SUBJECTS — U.S./1865 – 1913; Literature/Myths of the Western Genre; Literary Devices: expository phase, characterization, & theme; Cinema;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Revenge;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Caring.
AGE; 13+; MPAA Rating — Not Rated;
Drama; 1956; 119 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Ethan Edwards is a bitter and restless veteran of the Confederate Army. As the story opens, he visits his brother’s homestead on the fringe of a desert wilderness in the American West. When a band of renegade Indians massacres his brother and most of the family and then kidnaps his niece, Ethan embarks on a search for the girl and her captors. He is joined by Martin, a part-Indian foster child of his brother’s family. The movie tells the story of their seven-year quest, the complications that develop when Ethan finds that his niece has become a willing wife of the Indian chieftain, and Martin’s increasing maturity, which eventually causes him to challenge Ethan’s leadership.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1957 Directors Guild of America Nomination: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (John Ford); This film is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. It is ranked #96 on the American Film Institute’s List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006).
Featured Actors: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards; Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley; Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgensen; Ward Bond as Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton; Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards (older); John Qualen as Lars Jorgensen; Olive Carey as Mrs. Jorgensen; Henry Brandon as Chief Cicatrice (Scar); Ken Curtis as Charlie McCorry; Harry Carey Jr. as Brad Jorgensen; Antonio Moreno as Emilio Gabriel Fernandez y Figueroa; Hank Worden as Mose Harper; Beulah Archuletta as Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky (Look); Walter Coy as Aaron Edwards; and Dorothy Jordan as Martha Edwards
Director: John Ford
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“The Searchers” will introduce students to important myths of U.S. culture which: 1) affect how some people act in everyday life; 2) appear repeatedly in literature, film, and music; 3) are used by some politicians to gain votes; and 4) are employed by advertisers to sell products. The film is an excellent platform for the exercise of writing skills and for the analysis of literary devices, such as the expository phase and characterization.
This film is considered a classic Western. It features physically beautiful landscapes, the John Wayne image of manhood, and the subtext of similarities between the Indian-hating main character and the renegade Indian he pursues. The movie offers viewers an opportunity to think about the moral questions surrounding American expansion and the treatment of Native Americans. Although few Western movies cover the relationship between Native Americans and Euro-Americans with good historical accuracy, this film gives insight into some aspects of their interaction in the troubled period after the Civil War.
USING IN THE CLASSROOM
The following information will assist students in recognizing the struggle of the Western hero, his relationship to his fellows, his code of honor, and his loneliness. It also provides a metaphorical glimpse into American culture. Teachers can provide this information through lecture or by having students read the handout prepared by TWM entitled Myths of the Western Genre — Are American Men Just a Bunch of Cowboys? The text of the handout is set out below. Users should feel free to modify the handout to make it suitable for their classes.
Myths of the Western Genre
Are American Men Just a Bunch of Cowboys?
The Westward expansion of U.S. civilization gave rise to a distinctive view of what a man should be and how he should relate to the world: a self-reliant outsider who defends himself and others with a gun, who prefers the wilderness to civilization, and who, if he must associate with others, prefers the company of men to that of women.
The myths surrounding the Western hero were first popularized in books and movies that comprise a genre of fiction called the Western. This literature has had a strong and lasting effect on U.S. culture despite the fact that the frontier West was a particular geographic part of the country at a unique stage of economic, social, and technological development which ceased to exist more than a hundred years ago. Myths surrounding the Western hero still: 1) affect how many people act in everyday life; 2) appear repeatedly in many types of literature, film, and popular music; 3) are used by some politicians to gain votes; and 4) are employed by advertisers to sell products.
The world-view of the Western genre was strongly influenced by the sparse population of the early West, the fact that there were very few women, the harsh environment, and the near absence of social institutions such as the family, churches, and the law. Existing myths and values of European/American culture, such as the love of nature, the child savior, and the American dream also had a strong influence on the world-view of the Western genre.
