Another John Wayne classic, The Searchers, follows former Confederate soldier Ethan (Wayne) as he returns to the home of his brother, who married the woman Ethan loved. From the start it is clear that Wayne’s character is not the most noble of soldiers. He has a lot of gold “Yankee dollars” that he never explains how or where he obtained them, and doesn’t return until three years after the war. The local Ranger captain treats him with equal parts respect and caution. In addition, He immediately reacts negatively to the adopted son of his brother and sister-in-law purely based on the fact that he is part Native American. It becomes clear that Ethan has nothing but hatred for Native Americans, and specifically against Comanches.
One fascinating thing about The Searchers is that it is a western that actually questions the racism and animosity of the cowboys towards the Native Americans. It is interesting to note that Ethan is not ignorant to the ways of the Comanches. He has been victimized by them (they killed his mother) so he learned everything he could about them. So, this Western doesn’t really fit the genre. We have an antihero that we genuinely disagree with. He’s not just gruff or mean, he is genuinely hateful, suspicious, and a probable criminal. His hatred is so blinding that after the Comanche kill his family and capture his niece he would rather kill her for being indoctrinated than try to get her back. It seems John Wayne is at his best when he doesn’t play his classic gun-fighting hero (see the drunken Rooster Cogburn of True Grit). He is the character we want more than anything to change, to give his adopted nephew Martin a chance, and above all else, spare his niece.
One thing that must be said for Ethan is his tenacity. He never stops looking, even years after the raid. He and search everywhere for a lead to the band of Comanches that have his niece Debby. He even talks about how humans are the one predator that never gives up.
What makes this movie powerful is its display of how there was no perfect side when it came to Cowboys and Indians. The Native Americans are not portrayed as heartless savages, or even the deceptive noble savages. They bury their dead with ceremony, have a code of honor, and have themselves been wronged by the people that have claimed their land. The chief of the Comanches tells Ethan and Martin that his sons were killed by white men, and that is why he takes so many scalps. The movie is one of very few that has attempted to address the atrocities committed on both sides of the long conflict between white settlers and Native Americans.
Of course, in the end we all need heroes. Ethan and Martin do eventually find Debbie, and while the Texas Rangers raid the camp Ethan chases her down. Ethan’s humanity comes out and instead of killing her, he carries her home. It is also important to note he made Martin his sole heir. He has come to accept his 1/8 Cherokee nephew, his niece that turned “injun,’” and for the first time seems genuinely at peace. As he leaves them at home, Martin reunited with the girl he loves and Debbie safe, Ethan walks away into the sunset. He seems to accept that his hatred, his way of viewing the world, is no longer needed. So he moves on, leaving behind the people that can make this place better.