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Shady hero emerges in 'The Searchers'

By by dianna wray/
June 20, 2012 at 1:20 a.m.
Updated June 21, 2012 at 1:21 a.m.

By the time he made "The Searchers," John Wayne's image as the quintessential hero had been accepted as gospel for decades.

Wayne and director John Ford upended that expectation in the 1956 film "The Searchers" and the results are fascinating.

"The Searchers" is focused on a pursuit. Ethan Edwards spends years hunting for his niece Debbie after she is kidnapped by Comanches as a child, but he is by no means a clear-cut hero.

In "The Searchers," Wayne played against type as he embodied the character Ethan Edwards, a Confederate Civil War veteran with a shady past and racism so pronounced it was hard to miss even in 1956.

Ford and Wayne had been working together for decades when they and the rest of Ford's crew convened in Monument Valley to film the movie that some hail as one of the greatest films ever created.

He also used Wayne's heroic image with skill. The film was made in 1956 and Ford begins to tackle the complexities of racism and genocide in his story of two men - Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin - on a quest to find Ethan's niece, kidnapped by Comanches after most of their family was killed during a raid.

Ford had a beautiful eye for landscape and he used the soaring stark majesty of the location as a backdrop to his film once again to great effect. "The Searchers" has its flaws and there are plenty of detractors, but there's a reason it is counted as Ford's masterpiece and as some of the greatest work Wayne did on film in his long career.

It is never outright stated, but most critics agree that what drives Ethan is the need to avenge the woman he loved - his brother's wife, Martha - as much as to find Debbie. What makes this bit of backstory even more impressive is that it is implied with just a few glances at the beginning of the movie, never put into words.

Ethan hates Native Americans. That part is verbally stated and shown time and again throughout the movie. When they finally find Debbie and he learns she has become a wife of the Comanche chief, Ethan tries to kill her, so innate is his abhorrence.

And that hatred is what makes this movie stand out from the many other westerns Hollywood produced. In Ethan Edwards, Wayne and Ford created a character that wasn't clear cut good. They acknowledged that a man may wear a white hat of justice and still have emotions and motives that fall into areas tinged by gray.

"The Searchers" is a love it or hate it kind of film, and if you decide to take it in, you'll find yourself on one side of the fence or the other by the time Wayne's image fades in the final frames. But it's a movie that has influenced some of the greatest directors of the latter half of the 20th century, and for that alone it is worth seeing.

It's good stuff and if you've the time and the price of a ticket, I'd highly advise taking a gander at it.



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