Problematic Film History: The Searchers

Welcome to a new feature at IceCream4Freaks: Problematic Film History!  Each week, I’ll be discussing a well-regarded film of the past and the elements of that film which have aged the worst.  This week: The Searchers

When I began writing this series, I realized the majority of these films are not fondly remembered, but rather films we collectively attempt to forget. John Ford’s The Searchers is the obvious exception to that rule. Despite serious problems around the depiction and attitudes towards Native Americans, it’s difficult to deny the quality of the film.

John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran and mercenary who returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead after an eight-year absence. While investigating missing cattle, Aaron’s ranch is attacked by Comanches who kill Aaron, his wife and son and abduct the girls Debbie and Lucy. Ethan sets out on path of vengeance to avenge his brother and recover the girls.

As Ethan gets closer to finding his nieces, he becomes more and more brutal and exacting in his revenge. When Debbie is found murdered and Lucy adopts the Comanche way of life, Ethan will resort to murdering his niece rather than see her live her life as a Native American.

The film never shies away from Ethan’s utter hatred of Natives as well as every other character’s racial attitudes. No white character is spared as being directly against the Native population. Ethan spouts off racial epitaphs without hesitation and openly despises characters who show any sort of camaraderie or bloodline with the Comanche.

The actual depiction of the Comanche is in no way pleasant. Each Comanche character is seen as a brutal savage who prize young white women as slaves. The main villain Scar (Henry Brandon) takes multiple wives and has no qualms about killing and butchering women or children. The only justification the film makes is the equal brutality and savagery of the white characters. While Ford could have made all the white characters noble do-gooders, they perform with equal parts destruction without regard for decency.

Ford openly admitted in interviews his film runs with the idea the old west was actually this racist. His racist characters are never necessarily redeemed, but rather achieve their goal as their reward. The unfair treatment of the Native American population in the early days of America are well documented and despite their seemingly noble quest, Ethan and his compatriots never come across as heroes. Ford is smart enough to never let us sympathize with Ethan despite being played by the American ideal in John Wayne.

The entire narrative is driven by the idea of the rape of the nieces. One of the ideas that Ethan rebels against the hardest is the idea his niece could live happily as a Comanche. This idea drives him to his brutalities as well as the potential of killing his own family.

The Searchers is an exquisite film and one of Ford’s absolute best. This is a rare case where the problematic elements, despite never being judged in the film, are shown as increasingly unnecessary and never forgiven. The content of the film hasn’t aged well, but the film represents a snapshot of the assumed righteousness of evil deeds.

Problematic Film History will take a break for a few months. Thanks for reading!

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