As children, I'm sure we have all participated in a game of "Cowboys and Indians". Who can resist the urge to play the heroes of the frontier versus the savage Indians? Then again, it never crossed our young minds that we were ignoring the plight of Native Americans and bigotry that existed during the Old West. Enter The Searchers, directed by the legendary John Ford and starring the great John Wayne, a movie that explores the accepted racism during the days of the Old West.
Returning to meet his brother's family three years after the Civil War, ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) eventually suffers the loss of his entire bloodline after a Comanche attack on his brother's home, leaving two surviving family members: His young niece Debbie, who was kidnapped by the Comanche, and his adopted nephew Martin Pawly, a young man who is part Cherokee and hated by Ethan for his racial composition. The attack starts off Ethan and Martin's five year long search for young Debbie and the Warchief Scar, the Comanche responsible for the death of his family and holds Debbie as his wife. What is interesting about how this journey plays out is the utter disdain Ethan has towards Native Americans and those who associate with them. To Ethan, a white woman with a Comanche is better off dead since white women loses their purity for even spending time with a Comanche in his eyes. As he uses and berates his adopted nephew just to meet his objectives, he will even go as far as mutilating the corpse of fallen Comanche warriors, just so that their spirit may never find peace. This is not the conventional Western hero, folks. Ethan is an unapologetic racist, and will use his hatred to even kill his own family members if it comes to that point. Martin Pawly, who accompanies Ethan in his search, proves to be Ethan's conscience throughout the movie. Despite being part Cherokee, Martin tries to confront and gain the respect of Ethan, pointing out the flaws of Ethan's actions. Martin makes it known that Americans are capable of brutality when he finds a defenseless Native American village in shambles. When Ethan is confronted with Debbie being the wife of the Comanche Warchief Scar, Martin quickly throws himself to protect Debbie from Ethan's wrath. "She's alive and she'll stay alive!" Martin yells out as he stares down Ethan's gun, ready to return fire if the situation escalated. While he starts off as a very innocent character, Martin is forced to evolve and grow; dealing with the injustices of a man he craves respect from.
The shots in The Searchers show off the vast, beautiful, and varied environments of Texas, as well as show the progression of time by way of the constant changes in the seasons. The music, which could have been a sore spot in this movie, never really got in the way as I thought it would. I would actually argue that the music found here sometimes fits very, very well, including the final theme. The acting here is top notch, especially from John Wayne. His facial expressions, physical acting, and even his delivery makes him very convincing as a man who is possessed by the demons of hatred. If there was a sore spot or two in this movie, it would be the forced comedic moments and the poor action sequences. This is a movie dealing with a very controversial subject. While it is understandable for the movie to lighten up the mood, the attempts ultimately feel out of place, taking the movie's direction off course. As for the action sequences, every shootout felt like one side were moving targets as John Wayne shot them down, even against an overwhelming force. Granted, Ethan may be one of the fiercest bastards in the Old West, but he shouldn't be able to take on an incoming army with just one or two other guys armed with six shooters.
All in all, this is a great film that is quite shocking considering the era it came from. It is interesting to see the views of racism during that time, and it is even more interesting when the director shows how accepted and vile that racism was. The closing credits made it clear that while the outside world may accept hatred, it has no place in a loving home. Ethan came to realize this after finding what he was searching, knowing that he no longer has a place in the home of a loving family ever again.