Books and movies about the frontier West have been popular all over the world and have had strong cultural influences in English-speaking countries with conditions similar to that of the American West, particularly Australia and Canada. For the U.S. and these countries, understanding the Western genre will help citizens gain the self-knowledge to make informed decisions and to understand aspects of their culture and actions of their fellow citizens.
The American Adam Myth: An Adam myth is a concept of the ideal male. The Western genre developed a peculiarly American myth of the ideal man which underpins the concept of the American Hero. The following attributes are essential requisites for male status as an American Adam described in Westerns.
a. Intelligent and experienced. The ideal male must have the brain power and background knowledge to solve any problem that presents itself. His intelligence largely consists of street smarts rather than formal education; book learning is seen as a handicap in that it is removed from experience.
b. Physically fit. The American Adam of the Westerns possesses the physical strength and stamina to survive and to triumph whether his antagonist is nature, other men, battalions of men, or whole tribes.
c. Enough wealth to live as he chooses. The ideal male lives well, but his riches vary culturally and do not always involve having large amounts of money. In the Western environment, this means that he has the fastest horse, fine armaments, and all the equipment necessary to make his life a success according to his own standards.
d. A member of the mainstream culture. In most Westerns the American Adam is Caucasian, but that is not essential. Rather than being white-skinned, the ideal male must be a member of the mainstream culture, capable of being a part of the establishment while at the same time rejecting the role. Minority males in most films and novels are a part of the mainstream of the subculture in which they reside and ordinarily are accepted by the dominant culture.
e. Single. Although attracted to women, who are indeed attracted to him, the ideal man loses his status when he commits to a relationship. The married man is domesticated; he is not a Western hero.
f. A disdain for authority and outsider status. The American concept of individuality demands that a hero be capable of acting alone and that he resist pressure by the establishment to conform. In film, our favorite cops are usually in trouble with their bosses and our military heroes break the rules of engagement in order to get the job done. As a result, the American Adam of the Western genre is, by the end of the story, if not at the beginning, always something of an outsider.
In analyzing fiction, the concept of the exemplary exception is very important. There are indeed heroes who do not share all of the attributes of the American Adam Myth of the Western genre. These men are the exception to the rule; they do not negate the rule but show that extraordinary individuals can rise above what is usually required.
The Edenic Myth: This is a clear allusion to the biblical story of paradise. It suggests that nature is the perfect place. The longing to find Eden informs Westward expansion. Virtually all Western films are set in a romanticized Eden such as Monument Valley, grassy windblown plains, and riparian areas with mountainous backdrops. Even films using harsh, unforgiving landscapes, such as Death Valley, play upon the audience’s love for nature. This biophilia is an important value to Western heroes; it informs their sense of self and explains their unmitigated physical allegiance to the land. The fabled ride into the sunset is a return to Eden.
The Child Savior Myth: While not common to all Westerns, a child savior appears often enough to be considered an important part of the paradigm in which the characters in these films operate. The myth evokes the image of youth as innocent and incapable of dishonesty, ready to teach errant adults important lessons and to set them free from their cynicism and double dealing. Thus, children bring out the best in adult behavior. This idea underpins Christian imagery, is used frequently by the advertising industry, and, with a properly placed kiss, can get politicians elected.
The Myth of Male Camaraderie: In the Western genre, the American Adam prefers the company of other men. This suggests that men are happier, more fulfilled, more male in the presence of men rather than women. The Western hero eschews domestication. From ancient times, hunting and warfare required male loyalty; however this is an atavistic value. It is no longer the case that men need to bond to one another in order to survive. The concept of individuality, coupled with the competitive nature of capitalism, seems to have driven this sense of brotherhood into the shadows. Still, it is apparent not only in film, but in advertising, sports, and in the mythology associated with the military. It manifests itself in the insults hurled among high school boys when one member of a friendship circle lands a girlfriend and spends less time with the guys.
