Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day filled with symbols of our great American mythology. Our founders, the European settlers, yearned for a new life free from the restrictions of Europe, so they got on those rickety boats and crossed an ocean to reach an unknown land.
The Pilgrims, in their quest for religious freedom, sought Nirvana far from home. The place they landed on was harsh, unforgiving, a landscape that required skill and knowledge in order to survive.
And instrumental to their survival, according to the American mythology, were the inhabitants of the "New World." As we all know, the Pilgrims shared a harvest feast with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The modern American Thanksgiving dinner not only gives us the opportunity to give thanks for our blessings, but commemorates the cooperation between Native Americans and foreign born visitors who sought new life in a new world.
Of course, cooperation turned into warfare not long after. Another component of American story is the "cowboys versus Indians" mythology, in which cowboys wrested the land from violent, scalp-taking Indians.
Which brings me to The Searchers, a classic western made by John Ford in 1956.
For me, The Searchers ranks up there as one of the definitive American movies. Our mythology, particularly our Western mythology, focuses on our independence from others. Our heroes seem to need no one. They are self-contained and powerful. They save us from the evils that exist beyond the pale.
With The Searchers, Ford shows us the reality behind the myth. Ethan Edwards, for whatever reason, shunned love, rejected the home. Those early scenes in the film are so powerfully eloquent in visually expressing his love for Martha, and her love for him.
A 47 second scene from early in the movie that visually shows the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law:
We'll never know why they never married, but I believe it is because Ethan was not a settled man. Walls could not contain him. And so Martha settled for Ethan's brother.
With this film, did Ford and Wayne endorse Western racism or regret it? To me, it seems clear. The racist shoots people in the back. He's angry. He wants to kill his niece because the Comanches have defiled her. He's nasty to the young man who trails around the west with him in search of the lost white girl. There is far more than regret in John Wayne's portrayal of Ethan - there is condemnation too. It is Marty, tainted with that drop of Indian blood, who provides the moral center of the film. The man not fully white, the man without blood relatives, is the one man in the story who truly understands the value of protecting one's kin.
In a 2001 review of the film, Roger Ebert says, "in The Searchers I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide."
I disagree. To me, watching John Wayne's extraordinary performance, it was clear that this is a sharply defined portrait of the internal destruction that comes from living under a twisted moral code. Wayne exposes the myth for what it is, a sham. "What do want me to do, draw you a picture?" he screams at Lucy's fiance, when he finally has to reveal what happened to Lucy. The violence he's witnessed has destroyed him.
In The Searchers, we see that the Western hero is not impervious to grief and sorrow, as the myth would lead you to believe. The Western hero is isolated by independence, shut out from the soft, warm intimacies of family life. Is there any other Western that is so framed by the home? Those iconographic opening and closing images of the film are startling - the great, expansive beauty of the west, framed and enclosed by the love of family. Even at the end, Ethan rejects the comfort of love. His love is the land. But his independence is obtained at a very high price.
It is rare that I see a movie that affects me like this one. And while I admire John Wayne for accepting the challenge of playing Ethan Edwards, I do not admire Ethan. He is ambiguous and twisted. His courage is not necessarily the same as heroism. For me, the one flaw of the film is that in the end, his decision to save Debbie instead of kill her is completely unmotivated. The real Ethan Edwards would have shot her.