The Searchers begins with a door opening, providing a glorious view into Monument Valley and to the approaching Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). It ends with that same door closing, this time with Edwards retreating, back into the landscape from which he came. In between, he scours that landscape, looking for his kidnapped niece, Debbie, who has been taken as a future bride of the notorious Comanche chief, Scar (Henry Brandon).This search provides numerous instances of suspense, comedy, battle, and heroism. But beyond that, and what makes this film so intriguing, is that it provides us a look into the heart of a man (Edwards). And it provides us an opportunity to reflect on the aftermath of one of the great conflicts in US history.
When Edwards returns to the West Texas farm of his brother, he has been out of the Civil War for some three years, and rumors have been flying about just what he was up to during that time (he was probably involved in some kind of criminal activity). He fought for the Confederates, and he brings home loads of money that looks straight from a treasury. He’s probably also a racist, as his frequent comments about the Comanche Indians indicate. But when he decides to pursue the warring Indians that killed his family and kidnapped his niece, he will not bend, even if it means keeping up the chase for five years.
The thing I love about this film is that as viewers, we are forced to sympathize with a man we don’t really want to like, yet his perseverance and the honor of his task compel us to do so. He’s essentially a distant uncle to this girl, a girl that was close to a baby the first time he saw her. Yet he sacrifices himself to get to her – but here is where it gets tricky. Is he trying to save her because she’s family? Is he trying to get to her because no Comanche deserves to be with a white woman (his hate for Indians is his motivation here)? Is he going after her to see to it that justice is done?
These elements work together in him, playing off of each other, revealing themselves at different times in the film. At one moment, we think the motive is familial affection. Then we are convinced it’s the racist and vengeful impulses in him. When he shoots the dead Comanche in the eyes, the racism takes the forefront. When he tells of the way he cared for the body of Lucy, we see the feelings for his family come forth. When he eschews the “too lengthy” funeral service for the search, the motive is more ambiguous. This ambiguity appears to be the dominant theme in his character. One could interpret many of his actions in more honorable ways, but there seem to be a number of factors pointing in the other direction – toward his racism, his thirst for vengeance, and his criminal past.
All this causes me to reflect on questions that arise all the time about motives. Why do we do what we do? Do we ever do anything for purely selfless reasons, or is it more often than not that we act out of our own self-interest, out of our own desires for what we want and how we think things should be? Ford shows us a true man in Edwards, a man who is terribly conflicted (whether he knows that or not), a man who acts in heroic ways, but who may actually be something none of us aspire to.