About halfway through John Ford’s The Searchers, there’s a scene in which Ethan Edwards, in his quest to find his kidnapped niece Debbie, is taken to a white woman and two girls who have been recovered from Indian captivity. The screenplay describes these women variously as ‘mad’, ‘frightened’, wild-eyed’ and as making ‘animal noises’ (Nugent 74-5) and the scene, as filmed, plays the horror of their insanity for all its worth. A bystander comments, ‘It’s hard to believe they’re white,’ and Ethan replies ‘They ain’t white. Not any more. They’re Comanch’.’ The scene ends with a dolly shot of Ethan glowering menacingly at one of the women.
When examining how race is constructed within the context of The Searchers, it’s hard to ignore this particular scene, and many critics have analysed it in detail (Prats 59-61, Pye 232-3). The scene is significant because, firstly, it suggests the fear of miscegenation that perhaps lies at the core of the film: these women, exposed to the contagion of the Indian - the Other - have been driven mad, animalised, infantilised. However, the scene is also significant because Ethan’s response lends it some ambiguity. Pye and Dagle argue that the final shot of Ethan undercuts the racist fear previously established:
The shot ‘... clearly conveys not only the absolute opposition between Indian and white settler, but also the underlying fear and threat of sexual violation and attendant madness’ (Dagle 121).
Where then, does the film stand. Or, indeed, does it ever take a stand? Either way, the contradictions at the heart of this scene are representative of the film’s treatment of race, racism and the fear of miscegenation as a whole. This discussion will analyse how these issues are refracted through five significant characters: Ethan, Scar, Martin, Debbie and Look.
The Searchers has largely been seen from a critical standpoint as a ‘revisionist’ Western, especially in terms of its treatment of Native Americans. However, racism is so deeply embedded within the generic codes of the Western, dealing as it does with white encroachment and appropriation of Indian land, that, as Nolley puts it, ‘Ford could never quite rescue his own work from the racist social discourse in which it was enmeshed’ (88). Pye argues that the film’s
Or, as Neale puts it, The Searchers ‘... seek[s] to interrogate... racism and... racist tropes of the Western itself from within the limits of its ethnocentric framework’ (21).
Ford, by all accounts, was true auteur, especially towards the end of his career. So, in considering how The Searchers constructs race, it may be worthwhile to briefly consider Ford’s personal views, for the film surely reflects them to some extent. In a 1964 profile in Cosmopolitan magazine, Ford discussed his interest in Native Americans and their portrayal in both his films and in Westerns generally. In it, he reveals the inherently patriarchal nature of his . This suggests that although The Searchers may well be his ‘... first attempt to straighten out the distorted portrayal [of Native Americans] he had helped create,’ (Kilpatrick 60), in racial terms, it remains a profoundly problematic text.
Ford seems to be saying here that just because he depicts a racist character like Ethan doesn’t mean that the film itself is racist. As Pye argues, ‘Ethan’s obsessive hatred of Indians and the idea of mixed blood are presented in ways designed to distance us from him’ (229). However, things aren’t that simple. Ethan, like the film, is a bundle of contradictions:
Ethan’s racism and fear of miscegenation manifest themselves so often that a couple of examples of him at his most vindictive should suffice: Firstly, when he shoots the eyes out of the dead Indian, eternally damning him to ‘wander forever between the winds’. Secondly, when he shoots at an enormous herd of buffalo, figuring that ‘Killin’ buffalo’s as good as killin’ Injuns in this country’ (Nugent 70).
What is usually cited as the key example of his extreme racism is his desire to kill Debbie when he finds her. However, it’s important to remember that Ethan isn’t alone in expressing such an obsessive fear of miscegenation. Brad, for instance, seems far more disturbed by the fact that Lucy may have been raped by an Indian than the fact she was killed by one. And Laurie, seemingly one of the most sympathetic characters in the film (Pye 229), argues with Martin when he suggests Debbie doesn’t deserve to die: ‘ [Ethan will] put a bullet in her brain. I tell you Martha would want him to.’ As Pye puts it, ‘Laurie’s hideous outburst locates the disgust and loathing of miscegenation not simply in Ethan but at the heart of the White community. Ethan is, in this respect at least, not an aberrant figure’ (230). And, Dagle: ‘Laurie embodies the socially accepted racism of the white community, the legitimacy behind Ethan’s "insanity"’ (128).
As Eyman suggested, Ethan’s racism is complicated by his appropriation of Indian culture. He can apparently speak several different Native languages, he’s intimately acquainted with the traditions and religions of many different tribes, he’s a scalper. He’s more culturally miscegenated than any other , certainly far more than the ‘breed’, Martin, who he continually denigrates.
Dagle examines extensively the doubling between the characters of Ethan and Scar, and suggests that Ethan’s ‘Indianness’ is part of this mirroring (126-8). Gallagher states that
Dagle adds, ‘When Scar and Ethan do finally meet, two-thirds of the way through the film, the complex of racial and sexual fears that underlie the narrative comes to the surface’ (127).
