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THE SEARCHERS (1956)



PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: racism

CHARACTERS: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Debbie Edwards (kidnapped younger daughter), Lucy Edwards (kidnapped older daughter), Laurie Jorgensen (Marty's girlfriend), Reverend Clayton, Mose Harper (mentally challenged man), Look (Marty's Indian wife), Scar

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR JOHN FORD: The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941, Academy Award, best director), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Alamo (1960).

SYNOPSIS: “Working together for the 12th time, John Wayne and director John Ford forged The Searchers into an indelible image of the frontier and the men and women who challenged it. Wayne plays ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, a believer more in bullets than in words. He's seeking his niece, captured by Comanche who massacred his family. He won't surrender to hunger, thirst, the elements or loneliness. And in his obsessive, five-year quest, Ethan encounters something he didn't expect to find: his own humanity.” – promotional synopsis, Warner Brothers. A script of this film is available at www. script-o-rama.com.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. The movie was set in Monument Valley, in southern Utah, a frequent location for Ford’s western movies. Aside from its scenic beauty as a backdrop to the film, does it add any special meaning to it?

2. What are some of Ethan’s values – political views, religious beliefs, racial prejudices, conceptions of the good life?

3. Martin is part Indian. What function does that play in the racial themes throughout the movie?

4. The Searchers has a dark tone, and at the time was an especially violent movie with a lot of shocking scenes. What are some of them, and how do they compare by today’s standards?

5. Half way through the film, Ethan and Martin see a few recently rescued white women who were kidnapped by Comanche, and appear almost subhuman. At that point Ethan suspects that the same has become of Debbie, and he wants to kill her rather than rescue her. Near the end of the film Laurie says to Martin that even Debbie’s dead mother would have preferred for Debbie to die rather than live like a Comanche (again, Martin himself is part Indian). Why would becoming a Comanche be so bad for people in the 1870s, and would it be that bad in the 1950s when the movie came out?

6. In what ways do Ethan’s and Scar’s personalities parallel each other?

7. When Ethan finally gets to Debbie, he doesn’t kill her but picks her up and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Does this reflect a change in Ethan’s attitude?

9. Ethan and Martin’s obsessive quest for Debbie cover a period of about five years. Have Ethan and Martin’s characters changed or matured throughout that time?

10. How are we to interpret the final shot when Ethan stands outside the house, looking in through the doorway, then walks away?


REVIEWS:

The Searchers starts off with the main character, Ethan, comes to his brothers house after nobody has heard from in a few years. His brother is a little weary of him but his children and wife are happy to see Ethan. There seems to be a weird relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law that never really becomes revealed. Ethan sits down with everyone and ends up giving the little girl, Debbie, a metal to wear. Everyone agrees that it is good for Ethan to stay when he gives his brother money to hide. The next morning, a reverend comes to the house to form a group to go searching for some cattle that was thought to be stolen. Ethan has his brother stay home in case the cattle return. The group of men then realize that it was only a trick from the Comanche Indians to lure them away from the farms. Ethan and the rest of the group return to his brothers house to find everyone slaughtered and Lucy, the oldest girl, and Debbie missing. After the funeral, they head out on a search for the girls. They find a half buried Indian corpse and Ethan proceeds to shoot the eyes out to disrespect it by making sure it doesn’t reach the afterlife. The group becomes surrounded by Indians, but manages to fight them off. Brad, one of the men in the group and Lucy’s male companion, tries to talk to Ethan on how he thinks he saw Lucy’s dress. Ethan then begins to confess on how he found Lucy dead at the farm and buried her himself. Brad starts to go insane from the realization of her death and goes on a suicide mission only to get killed. Marty has a romance going on with Laurie when they get back, but he tags along with Ethan because he knows that he will only kill her since she is most likely married to an Indian. The search goes on for many years and Marty still writes to Laurie. Laurie becomes upset when she finds out that Marty is also married to an Indian that he acquired through trade. Look, Marty’s Indian bride, flees when she finds out that it is Scar they are looking for. Ethan and Marty in turn find a few women who had been with the Comanche and they are deranged. They don’t find Debbie in this group either. Scar and Ethan finally meet and are outraged to find out how much alike they are in reality. Marty and Debbie start talking and she tell him to leave because these are her people now. Ethan tried to go and kill Debbie, but is prevented from doing such when Scar’s people go to attack him. When they return, they return to find Laurie marrying another man. Marty fights with the groom and the wedding is called off in the end, though in neither favor exactly. Mose had been captured, but managed to escape. When Ethan hears this news, a group rides out to confront Scar about it. Marty sneak into the camp to sneak her out and has to restrain her from screaming. Scar enters the tent only to be killed by Marty. Everyone else comes charging into the camp and killing everyone. Scar becomes scalped. Ethan finally finds Debbie and picks her up and tells her that they are going home. They get back and Ethan decides to leave. — D.H. The film “The Searchers” was an entertaining movie; Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) showcases his cold killer side and his warm humanistic side. The reformation of his character throughout the film made me think war had hardened him. His feelings toward Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) also change throughout the film. At first he made it clear that he was not at all tolerant toward Martin’s part Native American genealogy. However, he quickly became more tolerant toward Martin after they bonded out in the desert for five years. They shared the same ambition to find Debbie Edwards, Ethan’s niece, who was kidnapped by the same Native Americans killed the remaining members of the Edward’s family. Ethan was a very proud man who would die for dignity. He had respect for the law but he didn’t really want it to get in his way when seeking revenge. Ethan later finds Debbie to be less civilized and attempted to shoot her on one occasion. It seems he saw her as less than human at that point and feared she we live like this for the rest of her life; I suppose he could not have that happen. This movie seemed more violent than other contemporary movies, and apparently this movie’s VistaVision visual resolution was impressive. The detail of VistaVision let the audience feel the emotions from the expression of the actors/actresses faces. — D.M.

