This entry is for Movie Rob’s March 2021 Genre Grandeur theme of Loners in Film. I chose to focus on Ethan Edwards in the 1956 film The Searchers. Be sure to check out Rob’s other entries!
In the Summer of 2020, John Wayne’s infamous 1971 Playboy interview was brought back into the public eye, and with it came claims that John Wayne should be cancelled. Duke’s Alma Mater, USC, removed his bust from campus, TCM removed him from that year’s Summer Under the Stars and some were calling for his name to be removed from the airport in California.
In the midst of all this, the one thing I was fearing was they were going to cancel his films, namely Stagecoach and The Searchers to be precise. While Stagecoach can somewhat slip the hook for not having certain topics and themes at the center of its narrative, it’s The Searchers that had me concerned it would be the victim of cancel culture, and I will say: I defend The Searchers for being one if the greatest American westerns ever made.
The character (emphasis on CHARACTER) of Ethan Edwards is complex to say the least: he blatantly holds prejudice against Native Americans and his actions towards them are nothing short of despicable. No one would deny this. At the end of the day, however, I venture to say what Ethan is truly: a loner. Perhaps the ultimate loner that film has even seen.
Ethan starts off coming through the desert, solo. When he arrives in view of his brother’s homestead, his own nieces and nephew don’t even realize who he is. Shortly after that, Ethan himself doesn’t recognize Debbie, mistaking her for Lucy. It’s basically confirmed in this short sequence that Ethan doesn’t see much of his family. Yes, he fought in the Civil War, and it’s also hinted he fought in the Mexican Revolution, but suffice to say, Ethan goes where he wants, when he wants with no strings attached.
Many viewers have suggested Ethan is a loner because of his racist outlook towards Native Americans. While this is definitely a top theory, it can also be argued Ethan’s loner status comes from a deep feeling of guilt. At the start of the film, it’s been noted Ethan has been way for 8 years, and niece Debbie is 8 years old. Pair that fact with the obvious look of unstated love Ethan gives Martha and it’s a justifiable claim. Going on this contention, Ethan feels so guilty for cuckolding his brother he feels he needs to distance himself from his family.
One no doubt feels that distance, emotionally when he is on his quest to find Debbie. He brings along Martin and Brad (well initially Brad, Lucy’s fiancee) but all at the same time, it’s always clear Ethan is out for his own agenda and doesn’t necessarily look out for the interests of others. He even tells Martin he’s not his family and he has no reason to come with; going as far to ditch him when resuming the search after taking a break.
Yet, Ethan is full of contradictions, and although he is distant both physically and emotionally, he does exhibit a sense of loyalty to his family, and this is what makes him stand out against other loners. When Debbie and Lucy are kidnapped, he doesn’t hesitate to set out to find them. When he learns of Lucy’s brutal death, he gets insanely angry. And despite his cruel and unacceptable actions when it comes seeing Debbie for the first time after many years, his number one priority is making sure she gets home.
The ending shot just affirms everything, and John Ford was pure a genius. The famous shot of Ethan standing in the doorway, his mission completed, and now it’s time to leave. It never fails to make one wonder: where and what will Ethan do next? Perhaps it’s stated best in the Sons of Pioneers/Max Steiner song that plays over the ending: “Ride Away.“