Racial Issues and Racism in Early Westerns: John Ford’s The Searchers

America loves John Wayne, but in his role in John Ford’s The Searchers, John Wayne hates. His character, Ethan Edwards, shows a dislike for just about everybody he runs into, from the typical frontiersman hatred of the Comanche tribe and their chief Scar (Henry Brandon) to the constant attacking and insulting of his brother’s adopted part-Cherokee son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), and even to a desire to put a bullet through the brain of his brother’s own daughter Debbie (Lana, then later Natalie Wood). He does, however, show some loving tendencies toward his horse, who he insists on resting, even when he knows that the Indians are headed toward his brother’s home on a murder raid. In addition, he must have an amazing relationship with his rifle, since every shot he fires manages to find its way straight into its target. In one instance, he shoots out the eyes of an already dead Indian just to prevent him from finding the spirit land. He also shares some poignant moments with his brother’s wife, leaving up to the imagination the true sentiments behind the tender kisses delivered to her forehead. Despite all his hate for people, America loves John Wayne, or at least the American Film Institute does, as they have placed The Searchers on their list of the top 100 films of all time.

As a departure from the typical western, it is fitting that the film is recognized. There is no denying the difference between The Searchers and some of the earlier collaborations of the Johns (such as Stagecoach). The Searchers is driven, not by its lively characters and their plights in the tradition of earlier westerns, but by the prejudice emanating from John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. The plot can be seen as just a framework for the introduction of the ideas central to Ford’s film. Ethan is a former Confederate soldier, although former might be inaccurate because of his refusal to participate in the surrender and give up his saber. When he returns “home” to his brother’s quaint cabin, apparently the only home he has, Ethan is dismayed to find Martin Pawley, who is one-eighth Cherokee, still living there. He is even more dismayed when, after his nieces Debbie and Lucy (Pippa Scott) are taken captive during a Comanche murder raid, Martin insists on coming along on the search to get his “sisters” back. The remainder of the film is spent following Ethan on his mission with an Indian, against Indians. Insults are thrown, stereotypes are affirmed, and America’s favorite cowboy is at the center of it all.

Ford also examines gender stereotypes, placing Martin between two seemingly opposite women who have the same desire: to marry. Martin is quite literally chased by the aggressive Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), who is not afraid to assert her dominance over him, both mentally, by snatching something he is reading because he is too slow, and physically, as she pushes him over a bench. In a completely opposite situation, in one of the funnier moments of the film, Martin accidentally purchases an enthusiastic Indian bride, Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky (Beulah Archuletta). The last we see of her bubbly presence is when she climbs into bed with him and in a display of his dominance, he proceeds to kick her down the hill.

The film is full of color, and not just that of the Indians. Much of the filming was done in Monument Valley, one of Ford’s most well-known locations, and by using the recently developed Technicolor film, justice is given to the stunning vistas of the landscape. Color also gets Ford into a bit of trouble, making his shortcuts in filming a bit more noticeable. There are some wonderfully fake-looking sets, such as a campfire next to a huge boulder and a misty swamp (in the middle of Monument Valley?) that the searchers have to wade through. However, Ford must be given some credit for trying to make his film as authentic as possible, because those times when a character would call a name and hear it echo back five times give the feeling of being in the middle of the Texican desert. There is also an amusing sequence of shots in which characters stand on the porch at dusk waiting for the Comanche raid, look up at the bright blue sky, and then go back inside, where red light streams in through the doorway of the cabin.

The shots inside the home are designed to contrast with the great outdoors, emphasizing the difference between the spaces. The home is small and cluttered with a variety of household items, and many of the interior shots are done from below. They are long, immobile shots, capturing from a distance the events unfolding in the home. This perspective has the effect of making the viewer feel like a little snail on the ground trying desperately to crawl out into the wide open spaces, but trapped in a room full of child actors delivering overly-dramatized lines.

The crucial question in any discussion of this film is whether John Ford, in his display of overtly stereotypical behavior, intends to condone or mock the prejudices he portrays. Because the film was released in the wake of the decision to desegregate schools in Brown vs. Board of Education, racial tensions were on the rise. As Ethan’s hatred of the Indians was being brought into his home in the character of Martin, so the threat grew of the African-Americans being introduced into the lives of the na├»ve children at school. Viewers were given the option of either agreeing with the actions and attitudes of their favorite cowboy or being appalled by his lack of desire to assimilate with the “dangerous” outsiders attacking his family’s way of life.

Although The Searchers was successful in addressing important current issues in the style of a western, it seems overly contrived. The dialogue, although clever at times, lacks the down-to-earth simplicity that characterizes many other westerns. Its plot and themes are a deviation from the more classic Stagecoach, in which the younger outlaw John Wayne joins a party traveling across the frontier, trying to avoid the threats of the famous Geronimo. The Searchers forces its conflicts and is excessive in its portrayal of the tensions between the settlers and the Indians. However, beyond its ability to outline and respond to racial issues, the film also has merit as an inspiration for later greats, such as Taxi Driver, Star Wars, and many of Steven Spielberg’s films. Whether or not Ford’s The Searchers is viewed and acclaimed on its own, its influence will surely be seen in cinema for years to come.