American Myth in the Western Film
22 February 2011
With a cold and steady gaze, Ethan peers off into the snowy distance. He firmly holds his most trusted companion. Without warning and hesitation, Ethan raises the deadly steel rifle and begins wildly firing upon a herd of buffalo. After a short while, Martin stops shooting, having already shot one down. Ethan in a maddened frenzy continues to shoot the buffalo while Martin tries to stop him to no avail. Explaining his twisted reasoning afterwards, Ethan gruffly mumbles, "At least they won't feed any Comanches this winter.” What we have just witnessed is no longer reminiscent of the classic John Wayne films where he embodies the ideals of an iconic American hero. We have just seen the portrait of a man on the brink of insanity. In what is considered John Ford’s magnum opus, The Searchers (1956), Wayne portrays Ethan Edwards, a displaced lone gunman on an obsessive quest to find and kill Debbie, his kidnapped niece. Unlike in many previous Westerns, there are no clear-cut, black and white answers. The audience is no longer presented with just a hero and a villain. Ethan represents the protagonist and the antagonist. Ford sets the stage for John Wayne to play Ethan Edwards, a character that must conquer and come to terms with his torturous inner demons before he can reconcile with Debbie. Ford explores the complex morality that drives the fire within Ethan and uses Ethan as a prodding tool to pose a question about the suspect values of society at the time. It was an era in which Ford saw racism as an ingrained aspect of every character.
As Ethan begins his quest, the viewer also begins their journey to understand Ethan. From the onset, it is quite obvious Ethan Edwards has an uncensored and vocal hatred for Native Americans. He clearly expresses racist sentiment and displays an unbridled fear for miscegenation, as depicted by his constant hostility towards Martin, a 1/8th Cherokee, and his desire to kill Debbie who he considers better off dead than living as a desecrated Comanche squaw. On the surface, Ethan clearly believes he remains so strongly hateful and racist because of his life as a frontiersman and the coupling fact that the Comanche had come and killed his family. But a closer look reveals that there are more to Ethan’s biases than believing he is just another ignorant cowboy confused and angry at the Indians. We first see Ethan’s familiarity to Native American culture in the Indian rifle sheath he carries his gun in. Then in the scene where Ethan and the Rangers discover the buried Indian, Ethan, in a startling craze, shoots the dead Indian in both eyes and explains, “Ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit land, must wander forever between the winds.” Ethan’s serious tone and elucidation establishes that he has a close understanding of Indian religion and truly believes in it, evident by the strong conviction in which he says it. But the saying goes both ways, as it remains true for Ethan as well. Always on the move and considered an outsider, Ethan can never be a part of the civilized world. Ethan is very familiar with the language of Native Americans, demonstrated by his ability to effectively trade and communicate with the Indians and Scar. So is it possible that Ethan’s racism stems from his self-hatred as he finds himself closer with the Indians than with white society?
Ford unmistakably depicts Native Americans unfairly in the film as they are “mythic apparitions, appearing repeatedly and always out of nowhere, icons of savage beauty dread,” (Gallagher). But Ford did not intend to show the Indians through their eyes but through a white perspective, more specifically Ethan’s. It seems Ford made the image of the Indians out to be intentionally one-dimensional and distorted to try to bring up the issue of society’s racist view and representation of Native Americans. The scene in which Look is kicked down the...