In his first role as an anti-hero, John Wayne surprises all by the direction it gives to his character. Much to everyone’s disbelief, he casts aside all that the viewers loved about his characters and becomes a bigot and a racist, a morally-bankrupt character that is forever sentenced to drift away out of the society.
John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was often described by the actor as being his most favorite role, while most of the critics have said after his death that this was his finest role in his entire career. The Searchers benefited also from being helmed by John Ford, a director with whom John Wayne collaborated for no less than 9 times.
But this movie was a particularly special one, not just because of the themes which can be found in it (racism, sexism, and so on). John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards manages to be genuinely scary, even if the actor was best known for playing the heroic type. His hatred for the Native-Americans is felt by the viewer each time the character appears on screen.
And there is a particular scene which best describes this negative feeling, a scene in which Ethan shoots the eyes of a dead Comanche so that he won’t be able to enter the spirit land. The actor plays so well this scene, that we believe he despises these people so much: he even learned their beliefs in order to disrespect them.
But this scene also has a different interpretation, other than this obvious one, an explanation which further makes the viewer guess the depth of the movie and the range of the actor. By shooting the eyes of the already dead Comanche, Ethan condemns the spirit to wander for all time between life and afterlife. The spirit of the victim will thus never find rest.
And this is also the condition of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, who cannot find a place of his own because of his difficult personality. This is an accurate description of a vicious circle from which the character cannot escape. One action leads to another, perpetuating the hatred until an overload occurs.
And this does happen, when the character finally finds the one he was searching for. Everybody knows the plot of The Searchers. But the scene in which Ethan is prepared to kill his niece for taking on the language and the habits of her capturers bears even more significance for Ethan’s destiny than the perpetuation of hatred.
In my opinion, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is the heroic character found in the western films, but a character taken to the extreme. The animosity between this general hero and his enemies (as described in the most westerns) is taken to the beyond what the movies have shown us, thus revealing the hidden side of the character.
This is the reason why many directors (Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Brian De Palma, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, and George Lucas just to name a few) have said that The Searchers is one of the few truly amazing American masterpieces.