The American Dream: The American version of the rags-to-riches myth holds that in the United States hard work, luck, and perseverance will allow anyone to succeed. It is a social ideal that motivates individuals to seek prosperity with the confidence that they will one day have a comfortable life, own a home and enter the middle class. Equalitarian in nature, the American Dream developed from the Puritan assertion that your value to society is determined by how much you produce. This individualistic drive, though not apparent in the Western hero, informs the motives that propel everyone else in the Western setting including ranchers, settlers, farmers, prospectors, saloon keepers, bar girls, shopkeepers, and even sheriffs. Most people pursue the promise of wealth, or at least survival with a degree of comfort.
The American Eve Myth: This serves as the female counterpart to the American Adam Myth. However, in the Western genre, beauty is its only universal attribute. Characteristics such as intelligence, wisdom, fertility, or wealth are irrelevant. Because the Westerns are concerned with the struggles of male characters, the American Eve myth is not well-developed in the genre. Women serve as school marms, bar girls, settlers’ wives, and occasionally entrepreneurs; but ordinarily women provide motivation for male action or appear as ancillary characters. Of course, there is always the exemplary exception.
The answer to the question, “Are American men just a bunch of cowboys?” is most assuredly “no.” However, there is a lot of the Western hero in American culture. Many contend that the myth of the Western hero has not served individuals or the country well during the 20th and 21st centuries. They contend that some of our mistakes have occurred when our actions have relied on this myth while our triumphs have been based on our ability to recognize changed conditions and to work cooperatively together in large organizations. The latter is inconsistent with the myth of the loner American hero. We leave it for you to decide.
End of handout.
THROUGH — THE EXPOSITORY PHASE
Just before viewing the film, ask students to look for the details described below in the film’s expository phase and to be alert to what the scenes suggest about the characters as they are introduced. The details relate to:
(1) how the filmmakers show Ethan’s approach to the house in the opening scene;
(2) how Ethan talks about where he has been since the surrender of the Confederate Army;
(3) how the filmmakers introduce Marty, the half-Indian foster child of the family;
(4) Ethan’s interactions with Martha, his brother’s wife;
(5) Ethan’s attitude toward the Indians; and
(6) What Ethan does when he approaches the house after the massacre and who he calls for first.
Stop the film at the end of the expository phase and ask what each scene reveals about the characters. Ask students to take notes of the substance of these discussions. This will prepare them for close viewing of the remainder of the film.
1. In the opening scene, with the camera looking out from within the homesteader’s cabin, Ethan approaches the house alone, on horseback, against a backdrop of wilderness. He greets his brother and the family. He gently kisses Martha on the forehead. Martha turns and leads Ethan into the cabin. The music playing is a Civil War song, Lorena, about the lost loves soldiers have left behind. Ethan is wearing a uniform that reveals rank in the Confederate military.
Ethan’s approach suggests that he is an outsider, a loner, who fought on the losing side in the Civil War. The kiss hints at tender feeling between Ethan and his brother’s wife; the music underscores this relationship. The uniform with its rank tells us Ethan served as a leader.
2. In conversation with his brother and later with the Captain, Ethan gives vague answers to where he has been since the surrender. He has been absent for several years. He has money, which he offers in a hostile gesture to his brother, who accepts the freshly minted coins despite his curiosity about where Ethan acquired the money. The Captain challenges Ethan on his absence since the end of the war and Ethan responds in his characteristic vague and sullen manner.
These scenes establish Ethan’s mysterious past, his outsider status, his reluctance to conform and his distaste for authority.
3. Marty, the family’s foster son, rides up joyfully and moves comfortably into the cabin as the family is sitting down to dinner. Ethan expresses hostility, saying Marty could be mistaken for a half-breed. Marty humbly explains his past.
This scene hints at Ethan’s hatred for Indians and his generally anti-social attitude. It shows Marty’s deference to Ethan who will later serve as a mentor to the young man.
