The Searchers Image

The Searchers

By Bradley Gibson | May 5, 2021

The Searchers was received as a story of American courage in the face of a vicious enemy. Ethan Edwards would never turn back in his search for Debbie, no matter the years or miles. But when he finds her, as a teenager having adopted native ways and becoming the wife of the war chief, he immediately tries to kill her, based on his belief that it would be better to die than to be defiled by the Comanche.

Looking back on the film now, we can see this as pure white American Exceptionalism and racism so dark and insidious it’s almost not obvious. It’s an even more egregious position given that the Comanche were among the first Americans versus the encroaching white scourge coming from the East. The Europeans were the attacking invaders, by any possible definition. There are many other racial and ethnic missteps in the film, not the least of which is the casting of a blue-eyed German actor as the Comanche chief.

“…entertaining, well-acted and directed, and beautiful to watch.”

However, as always, it is inappropriate to apply our current cultural mores to art that’s now over six decades old. We can see the wrong in those choices, but it’s also clear that we will find in due course, as every generation has, that we are not the final arbiters of moral purity, and 70 years from now, we will be the ones considered Philistines. That said, the film is a great, rich treasure of revelation that is at the surface a simple story but reveals deeply complex roots in the concepts of our national identity.

The Searchers is a revered classic because it deserves to be. As much as it has been discussed, there’s always more to find. Every few years, it’s worthwhile to see it again and revisit these ideas for comparison as we grow culturally and even individually. It’s still entertaining, well-acted and directed, and beautiful to watch. But more important than the entertainment value is what it can teach us in the United States about where we came from, who we are now, and how we can use the insight from that history to aspire to a better way.

The Searchers screened as part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival.

The Searchers (1956)

Directed: John Ford

Written: Frank S. Nugent

Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, etc.

Movie score: 9/10

The Searchers Image

"…still says much about the American approach to expansion in the West..."

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