By Rosalie Tirella
I’m watching – for the 10th time!! – one of my favorite movies, THE SEARCHERS. The John Ford masterpiece starring John Wayne, Ward Bond and Vera Miles and the breathtaking Monument Valley, a bigger “character” in the movie than even the human actors, except for John Wayne. The movie still stands. Tall, graceful, haunting 70 years after it was made. Nothing soft or sentimental about this movie. It is true … and, for me, depicts both sides of the Indian/White Man rift with brutal truth. Yes, one side had to annihilate the other!! – this country was so gorgeous!! – worth fighting to the death for! The two cultures were incompatible; it would have been impossible to co-exist. Rape, murder, devastation of homesteads, even the brutal taking of scalps (initiated by the Whites) took place on both sides.
Wayne is racist in the movie, but director Ford isn’t, so his vision, his story, isn’t. The forced march of the Comanches, the American barracks the women and girls are held in, the slaughtering of all the women and children in an Indian camp by American soldiers, the murder of Luk, even the old scrawny Indian extras of the movie – real Navahos from a nearby reservation – break your heart.
Back to the story: Wayne’s niece is kidnapped by Skar and his band of Comanches during one of Skar’s murder raids. Skar is the John Wayne of Indian country – big and tall and strapping, the wise and brutal king – he must be killed. Skar and his band of marauders torch the homestead and kills the family of Wayne’s character, Ethan: All murdered: Ethan’s brother, Aron; the nephew; sister-in-law Martha and another niece. The women are raped before they are killed. Seven-year-old Debbie is spared – she is kidnapped by the Comanches. To see Wayne making his way through the charred rubble, to watch him pick up the blood-soaked blue dress of his true love, Martha, to know what he understands … He calls MARTHA!!! at this ground zero – not the name of his brother. But MARTHA!!!, his brother’s wife. This is the person who is HOME for Wayne in The Searchers:
I don’t care what anyone says, Wayne was a great actor!!! His visage grows darker and heavier with each loss in the movie. To see that close-up of him as he leaves the barracks where white Indian teenaged girls, all kidnapped when they were little, are housed in, is to see a beautiful portrait … of hatred. Wayne becomes mad – eaten up – by his vindictiveness. He WILL FIND DEBBIE, he tells fellow searcher Marty! EVEN IF IT MEANS SEARCHING FOR HER FOR YEARS! But when he finally tracks Debbie down, after five years of searching, he learns she has assimilated…lives with the Comanches as family, is the wife of an Indian, will have his children, Ethan turns on her, hates her. She must die. He intends to put a bullet in her brain. She is no longer his people, his family – but belongs to the other tribe.
As I watch this movie in my early old age, it feels Shakespearean. Epic like Homer. Or Steinbeck. I love when Wayne speaks … never coming down hard on a line, like his sidekick Marty does to show “emotion” (it’s like the young actor has turned it up to 11 for the entire movie!). Nope. Not the Duke – he’s marinated in nuance. His creased and heavy face tells his story, reflects his pain, his hurt, his loneliness, his aloneness. Ford shoots him so lovingly. And when he does cry out, it’s feels Olympian.
I won’t give away the film’s ending, in case you’ve never seen it, but to hear John Wayne, middle-aged, heavy shoulders, deep-voiced tell Marty he will find Debbie, that it is their inexorable fate, like “the turning of the earth” … WOW. Or to hear Wayne talk of the Indian after-life, as if he almost believed in it himself … after shooting out the eyes of the Indian buried in the red dust so the Indian’s a lost, restless wanderer in the afterlife, for eternity. As bereft and homeless as Ethan is in this amazingly beautiful country! The way Wayne uses his hands and arms in the movie, with graceful flourishes, to mimic the wind, winding paths, forks in the road, geese in the night sky is to watch and listen to a poet tell his story. You are captivated by his adventure!
The movie is BEAUTIFUL to look at. The final shot of the film is beautiful and heartbreaking. What does it mean? No happy ending for Ethan! He’s got no home, even after his gallant act, with the Jorghunsans. They are white and friends – but they don’t welcome him into the fold the way they do the young Marty. He doesn’t fit in. He can’t fit in! The Indians fear and respect Ethan but reject him, too. The heavy wooden front door closes shut on him, and he walks into the sun absolutely alone, with that signature John Wayne walk. He’s outside, with the other untamable things. A force of nature in his own right. What cabin, bunkhouse, tee pee could ever hold Ethan?