John Ford, The Searchers (1956)
- Based on Alan LeMay's novel, John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is an example of Ford's mature style in the genre. It is especially striking because it questions the conventions of Ford's previous work and of the Western genre itself. The character of Ethan Edwards, played by one of Ford's most oft-used leading men, John Wayne, provides the audience with a striking portrait of the darker side of the cowboy hero around which Wayne built his career. As Ethan and Martin Pauley pursue the Comanche band who have kidnapped Ethan's niece, Ford illustrates the outcomes of racism and Indian hating. The result is what cultural historian Phillip Mitterling has identified as Ford's eloquent statement in support of the Civil Rights movement.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) What are the characteristics which identify the Western as a genre? To answer this, think of other Westerns you have seen, and refer to the selected reading from Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation. What are the types of characters which appear in the Western? What do they represent? Compare the characters (as types) in The Searchers with the same characters (as types) in Stagecoach. Why are they the same or different?
- 2) One of the most important aspects of the Western is the way in which Westerns as a genre reflect (and challenge) the founding story of the American nation. What is so "American" about the Western genre? What values do they reflect? What internal struggles do they bury or alleviate and which do they accentuate in favor of establishing a more cohesive and hegemonic national identity?
- 3) John Ford's Westerns are often credited as the most "classic" expressions of the genre. What specific characteristics do you find in the film Stagecoach? Who are each of the following characters, and what type do they represent: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne); Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter); Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles); Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond); Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood); Chief Scar (Henry Brandon); Look (Beulah Archuletta); Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.); Emilio Figueroa (Antonio Moreno); Mose Harper (Hank Worden)? How do we learn things which identify each character in the film?
- 4) Think about Turner's Frontier thesis and the creation of Americans. Of the characters above, where does each belong? Which is more of the Frontier, and which more foreign to it? Which are created by the Frontier, and which are yet to be created by it? Which are "beyond" the Frontier?
- 5) What are the Frontier landscapes represented in the film? In what ways does this landscape become like a character in the story? What does the landscape do in the story? Who is in the landscape and who is simply on it? A devide which appears repeatedly in the film is the "framing" of landscapes within doorways and spaces which open out into them, and of individuals inside and outside those portals. Examine these instances as they appear in the film. What does each of these represent, and how do they form part of the storytelling in the film?
- 6) Richard Slotkin argues that central to the myth of the frontier is the maintenance of borders. What kind of borders are drawn and maintained in The Searchers? How are these borders represented? Who crosses them and why? The most important border of course is that between "civilization" and "savagery"; how is that border represented? Is the representation of that border different in Stagecoach than in The Searchers?
- 7) How are Ethan's racial attitudes about Indians revealed throughout the film? How do they compare to the attitudes of other Europeans around him? How is the audience made aware of this comparison? How do Ethan's attitudes isolate him as the film progresses? In what ways does he actually become those whom he hates?
- 8) Consider the following conversations and what they mean in the story:
- Brad (to Ethan, as they follow the Comanche): "They gotta stop sometime; if they're human men at all, they've gotta stop."
- Ethan: "A human rides a horse until it dies, and then goes on afoot. Comanch' comes along, gets that horse up, rides him twenty more miles ... then eats him."
- Ethan (to Martin): "Our turnin' back don't mean nothin', not in the long run. She's alive, she's safe for a while. They'll keep her and raise her as one of their own till, until she's of an age to... Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em. Just as sure as a turnin' of the earth."
- Ethan (to Brad): "What you saw wasn't Lucy...What you saw was a buck wearin' Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands, I thought it best to keep it from ya."
- Brad: "Did they...? Was she...?"
- Ethan: "What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more."
- Mrs. Jorgensen: It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothin' but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Some day, this country's gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.
- Cavalry Officer (referring to captive women): "It's hard to believe they're white."
- Ethan: "They ain't white, anymore. They're Comanch'."
- Martin: "Debby's your blood kin."
- Ethan: "Not anymore she's not."
- 9) Compare the characters played by John Wayne in Stagecoach and The Searchers. In what ways are they similar and different?
Further resources and readings:
- Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986)
- John Tuska, The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western (1985)
- William T. Pilkington, "The Western Movie to 1960," from A Literary History of the American West (Western Literature Association)
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (American Frontiers and Borderlands), Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Saturday, 19 August 2000.