Sympathy For The Devil? The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards

the searchers 2

John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) presents a powerful character study in its protagonist / antagonist: war veteran, bigot, alluded to murderer and proverbial bad penny, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). A man twisted by hate and stubborn pride, who returns to his family for some kind of peace and redemption, only to shatter and shear off on a twisted hunt, blinded by an obsession for purity  in a land where none can abide.

Ethan is greeted warmly but warily by his brother Aaron, three years after the Civil War ended, having never surrendered. He comes bearing suspiciously freshly minted gold coins. Aaron’s wife Martha is more welcoming, and we see genuine affection between the two. In fact, Aaron remarks how before the war Ethan had wanted to leave, but stayed “beyond all reason…”

When Martha thinks she’s alone, she gently folds and embraces Ethan’s heavy cavalry coat before placing it in a chest. The Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond), there to raise a posse against Indian raiders, observes but is discreet. Ethan refuses to be sworn in to the Texas Rangers (the Reverend doubles as their commander). He states “A man’s only good for one oath at a time. I swore mine to the Confederate States Of America.” Ethan is proud yet bitter, torn between his loyalty and misplaced ideals, and his isolation from “the reconstruction”.

When the posse realise they have been diverted, Ethan and Aaron’s mixed-race son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) race back home. They find a scorched homestead, and children Lucy and Debbie taken. Something in Ethan snaps. He is demented by the thought of the girls being raised by “savages” and defiled by a Buck. When they find the older girl Lucy dead, he restrains her beau from seeing the body, snapping “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Don’t ever ask me!” Hysteria is never far behind his gimlet eyes.From now on, to Marty’s horror, there can be only one outcome to Ethan’s search for Debbie, taken by the Comanche chief Scar – one he is determined to prevent.

Ethan is as savage as those he hunts, desecrating an Indian brave’s body in the grave, shooting out his eyes. When asked sorrowfully by the Reverend what good it did, he sneers, “By what you preach, none.” Without his eyes, however, the Brave is condemned to wander the spirit world “without peace or rest, forever.” Just as Ethan will find no rest until, in his fractured state, he purifies his soul with Debbie’s blood. Marty and Ethan’s years long search becomes a struggle between darkness and the light, a quest not just for Debbie, but for the salvation of his soul. His irrational hatred manifests itself in sudden bursts of fury and barely tempered rage. He shoots and scatters a buffalo herd, depriving the tribes of winter food.

In a Cavalry outpost while looking for Debbie amongst recovered captured white women, we get a zoom-in close-up,  eyes only highlighted by a slash (a scar?) across Ethan’s face. His sheer disgust and hatred at the sight of one keening wretch, clutching at a rag doll in her child’s stead, is shocking.

When the searchers finally do catch up with  Debbie and Scar, Ethan throws Marty aside and rides Debbie down as another posse break up Scar’s camp. As she cowers before him, Ethan is faced with a terrible choice. The only reason I can find for his sudden decision to save her is indeed blood – she is his own daughter. Killing her would sever the only link that remains to Martha, the one good thing in his prideful, misbegotten life. Ford was careful to suggest this without words earlier in the film. Look at the division around the homestead table in the film, here: 

the searchers 4

 When Ethan lifts the grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) high in his arms and says “Let’s go home, Debbie,” it mirrors his sweeping up of the younger Debbie upon his arrival at his brother’s home at the beginning of the film.

Sadly, there can be no homecoming for Ethan, as he delivers Debbie to the Jorgenson’s. He has seen and carried out too much savagery, and belongs in the wilderness, part of the past the relentless sweep of civilisation is taking over. His own scar runs too deep. Turning on the porch, in another mirrored shot, he leaves, and the door closes on him and his kind.

To match feature ARTS WAYNE

Originally posted 2014-01-09 15:51:49. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article