4. Martha folds Ethan’s coat gently and lovingly and places it in her bedroom. Later, when the men are preparing to ride out in search of the missing cattle, the camera focuses on the Captain drinking coffee and eating his sweets while Martha returns Ethan’s jacket and the two say their good-byes. The Captain holds his eyes into the camera, ignoring the tenderness of the exchange.
These visuals, coupled with the earlier tender greeting between Martha and Ethan, imply a much deeper relationship between the two than can be attributed to family connection. The Captain, clearly, is aware of this relationship but determines to ignore it. He looks steadily toward the camera.
5. On the trail of the cattle thieves, Ethan rides with an Indian-style sheathe for his rifle. Later he shoots out the eyes of the buried Comanche and explains how this gesture will mean the dead Indian will have to wander forever between the worlds. He informs the other men that this was not cattle theft; it was an effort to draw the men away from the homestead. He tells them it was a murder raid.
Ethan knows Indians well. He understands their spiritual beliefs and their military tactics. The sheath and his knowledge of the tribe coupled with his apparent kinship with nature give rise to a question: Is Ethan in some way like the Indians? After all, in the world of the Western, the Native Americans are the ultimate outsiders.
6. The expository phase ends after Ethan finds his brother’s home burning and the family killed, except for the two daughters who are missing. When Ethan approaches the house he calls for Martha. He refuses to allow Marty to go inside and see Martha’s body. Ethan’s hatred for Indians is flamed; his desire to retrieve the missing girls co-mingles with his furious desire for revenge.
Ethan’s call for Martha, rather than his brother, shows his deep affection for the woman. His violent refusal to allow Marty to see Martha’s body suggests that some desecration, probably sexual in nature, has occurred. His racist hatred for Indians is now personal.
After the expository phase, the film can be shown in its entirety. Students will have been prepped for nuances and will be aware of the importance of looking for details.
THROUGH — CLASS DISCUSSION
1. See Questions Suitable for Any Film.
The following questions are specific to “The Searchers”
2. Ethan is clearly physically fit, single, and from the mainstream culture. However, in order to qualify for status under the American Adam myth of the Western genre, he must show intelligence and knowledge. What examples of Ethan’s knowledge does the film offer?
Ethan has a good deal of knowledge of Indian culture; he can identify tribal affiliation by types of weaponry; he informs the search party about Comanche afterlife beliefs; he speaks the Comanche language. Ethan displays intelligence throughout the film. For example, he recognized that the rustling of cattle was simply a ruse to draw the posse away from the settlements.
3. The American Adam myth of the Western genre requires a man to be wealthy enough to live as he chooses. In what way is Ethan shown to possess this attribute?
Ethan’s horse, weaponry, including the buckskin scabbard, and the gold coins he brings out on two occasions, show that he has enough money to make it in his lifestyle. He tells his brother he can pay his own way.
4. What evidence does the film offer to support the myth of the American Dream?
Several families have remained on their homesteads in spite of the difficulty of making a living on harsh terrain with the constant threat of attack from Indians. This shows the kind of determination that supports the American Dream. They are willing to work hard. Laurie’s mother says, in response to her husband’s despair over the difficulties they face, that someday Texas will be a fine place to live.
5. Ethan is clearly a loner. How does the film suggest the myth of male camaraderie in spite of Ethan’s character?
When the Captain arrives at Ethan’s brother’s cabin to gather men for the search party, he finds everyone, including the boy, willing to participate. The men support each other and Ethan’s cranky, isolationist attitude stands in contrast to the support the men give one another. In anger, Ethan separates from the group, although two men insist on following him. His reluctance to be a part of the pack is seen as a problem, not as a positive attribute.