In many ways Scar largely cleaves to the stereotypical image of the Hollywood Indian, a ‘stoic, stone-faced, bloodthirsty redskin’ (Kilpatrick 37). In a cast filled with real Native Americans, he’s played by a white actor. He first appears as a menacing, encroaching shadow, cast across a cowering child and a tombstone, no . Young Debbie looks up and sees
However, like his double, Ethan, Scar is also a difficult character to read in racial terms. He’s clearly intelligent and a capable leader. By the time Ethan and Martin find her, Debbie doesn’t want to leave Scar. The confrontation between Ethan and Scar is particularly revealing of Scar as being Ethan’s equal:
Scar, nonetheless, is the villain, and must die according to the generic traditions of the Western. What is interesting is that it is not Ethan, the nominal hero, who kills him, but Martin. Henderson describes how Martin’s killing of Scar is consistent with what he perceives the film’s view of miscegenation to be:
Also, by usurping Ethan’s status, Martin potentially signifies a progressive shift in the Western, by making a Native American the hero.
Admittedly, Martin is only ‘one eighth Cherokee and the rest Welsh and ’. In the original novel, Martin is white, in the screenplay, he’s a quarter . The change is significant, because Martin, as a foil to Ethan, takes the full brunt of his racism, and illustrates how deeply ingrained it .
According to Henderson, the film’s engagement with the issue of miscegenation, via Martin, isn’t positive. As indicated by the quotation above, he reads the film as a ‘myth about the adoption and integration of Indians in white society’ (443). Martin is the ‘good’ Indian, because he rejects his Indian heritage. Scar is the ‘bad’ Indian, because he does not.
Conversely, Pye has argued that Martin provides a positive image of miscegenation, embodying ‘...the possibility of integration, of harmonious mixing of the races... [For] Debbie, too, cross-cultural assimilation, living contentedly with another race, is raised as a real possibility’ (Pye 230). For this reason, Debbie can be seen as Martin’s double:
Dagle, writes, along similar lines:
Debbie’s character perhaps raises the most racial quandaries in the film. Martin’s happy integration into white society is readily explicable on the film’s terms – ie, it’s for his own good. However, Debbie seems none the worse for her integration into the society of the Other. She certainly hasn’t been infantilised or driven insane like the rescued captives Ethan meets. Dagle argues that ‘Debbie is instead constructed as the "assimilated" body; she looks Indian, speaks Comanche, and tells Marty that "These are my people. Go"’ (127).
If Debbie’s character is the strongest refutation of charges of racism against the film, then the character of Look, Martin’s inadvertently acquired Indian bride, is the most problematic.
Female Indians have been largely neglected by Hollywood, probably because they chafe against the traditional portrayal of the Indian as a savage male warrior. Nolley writes that
The character of Look provides a perfect example. Although the film features two strong, independent female characters in Debbie and Laurie, the portrayal of Look is not only misogynist, but also grotesquely racist. Ten minutes of screen time pass between Look’s first and last appearance, but, denied a voice, she barely has one line of dialogue. Essentially a comic buffoon, she is completely oblivious to Ethan’s and Martin’s perceptions of her, she follows the men faithfully and serves them coffee.
During the Look sequence, after Martin beds down for the night, Look lies down beside him. Martin, disgusted, kicks her out of the bed, and she rolls down the hill. At this sight, Ethan ‘busts a gut laughing’ (Nugent . An earlier scene provides a telling contrast. While back at the Jorgensens' house, Martin is taking a bath when Laurie enters, similarly invading his privacy. Martin brays like an embarrassed child and Laurie scolds him like one. It seems unlikely that if Martin got out of the bath and socked Laurie in the jaw – the equivalent treatment that Look receives – that Ford could have played the scene for laughs in the same way. Look’s value as a person within the film is made amply clear by this comparison. Gallagher notes,
Her death also raises the issue of the discrepancies in the value of white and Indian lives, which Nolley discusses
If The Searchers is ‘Ford’s apology for racism’, as Keller has described it (27), the character of Look indicates that it is clearly not an unreserved . However, it is clear that the film’s racism ‘... is not the instinctive, oblivious racism of Griffith's Birth of a Nation,’ as Ebert puts it. He continues: ‘Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it... in the flawed vision of 'The Searchers' we can see Ford, Wayne and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero.’ The traditional patterns were beginning to break down. Not only does Ethan commit the ne plus ultra of native savagery by scalping , but, more generally,
Dagle perhaps puts it best: ‘The Searchers is a powerful text because it confronts the racism underlying the Western paradigm, but it is also a text that cannot completely resolve the issues it raises’ (128).
Were The Searchers to be remade , it is certain that the portrayal of the Native American characters would be more dignified and balanced, but probably no more historically accurate than the original. It is certainly unlikely that in our more politically correct times race and miscegenation could be examined with the same kind of ambiguity that lends The Searchers its continuing fascination and power. Massie writes,
It is perhaps appropriate, then, to close this discussion by considering the final shot of The Searchers. Astonishingly eloquent and emotionally satisfying, it almost redeems the unanswered questions and unfinished business that the film has raised. Prats suggests that the final shot – in which Ethan gradually becomes isolated and is finally shut out from the other surrounding him – in fact ultimately reflects what the film has to say about racism and the fear of miscegenation: