John Ford’s The Searchers has been described as one of the greatest Westerns of all time – with its marvelous score, its game-changing cinematography, especially its astonishing use of landscape around Monument Valley; and its underlining story about a man out for revenge for the murder of his brother and sister-in-law, and the capture of his nieces by Native American Indians. Moreover, it is brave and bold, but also unapologetic in its racist attitudes to Native Americans, something that we would all probably today express an inward shiver of embarrassment thanks to enlightened eyes. But even though we are made to feel sympathetic towards actor John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards plight, crisscrossing the West in search for his nieces, it personally doesn’t sit well with me knowing that he is an unforgiving racist. For instance, the scene where he desecrates the burial of a Comanche warrior by shooting out his eyes is quite startling and brutal.
But deep in my heart I know The Searchers was made that way to shock us, maybe even to challenge our notions of what drives us despite our prejudices. And that there I have to admit is the genius of John Ford’s compelling story! We don’t have to like the main protagonist in order to be moved or aroused by a good story. Though, I must say, you almost don’t want Wayne’s character to find his missing niece, especially after he finds out that she is happy living amongst her captors. “Livin’ with Comanches ain’t being alive”, a vile Ethan Edwards retorts. At that moment, rather than bringing her back home, he plans instead to kill his niece for her underlining sympathies to the ‘enemy’.
Western fans have often come to expect tragedy in Westerns. The Searchers seemingly heads down this same tragic road with its vengeful nature and race hatred, but right at the end of the film, Ethan Edwards does something that surprises the audience, when out of compassion, guilt or duty to his family, he spares his niece Debbie’s life. In one of the next to last iconic scenes in the film, Edwards sweeps her up onto his saddle and whispers “Let’s go home, Debbie”.
Personally at this point of the film, and even still today, I’m often left to ponder whether one man’s lifetime of prejudices can be redeemed with one act of kindness. But while that philosophical question haunts me, true to his word, Edward returns Debbie to the Jorgensens. It is here, at the film’s end, in the frame of the homestead door, that we expect Edwards to enter and shower Debbie with affection with the rest of the family, but instead he seemingly rejects the urge, pauses and cradles at his arm in a lonely gesture, and instead walks off into the distance, with the door closing behind him.
Scores of film students and enthusiasts have wondered and wrote about what does this last scene of the film mean. The general consensus of course is that Ethan Edwards realizes that he doesn’t belong to the new world that has passed him by, after almost a decade searching for his niece. He is something of a loner, maybe even that perfect archetype that we associate with a tough guy antihero who chooses to shun society in favour of their independence.
Interestingly Martin Scorsese wrote a few years back for The Hollywood Reporter: “Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note. In its final moment, The Searchers suddenly becomes a ghost story. Ethan’s sense of purpose has been fulfilled, and like the man whose eyes he’s shot out, he’s destined to wander forever between the winds.”
In short, I can’t argue with Scorsese’s interpretation of the doorway scene. Incidentally, for those who haven’t seen The Searchers, the last frame of the film with the door closing on Edwards is a reflection of the film’s opening shot in which the door opens and looks out on Edwards approaching as he arrives home from the Civil War. It’s pure genius!