The Searchers: My dad loves this film, he loves the characters and even knows the title song. He has been telling me that I need to watch this movie for years and when I finally get around to it its for this class. And I couldn’t watch this film as a movie viewer but as an analytical critic so by doing so I question my dad a little bit. Not saying that I didn’t like it, I did, I really enjoyed it. I just notice so many elements of racism and faith that made me want to take every John Wayne movie for a philosophical spin. This movie really transforms the good versus evil role of the popular Western theme to just immense shades of gray. Wayne plays ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, a believer more in bullets than in words. He is just a cold man with a chip on his shoulder that gets bigger when some Indians raid and burn his brother’s farm and kidnaps his nieces. While seeking his niece, he is explored as a man with deep flaws and a dark psyche. He won’t surrender to hunger, thirst, the elements or loneliness. He berates everyone that helps him and swears vengeance on the main Indian, Scar. And in his obsessive, five-year quest, Ethan encounters something he didn’t expect to find: his own humanity. He also realizes that he has more in common with the savage Scar than he expected to, which in turn makes himself a savage. Deep. — B.C.

The Searchers: For me the jury is still out on The Searchers. It definitely wasn’t along the lines of the traditional Western, and it many of the major scenes have stuck with me even though they didn’t strike me at the time. To me the best part of the movie was the ambiguity director John Ford instilled in the movie. The scenes of violence and rape not being shown was so powerful, but maybe it was just because in today’s movies those scenes would be shown. However, I didn’t find Ethan’s descent as compelling as I m sure it was supposed to be. I don’t know whether that is John Wayne’s fault, the director s, or who s, but it just didn’t affect me. The cinematography on the other hand was astounding. It was used in such a way to show the harshness not only of the environment, but also the harshness within so many people’s souls who live in this environment. When first viewing I felt the villain, Scar, was under-utilized, but, now, looking back I think this was the right move so as to keep him at a distance as an enemy, and just to barely hint at his similarities with Ethan. It seems the only decent person in this movie I could sympathize with was Marty (maybe Mose on the occasions when he was used). But, then Marty abused Look, his Indian wife, and it was hard to find a hero in the picture at all. — T.E.

