John Ford’s The Searchers is a landmark in western filmmaking. But is it the last classic western, like Roger Ebert said, or is it the first revisionist western? When faced with a question about the meaning of like, Forrest Gump said “maybe both.” I think that’s the same conclusion to the question I just posed about The Searchers. It shows a landscape of romanticism, not the starker more brutal landscapes of revisionist westerns. And its characters are all (except one) shameless, blindly and violently racist just like those in classic westerns. But, in The Searchers, that views against Native Americans are understood as a cultural norm that its audience is not expected to share with the characters. Classic westerns that have Native American characters (something westerns by John Ford and/or with John Wayne didn’t usually have) all operated under a simplistic black-and-white mentality of “white is good, red is bad, whites rescue, reds savagely scalp” The characters in The Searchers operate under this same mentality, but the movie’s purpose couldn’t be farther from it. John Wayne’s character Ethan may be a hero in the sense that he accomplishes the search the title refers to, but he’s not a good guy. We see the evil of his racism and are forced to face the reality of that evil, something no classic western would ever dream of communicating about its hero.
So The Searchers is both the last classic western and the first revisionist western, a monumental achievement to be sure. But it is much more than an innovative bridge between the two stages of western film history. It is a depiction of an evil man who accomplishes something very good. It’s about the very nature of humanity, the mix of the good and the evil that is in us all, and about how even when the one overshadows the other, the good and the evil continue to co-exist. Through most of the movie, it’s the evil that dominates for Ethan, and it’s the good that dominates for Martin (Jeffrey Hunter).
When Ethan and Martin first meet, Ethan doesn’t shake his hand, introduce himself, or do anything that would seem natural upon meeting a new person. What he does do makes it clear that he doesn’t see Martin (or any person with any Native American blood) as a human. He uses a racial epithet against him and when finding out that Martin is 1/8 Comanche, we see that 1/8 is all it takes to incite Ethan’s hatred. Nevertheless, Ethan and Martin embark on their journey together. Their search is for Ethan’s niece whose parents took in Martin. So Martin looks at this girl as his sister, and he’s motivated to find her out of love, but Ethan is motivated by his hatred towards Comanches which manifests itself constantly through how he interacts with Martin and is at its worst when they find the girl who he then views as sub-human because he sees that she has become like the Comanches.
The Searchers brilliantly allows us to watch Ethan’s growth as a character, which is not a growth away from racism but a growth towards better motives than he begins the search with. He’s still deeply flawed, full of hate and bitterness at the end of the search. We’re never expected to justify his beliefs and actions like he does, but we are expected to recognize that he is capable of goodness in spite of the evil that dominates his character. Through Ethan, The Searchers forces us to ask deep philosophical questions about morality and the presence of evil in the world without giving us any easy answers. It’s up to us to figure out those answers.