There he comes, riding towards the camera on a horse just like in every other western you ever watched while growing up: John Wayne, the Duke himself; he comes riding up to a lone farming home, in the middle of what seems a wasteland, to visit his brother Aaron and his family on their Texas cattle farm. Truth be known, no cattle herd could survive in a wasteland that looks like this, but these western pictures are more mythical than they are realistic; the difference between Greek history and Greek mythology is a fair comparison. The landscape in John Ford’s 1956 film “The Searchers” brings to mind the western paintings of Charles Marion Russell or Frederic Remington more so than the reality of what Texas actually looks like.
John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man who swore his life to the confederacy and still swears his life to it. Even though the war has been over for many years Ethan still wears his uniform and still carries his confederate saber. Heck, that hat he’s wearing might even be confederate issue.
There are little moments in this opening sequence that clue the audience into larger things going on behind closed doors. There are passing glances between Ethan and Aaron’s wife Martha, that hint at the possibility of a past relationship; maybe if things had been different Ethan would be her husband and Aaron the long-awaited visitor. Then there is the matter of the gold Ethan has brought to the family as a gift of sorts.
Ethan throws a bag of gold to his brother, who inspects it and remarks: “Mint fresh… not a mark on ’em.” Ethan’s reply is a questionable look and a very curt “So?”
This is not the John Wayne I grew up with. There is something boiling under the surface of Ethan Edwards, a fire and energy; there is something troublesome about him. In an earlier scene we find out that the Edwards family has a young “Quarter-Cherokee. The rest is Welsh…” named Martin Paulie living with them, who is alive because Ethan saved his life when he was a baby; apparently Ethan found him “squallin’ in a sage clump after [his] folks was massacred…” You know, come to think of it, “Edwards” is a Welsh name, and later on in the film Ethan recognizes a scalp being flaunted by an Indian chief named Scar as being the scalp of Martin’s mother.
All of these details bubble beneath the surface of the film, which might make them seem unimportant yet these are the details that fuel the lives of these characters. “The Searchers” is a film full of unnecessary brush strokes, little details that are unneeded to see the work as a whole; yet it is these flourishes that breathe life into the film, that make it come to life and move. Even though the film is bookmarked by two glorious images looking out of a front door over the vast desert wasteland, we have the sense that the lives of these people had a history dating back before the beginning of reel one, and that they have a future stretching forward beyond the end of the final reel.
But shortly after these opening sequences the youngest of the Edward’s girls is taken by a tribe of Nawyecka Comanche, and Ethan Edwards and Martin Paulie will set out to find her. To Ethan it’s about saving her from a life of being “with the bucks”, a fate that, to Ethan, seems worse than death; to Martin it’s about saving the little girl who is like a sister to him. At this point it begins to become obvious what exactly is boiling beneath the surface of Ethan Edwards — this is a man who does not like Indians. We almost wonder if he had been an Indian-fighter during the war. Ethan Edwards is a hateful man and John Wayne plays the role with a ferocity that is terrifying and inspiring all at once.
Ethan swears that he and Martin will find the girl though: “…we’ll find them in the end, I promise you that… We’ll find them just as sure as the turning of the Earth.”
John Wayne plays a character of single-minded devotion, a force of nature. The question we should ask ourselves, however, is if we should admire the character of Ethan Edwards or pity him. I am undecided.