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Eight Unanswered Questions About "The Searchers"

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 29 August 2017
John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) screens today alongside Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) at Film Forum in Manhattan. Whereas the first of these monumental vehicles for John Wayne is a relatively simple morality play, The Searchers is one of the most psychologically complex Westerns of all time. What follows is an attempt to unfurl some of its mysteries.

The Searchers starts with questions couched in the Son of Pioneers’ title song: “What makes a man to wander? /What makes a man to roam?/ What makes a man leave bed and board, / And turn his back on home? / Ride away, ride away, ride away… .”

The man who has turned his back on home is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). At the start of the film, he returns after a presumed absence of seven years to the Texas ranch where his brother Aaron (Water Coy) lives with his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), teenage daughter Lucy (Pippa Scott), son Ben (Robert Lyden), youngest daughter Debbie (Lana Wood), and adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a one-eighth Cherokee man in his twenties whom Ethan had rescued from Comanches when Marty was an infant.

Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers
Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers | © Warner Bros.

When Texas Rangers seeking a band of Comanche raiders call at the Edwards ranch the next morning, their leader the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) silently observes that Ethan and Martha are in love. While Ethan, Marty, and Lucy’s boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.) are out with the Rangers, Comanches led by Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) kill Aaron, Martha, and Ben, abduct Lucy and Debbie, and burn the ranch.

Soon afterwards, Lucy is found dead in a canyon—like Martha, she had been raped by the Comanches. Brad goes mad with grief and wilfully commits suicide at the hands of the Comanches. Ethan and Marty embark on their years-long quest to find Debbie—Marty fearing that, when they do, the violently racist Ethan will kill her for becoming a Comanche squaw.

Ford’s dark, lyrical masterpiece is Shakespearian in its girth—Ethan’s psychosis redolent of Lear’s madness, Marty standing in for Kent/Edmund, and the wise simpleton Old Mose Harper (Hank Worden) for the Fool. Instead of King Lear‘s heath, there is Monument Valley, its red sandstone buttes—on the Utah-Arizona border—signaling the implacability of the Gods in the hostile part of West Texas where the film is set.

Martha (Dorothy Jordan) watches Ethan’s approach at the start of the film—Monument Valley standing in for rugged West Texas
Martha (Dorothy Jordan) watches Ethan’s approach at the start of the film—Monument Valley standing in for rugged West Texas | © Warner Bros.

It’s Wayne’s masterpiece, as well as Ford’s. The actor gave his greatest performance as a man made wretched by hatred, scorn, and fury, but capable of moments of tenderness. He yearns, of course, for the two things moral redemption can’t bring him as a perpetual outsider: home and a family.

The Searchers is endlessly watchable and unfathomable. The more times one sees it, the more questions it poses.

Where has Ethan been since the Civil War ended?

The Searchers is set in Texas in 1868, three years after the Civil War. Ethan’s grey Johnny Reb coat reveals he fought for the Confederacy, presumably from 1861 through 1865. Aaron has been told by Old Mose that Ethan had been to California, but Ethan denies it, adding he has no intention of going there. Aaron says that even before the war, Ethan had been anxious to leave Texas, but had unaccountably stayed on. Aaron doesn’t know, of course, that Ethan loves Martha, Aaron’s wife, and that she loves Ethan, which is the reason Ethan has not come home before.

It is not disclosed where Ethan has been since the war, but he has been unable to reintegrate into society. He may have fought in Mexico. Like fellow former Confederates Frank and Jesse James, Ethan has become a robber. The newly minted Yankee gold coins he unceremoniously gives Aaron to pay for his lodging were clearly stolen from a bank or stagecoach.

Could Debbie be Ethan’s daughter?

As this possibility isn’t part of the film’s text, it is never discussed. On his first evening at Aaron and Martha’s ranch, Ethan first mistakes little Debbie for Lucy. When she tells him her name is “Deborah,” he says, “Deborah? Debbie.” It isn’t clear what he knows of his youngest niece, or even if he previously knew she existed. If he left for the war in 1861. however, it may have been because he knew Martha was pregnant.

Young Debbie (Lana Wood) hides in vain from the Comanches by her grandmother’s grave on the Edwards ranch
Young Debbie (Lana Wood) hides in vain from the Comanches by her grandmother’s grave on the Edwards ranch | © Warner Bros.

There is no indication that Ethan and Martha acted on their feelings for each other. Aaron speaks of Martha’s steadfastness as a wife, refusing to let him quit their ranch, as Ethan had done. Yet, the fact remains that Debbie could be Ethan’s child. It would be an especially powerful reason why he cannot accept Debbie being taken as a wife by an Indian.

Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), the Comanche leader
Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), the Comanche leader | © Warner Bros.

Why does Marty treat Look so harshly?

In the first five years of the search, Marty writes one letter to Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), the daughter of the Swedish settler Lars (John Qualen) and his more grounded American wife (Olive Carey, the widow of silent Western star Harry Carey and the mother of Harry Carey Jr). Laurie loves Marty and is sexually frustrated by his absence: “I ain’t cut out to be no old maid.” The letter recounts how he accidentally bought himself a native American bride (Beulah Archuletta) when bartering with some agency Indians whom Ethan probed for information.

