John Wayne’s irascible Confederate soldier returns from the war bitter but unbroken in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). It’s unclear why Ethan Edwards is such a cussed mess but, for me, he is one of the most unlikeable non-villains I’ve encountered in a feature film. Perhaps Ethan is tortured by the Northern victory, three years past, or that his brother is married to the woman he himself fancies. Whatever the case, at the end of the opening homecoming sequence when Ethan ambles up on his horse to the hearty, but uncertain, cheers of his brother’s family, the former rebel sits out on the steps of his brother’s house in the middle of Texas, alone, under the sky. And this seems to be where he is destined to be. Rugged Individualism, writ large.
Ethan’s part-Cherokee nephew Martin, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is treated especially coldly by the old soldier who hates Indians more than he hates Yankees. When a Comanche raid led by a particularly fearless chief named Scar (Henry Brandon) wipes out their kinfolk, Ethan and Martin set out to recover Martin’s sisters who they hear were taken alive. The two track for five years — covering a lot of beautiful, expansive territory — before they finally catch up with Scar and discover the one surviving girl has grown into a young Comanche woman (Natalie Wood), who warns them not try to rescue her.
Of course, they do. Scar is vanquished, the girl is returned to her people, and Ethan ambles off into the distance.
It’s a peculiar film, an oater with a dramatic sweep and cast of oddballs that at times feel Shakespearean. The search is the thread that ties together a romantic subplot that has Martin ineptly courting the vivacious Laurie (Vera Miles) and the antics of a ragtag band of deputized marshals, clowns and fools led by a Bible-toting Texas ranger (Ward Bond).
I sense that Ford respected both westward expansion settlers and the Indians they confronted. Maybe this film is a study of the toll war and warring takes on the human spirit. A scene in which Ethan, over Martin’s objections, fires round after round into a buffalo herd in a futile attempt to starve his enemy shows, in pretty startling terms, the depths of Ethan’s animosity and his thirst for vengeance. Not a heroic moment but this is a film where true nobility appears to be in short supply.