6. Outsider status is often seen as a positive attribute in a Western genre American Adam. How is this shown in Ethan?
Ethan establishes himself as an outsider in the first scene when he approaches the cabin alone. He sits alone at the end of the evening. He apparently left the military and did not show up at the surrender. His whereabouts for three years are a mystery and it is suggested by the Captain that he fits a few descriptions of wanted men. Ethan breaks from the search party and, except for the perseverant Marty, seeks to continue looking for Debbie alone. At the film’s last scene, he does not enter the house, but instead goes off alone into the wild terrain.
7. Where is the Edenic Myth in “The Searchers”?
The Edenic myth appears in “The Searchers” in nearly all aspects of the setting. Ethan emerges from the desert wilderness with the spires of Monument Valley behind him. These land forms are seen in several episodes and represent the beautiful and untamed natural world as opposed to the interior of the cabin which represents the confines of civilization. The film’s visual aesthetic plays on the viewers’ love for nature. At the end, Ethan leaves the family which is gathering in the cabin to celebrate Debbie’s return and walks away toward the spires. This indicates that he cannot give up Eden for civilization and domestication.
8. What evidence of genocidal racism does Ethan reveal?
Ethan shoots as many buffalo as he can when he and Marty come across a herd in winter. Ethan shoots despite Marty’s objections, saying that he wants to starve the Indians out of the country. He intends to kill Debbie once it is seen that she has become one of Scar’s wives.
9. What examples from the film illustrate sexism?
Women, although strong, are seen as being in the service of men. Female sexuality is owned by males. Even Laurie supports the idea that a woman who has had sexual relationships with an Indian is better off dead. Laurie suggests that Debbie’s mother would want it that way. The Indian squaw named Look is sold as a wife to Marty who later kicks her down a hill. Laurie is interested more in getting married than in waiting for the man she loves. She says she doesn’t want to die an old maid.
10. In “The Searchers”, Marty serves as initiate, the young man who is being instructed into the realm of manhood. What does he learn from Ethan and at what point does he surpass his mentor?
Marty learns perseverance and determination from Ethan. He learns the ways of Indians and the machinations of dishonorable men such as the trader, Futterman. Marty stands up against Ethan to protect Debbie and surpasses his mentor when he understands that Debbie is a victim and that her humanity cannot be tainted by her forced and then voluntary association with the Indians.
11. See the Quick Discussion Question below.
12. What is the theme of “The Searchers”?
The strongest answer is that the Western hero has no place in civilization, or words to that effect. The justification for this is as follows: Ethan has almost all of the attributes of the mythical Western hero, the American Adam. Yet, it is Marty, the half-Indian boy who comes up with the right solution about what to do with Debbie. It is Marty who finally stands up to Ethan and who Ethan backs down, acknowledging that Marty is right about saving Debbie. It is Marty who has a bright future in the settlement, marrying his childhood sweetheart. Ethan is left to go off alone into the glare of the desert. Ethan is very similar to Scar, leading a dead-end life and good only for wreaking havoc (see response to the Quick Discussion Question). Another strong answer is that the theme is a condemnation of racism showing that the Western hero and the Indian he opposes so often have many of the same attributes. There are additional ideas that can be derived from the film but these are the two that are important enough to be said to be themes of the movie.
THROUGH — ASSIGNMENTS AND ACTIVITIES
After students have finished watching the movie, the following assignments can be helpful in focusing students’ attention on lessons from this film.
2. Research-based expository essay:
The facts concerning captives taken by various Indian tribes differ considerably from what is presented in the film. Students can research the facts and write essays in which they accurately portray the situation involving kidnappings of white captives. Specifically, the life of Cynthia Parker, and her son, Quanah Parker, are of historical value.
- The relationship between Native Americans and the European invaders is well documented. Have students select one tribe and write a brief history of its relationship with the conquerors.
- Students can research specific Native Americans, such as Cochise, Chief Joseph or Mangas Colorado. Ask that they analyze the biographical information and to determine whether it shows the men to be savages or sophisticated leaders of their people in trying circumstances.
