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.
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.
1. Projects Suitable for Any 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?