The Searchers is definitely worth a watch. Ethan Edwards is a complex character who does not follow a clear-cut idea of morality. I see him as strong, masculine, and heroic but also racist and violent. I didn’t like his character but I don’t think that was Ford’s intention. I liked Marty a lot more; young, unsure of where he belongs, different from those around him. The scene where the Comanche come and ransack the home of Ethan’s brother was terrifying, especially the look that Lucy gets on her face before she begins screaming. Ford really communicates the horror of being violated by the Native Americans. Ford also has a way of implying especially violent events instead of actually showing it to the audience. When Ethan finds Lucy, the audience does not see her, but Ethan explains in as little words as possible the condition he found her in. It is up to the audience to catch on and imagine the gruesome corpse. Some of the lighter characters in the movie were entertaining, especially Mose. His insights on the happenings around him and his desire for a rocking chair were funny. Charlie McCorry was also humorous. His accent was laughable and his fight with Marty had some funny moments, especially when Charlie momentarily stopped the fight to return “somebody’s fiddle”. Look, Marty’s Indian wife, had her funny moments, especially involving the language barrier. I did not care for Laurie; I think Marty deserved a more intelligent love interest. The ending had its happy and disturbing moments; Scar’s death and subsequent scalping discomforted me while the triumphant return of Debbie was heartwarming. My favorite scene was the ending­Ethan knows he doesn’t belong cooped-up inside four walls. He makes his quiet escape while other members of the family rejoice. I believe this was the scene where I liked Ethan most. He respectfully bows out and starts on another adventure. — C.R.

In the film The Searchers, we follow the characters, who treat a partially native American character in subtly different ways, over a period of years as they search for two girls kidnapped by Scar, the bad guy from The Lon King, who has shape shifted into an Native American played by a white guy. It’s a western that defies the themes and plots typical to Westerns of the time. It set the tone for westerns and much of the rest of cinema for decades to come with a blurry ethical line between the antagonists and protagonists, and central action that gradually spirals out of the control of the characters. The camera angles almost exclusively contain all the action in the scene, from head to toe, with some being shot wide enough to juxtapose the characters against the monolithic stones and stretching desert settings of the film. In a time when Native Americans were practically invisible and African Americans were plainly second class citizens, this must have been a daring film to make. In many parts of the country racial tensions were already high, and this pressure was gradually expanding outward as people were asked to make increasingly difficult and bizarre choice. Eventually, the girl being sought is assumed to be either dead or brainwashed into a new identity by Scar, and it’s made plain that Wayne intends to kill her. When he finally finds her, he instead takes her home. The film can’t be said to have a moral beyond the basics of not killing people and not being a racist. Otherwise, it’s simply a tragedy about the social forces cursing the lives of a handful of early white people and native Americans. — J.E.

The plot of The Searchers is simple thought the main characters are not. Ethan Edwards, with help from his nephew Martin, is searching for two family members abducted by an Indian named Scar. The most obvious philosophical elements in the story are the issues of racism and the allegory of Ethan’s search as an internal search for truth. Filmed in Utah, The Searchers featured lots of desert and empty open space. It seems to me that this was an allegory for the philosophical search for truth. Though Ethan could see for miles in every direction, he couldn’t find the one thing he was looking for. Though he could follow tracks and make educated guesses as to Debbie’s location it took years to find her. Similarly, when people are looking for the truth on one issue they know the general direction they want to go but getting there takes years if indeed they ever arrive. I think that for Ethan the search is not just for his niece but also for himself. He seems to have lost his kindness, decency and much of what makes him human. Ethan is blatantly racist through most of the movie. He states that he would rather kill his niece than let her live as an Indian. At the end however, when he has the chance to kill her, he instead chooses to save her. It is not just his niece he has found, but also he has found himself and found a way to overcome his racism. — N.T.

The Searchers: What can be said about the greatest “cowboy” movie of all time? Well, slow for one, dreadfully slow. But I was completely drawn in to the movie. I began the film wishing I could live during that time, in the wide open spaces and frontier “hardiness”. But by the end of the film, any thought of living during that time had left; the harshness of life was so well captured on screen that I actually felt pity for the poor settlers. As the movie drew me in, it made me question what I would do if I was put in Ethan, or even Martin’s position. I do not believe I could maintain the courage to continue to search for Debbie for that many years without rest. I began to have questions about what exactly Ethan was searching for; was it really Debbie, or was it an excuse to hunt down Indians to kill. Ethan was a man that needed a “mission” to complete, whether it was fighting Yankees or searching for Scar, he went headlong into his task. John Ford was able to capture this man’s intense drive and it really sucked me into the movie. The actors are some of the best in history, but you can see a huge difference in the way scenes were constructed from then to today. Any scenes were explicit violence would today be shown, the movie tastefully does not show the audience details. I believe this helped the movie, the addition of blood and guts would have detracted from the emotion of the family’s death. — L.T.

 
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