- Students can research the role of women among Native American cultures.
- Students can explore attitudes toward Indians expressed by various presidents such as Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, or Teddy Roosevelt.
- Students can investigate legislation passed on both federal and local levels that addresses the issue of Native Americans.
- Students can investigate the relationship between Native Americans and film. They may want to research how Indians have been portrayed in movies over the years and whether or not the portrayals have changed over time.
- Students can look into the use of Native American actors in film.
- Each of the oral presentations listed below can be the subject of an expository essay.
3. Oral presentations:
Interested students can read Alan LeMay’s l954 novel, The Searchers. The ending of the film is considerably different than the ending in the book. Students can prepare an oral presentation in which they illustrate the differences between the two genres and speculate about why the ending was changed.
John Wayne has become a cultural icon. Students can be asked to research his career and seek out the reason for this near-hero status in the roles he has played and the image he has cast of the American male. Brief biographies can be written.
Any of the topics for expository essays can be used for oral presentation when they are done thoroughly.
4. Essays involving literary analysis:
- Students can be assigned formal analytical essays showing how characters are presented, through action, physical appearance and dialogue.
- Students can explore racism or sexism in the film and analyze how these aspects of the film influence the theme.
- Students can write about the use of symbols and/or motifs as they contribute to the audience’s understanding of the film.
- Essays can be written on the film’s overall theme backed up by direct reference to scenes, action or dialogue. See Discussion Question #12.
- Students can write an analysis of the film’s resolution. They should address the question: why did Ethan change his mind and allow Debbie to live? What elements in the film, such as characterization, lead the viewer to accept Ethan’s change of heart?
1. Ask students to find examples of the myths from the Western genre from short stories, novels or movies that are not within the Western genre, from television, or from pictures in magazines or newspapers.
2. Students can write a persuasive essay arguing that any of the features of the American Adam myth as developed in the Western genre are no longer valid in modern society. They may want to argue on behalf of characteristics that should be added to the list given modern sensibilities.
1. See Questions Suitable for Any Film.
For specific questions concerning this movie, see the questions under the Class Discussion of the section on How to Use “The Searchers” in a Classroom Situation.
1. What does this movie tell us about revenge?
The path to the answer to this question is to look at the main motivation behind Ethan’s quest and the main motivation behind Marty’s quest. Ethan’s quest was for revenge against the Indians for what they had done to his family. When he finds that Debbie has become Scar’s wife, he lumps her in with the Indians. Marty is wiser. His quest was to rescue Debbie and he protects her from Ethan. Marty’s quest leaves him strengthened and fulfilled. He has grown as a man. Ethan changes by seeing that he cannot kill Debbie, but he leaves a marginalized character and returns to the wilderness from which he came.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
1. Did Ethan and Marty have a responsibility to avenge the murders of the family of Ethan’s brother? If a family was murdered in modern times, would the survivors have a responsibility to avenge the killing of their loved ones?
Back in the Wild West, when there was little law and order, it could be said that Ethan, at least, had some responsibility to avenge his brother’s death. Marty also might have had some responsibility, since the family had given him such care and affection. However, in modern times, the responsibility for doing justice and seeking redress for the actions of criminals lies with the justice system. In modern times Ethan and Marty’s only recourse would have been to appeal to the government to track down and prosecute the killers.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
2. In this movie, which wins out, caring or the desire for revenge?
At the end of the film, Ethan realizes that Marty’s caring approach to Debbie is the correct one and he doesn’t try to kill her.
BRIDGES TO READING
- Empire of the Summer Moon — Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne, Scribner, 2010;
- Hollywood’s West: the American Frontier in Film, Television, and History, Edited by Peter Rollins and John E O’Connor;
- American Film Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System, by Stuart Kaminsky, Random House, 1981;
- Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, by Phillip French, 1977;
- The Invention of the Western Film, by Scott Simon, 2003.