Ethan, ill-disposed to Marty because he has Native American blood, uses the homely Indian woman’s presence in their party to sneer at Marty, who reactively kicks her downhill when she lays her bedroll next to his that evening. Her name, Ethan mockingly translates, is Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky, but she thinks Marty has named her “Look,” because that’s the expostulation he uses when trying to reason with her.

Look (Beulah Archuletta), Marty’s Comanche “bride”
Look (Beulah Archuletta), Marty’s Comanche “bride” | @ Warner Bros.

The spitefulness Marty shows to the sweet-natured Look echoes the self-loathing Ethan has elicited in Marty as a “breed.” His unkindliness also echoes his poor regard for Laurie, as well as Laurie’s contempt for Look, her unseen rival, and selfish disdain for Marty’s mission to protect Debbie from Ethan.

“Looking” is central to The Searchers experience. First, little is as it seems. Second, Ethan is required to look inside himself and transcend his ugly thoughts and emotions before he can even try to make peace with others and with himself. To a lesser extent, Marty must look inside himself,too, while keeping a watchful eye on the murderous Ethan.

Marty and Ethan both reveal compassion for Look when he and Ethan find her dead body among a group of Nawyehkah Comanches massacred by the US Cavalry.

How long does the search for Debbie last?

Estimates range from five to 10 years. The film historian Tag Gallacher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Fims, is nearer the mark when he asserts it lasts seven years. A clue is the age of the actresses who played Debbie. Lana Wood was nine when she played Debbie as a six- or seven-year-old. Her sister Natalie, who turned 17 during the filming of The Searchers in the summer of 1955, plays Debbie as “about 14,” as Ethan says to an army doctor. Thus, the quest lasts seven years—or eight at most.

The grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) in Scar’s tepee; Marty’s mother’s scalp is among the chief’s trophies
The grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) in Scar’s tepee; Marty’s mother’s scalp is among the chief’s trophies | © Warner Bros.

Why hasn’t Debbie gone mad?

At a cavalry fort (Laurie reads in the letter), the doctor and a sergeant show Ethan and Marty four white women who had been recovered from Comanche captivity. Only an old woman (Mae Marsh) among them is sane. A middle-aged woman has clearly lost her child; the two girls Debbie’s age have been traumatized; one is crazed. When Ethan and Marty find Debbie, one of the four women in Scar’s teepee, she is perfectly sane.

Either Scar has treated Debbie gently as one of his wives, or more likely as an honored daughter (having lost two of his sons to the whites). Ethan, however, is pathologically fixated on what he considers the evil of miscegenation. Laurie callously thinks Marty is wasting his time searching for “the leavings of a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own.”

Gone again: Marty leaves Laurie (Vera Miles) a second time
Gone again: Marty leaves Laurie (Vera Miles) a second time | © Warner Bros.

Why doesn’t Ethan kill Debbie and Marty when he has the chance?

The Comanches’ arrivals in the film are delivered by Ford as small shocks. Soon after Ethan and Marty’s first sighting of Debbie in Scar’s teepee, she appears on top of the sandy ridge at the foot of which they are camped. She urges them to leave—the Indians are her people now, she says. When Ethan draws his six-gun on Debbie, Marty shields her from him with his body. Since Ethan despises the Indian in Marty, he might have been expected to kill Marty and then Debbie. He moves forward but hesitates to shoot—and is then struck by a Comanche arrow.

Ethan cannot bring himself to shoot Marty because, despite his anathema to Marty’s mixed blood, he loves him like a son. Love, too, enters Ethan’s decision-making when he finds Debbie defenceless at the film’s climax.

Why doesn’t Ethan come indoors at the end?

As the film winds up, Ethan carries Debbie to the Jorgensens’ porch, and she goes into the house with the pioneer couple; Laurie and Marty, now certain to marry, follow. Wayne as Ethan is photographed standing on the porch from the darkness inside the house. He pays a meta-homage to the late Harry Carey by placing his left hand on the crook of his right arm, a gesture familiarized by Carey—Olive’s late husband, Harry Jr.’s father, Ford’s friend. Then Ethan turns on his heel and saunters into the desert beyond the house, his body language suggesting…what? A job well done or a sense of immeasurable loss? Both.

Ethan (John Wayne) – “doomed to wander forever between the winds”
Ethan (John Wayne) – “doomed to wander forever between the winds” | © Warner Bros.

Where does Ethan go?

Ethan has no place inside the Jorgensen’s home. He has brought Debbie back to white “civilization” and helped turn the wilderness into a garden. But in the process he has savagely revenged Scar’s rape and killing of Martha, as well as Scar’s killing of Marty’s mother, Aaron, Ben, and Lucy. His white supremacist hatred has been inextricably bound up with his repressed sexual longing for Martha, which is why he had to symbolically emasculate Scar, her violator, by scalping him.

If Old Mose has found a home, courtesy of the Edwards’ salvaged rocking chair, there is nowhere for Ethan to go. Like the dead Comanche warrior whose eyes he shot out earlier in the film, Ethan is “doomed to wander forever between the winds.” And that feels poetically right.

The Searchers screens at Film Forum at 12.30pm, 4.45pm, and 9.10pm today. Price for admission with Stagecoach is $8 for members, $14 for regular.