity despite their lack of contemporary relevance is significant, and the unending interest in the myths of the West proves a sense of pride in that period of American history. The first publicly-shown kinetoscope film, Blacksmith Scene, was released in 1893, whereas the so-called Wild West and frontier was officially closed in the 1890 United States Census. The first Western then appeared very quickly – The Great Train Robbery in 1903. In looking at these time frames, one senses conflicting temporality – cinema arrived at the right time, helping those who felt nostalgic about their lost world cope while enjoying the novelty and possibilities associated with the motion picture. Ford’s predilection for the Western (he made no less than thirty-three of them) defines him as someone intensely intrigued by this specific yet salient part of American history that is saturated in nostalgia.
The Searchers begins in 1868 and ends around 1873, and the plot involves the saving of a white girl from a perceived savage group, a Native American tribe, led by their chief, Scar (a white actor in redface). Ford implants the sentiment of not being able to let go of the White Southern ideal in his brooding leading man, Ethan, who states from the beginning: “I figure a man’s only good for one oath at a time, and I took my oath to the Confederate States of America,” before going on to say that he “don’t believe in surrenders.” In fact, Ethan did not return straight home after the South’s defeat in the war, having apparently fought in Mexican revolutionary war as a way to “turn his back on home” and avoid facing up to a different home life on the frontier. Ethan’s choice to remain in an atmosphere of war meant that he had not had time to re-assimilate back into society; arguably, this mirrors that America at the time of filming had very little peacetime breathing space, having only retreated from the Pacific in 1947 before fighting in the Korean War until 1953 and then focusing on cold war aggressions.
Ford’s casting of John Wayne for this character should also be examined – or, indeed, Ford’s professional relationship with John Wayne, whom he hired for fourteen of his films. Wayne was famously conservative in his views and outspokenly racist, having been quoted in 1971 saying that “we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” It is also extremely significant that Ford himself acted in The Birth of a Nation as an uncredited Klansman; his involvement in the deeply racist film perhaps informed his view of the civil war that continued into his filmmaking.
Nostalgia in The Searchers is also interesting as it doesn’t focus on the home, rather on the landscape. The household is shaded, dark and ambiguous, with Ethan looking warily into its contents as the film ends, holding his arm to his chest in a vulnerable-seeming gesture; when he rescues his niece, he states “let’s go home, Debbie,” but only one of them manages to make it back into the domestic space, questioning what or where Ethan truly believes is home. Ethan’s problematic portrayal and lack of explicit or tangible redemption at the end of the film skewers the idea of Ford relentlessly pushing for a restorative nostalgia of the American frontier.
What also undermines the idea of the film being a nostalgic yearning for the past or a sympathetic portrayal of White supremacy is how Ethan and the Native American leader Scar share near-identical characteristics; they are both renegades who cannot settle, they are both prepared to fight and kill for their own kind, and they both know a lot about each other’s life and customs. So, Ford’s nostalgia for the old West is seemingly overlaid with irony, so that the conservative drive of his plots is undermined. The character of Laurie, for example, seems to transcend a nostalgic vision of the past with her boyish jeans and sharp tongue, being an idealized view of the independent and modern woman; housewife Martha, who fits the description of a Southern woman better, is flawed by her apparent adultery with Ethan and subsequent violent death. Moreover, it is immediately evident that something is amiss with the domestic space; it is claustrophobic, dark, and shot from a low angle, and so the ceilings appear to be closing in on its subjects. Eventually, this domestic home will burn down in a violent show of imagery – there is no idealization to be seen in this traditional Southern home here.
It is no coincidence that Ford made the film in 1956, after having taken a break from the Western, when the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War were two preoccupations all to do with mobility as a national agenda and the treatment of the perceived Other. Parlance around the enemy within was common, and some state that The Searchers is a sort of psychological parable of identity in post-McCarthy America, with Ethan’s racial hysteria akin to the group hysteria associated with McCarthyism – just as he believes Debbie would be better dead than living with Native Americans, contemporary society was allowing communists to be executed; a dual fear of “redskins” and red communist America. What seems clear, with Ford’s depiction of Ethan, is not that his protagonist was right or justified in his opinions on those he perceives to be racially inferior, but the ambiguous expression on his face upon the film’s close seems to reflect how Americans were an insecure generation post-War, with their previously clear-cut ideas of nation-as-home shattered.
Though Ford also examined a sort of existential inner angst with The Searchers, he was not trying to resurrect any kind of “unflawed” past. His glance back on history was indeed nostalgic, but it was not his personal nostalgia, or a restorative one – it was nostalgia already present in the genre, in the setting, in his protagonist, that he used to make a social commentary on Americans as a people and their conflicts and notions of identity in an increasingly polarized world.
Words by Steph Green