"Brad: They gotta stop sometime. If they're human men at all, they gotta stop.
Ethan: No, a human rides a horse until it dies, then he goes on afoot. Comanch comes along and gets that horse up, rides him twenty more miles, then eats him"
The Searchers explores a theme in the history of the West which was very real and which developed its mythology even before the dime novelists took a hand in its presentation, let alone the filmmakers. A woman or girl being captured and defiled by the savages was too much for the westerners to contemplate, never mind the easterners with Victorian values of sexual and emotional repression and the commonplace abuse of minors and women being outside the public domain. Out on the plains or in the foothills of the Rockies most trappers and traders took native American wives, for example William Bent the famous trader on the Platte married Owl Woman, a Cheyenne, and when she died he married her sister, Yellow Woman.
The ‘whites’ had a racial and power based interest in seeking out captives, yet their attitude was ambivalent, for it was also prurient in that the idea of what “might have happened to the woman” filled them with disgust and fascination. From their perspective the woman needed to be saved, yet their morals and view of the native Americans as savages made it impossible for them to welcome the woman back into the community as if nothing had happened. It was as if a valued item had been stolen, and ruined. It had to be regained and then, having been spoiled, would have to be cast aside or destroyed. Miscegenation, sexual congress between two races, was hard enough for fifties cinema audiences to contemplate, let alone nineteenth century new Americans who regarded the savage native Americans to be on the same level as the animals. Unless they lived side by side with them, of course, like William Bent.
The most celebrated example of this was the Texas family of the Parkers, and there are clear parallels from "The Searchers" to this case which suggests that it was the inspiration for the film, albeit in a modified form. In 1834 the Parkers, who hailed from Virginia, and who had stopped off at Tennessee and Illinois, built a wooden stockade on Mexican land near the Navasota River, a tributary of the Brazos. The land was fertile, so they could grow corn and was abundant with wildlife such as wild turkey and deer. They took refuge during the Texas War of independence against the Mexicans, returning when Texas became a republic in 1836. On May 19 of that year most of the men went to work in the cornfields. When a large number of Amerindians approached the stockade bearing a white flag a parley took place, at which the natives asked directions to a water source and demanded beef. Benjamin met them and walked back to report what had happened, but when he returned to talk to the group he was killed and the native Americans surged forward and gained entry to the stockade. Some of the inhabitants were butchered and, as the Parker menfolk returned from the fields to tackle them, the natives, mostly Comanches but including some Kiowas, Wichitas and Caddoans, made off with Elizabeth Kellogg, Rachel Plummer and three young children, namely Cynthia Ann and John Parker aged nine and six, and Rachel Plummer’s fifteen month old son James.
Elizabeth Kellogg was claimed by Caddoans when the party split up. She therefore became separated and a few months later was sold to Delawares who, in turn, sold her back to agents of the Texas Republic. Rachel Plummer was to live among the Comanches for many months before she was purchased by Comancheros at the request of a trader named Donahue. When she was finally recovered Rachel had been in captivity for eighteen months and was in the position that Debbie finds herself in the film, referred to by T.R. Fehrenbach as “anomalous”.
“They were objects of sincere pity, but they were also considered dirty and disgraced , for they had been the playthings of creatures the Americans (sic) regarded as animals. They were an embarrassment to their families. Some husbands would not receive them or live with them again. Ironically most returned women suffered more real shame and humiliation among their own people than among the Comanches” (T.R. Fehrenbach p189)
“The Searchers” is an admirable exploration of this theme. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) ‘searches’ for the Comanches who raided his family’s farmstead, killing members of his family and capturing his nine year old niece, Debbie. However, when he cannot find the Comanches he returns to the family home, to find the part (one eighth – it seems to matter) Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeff Hunter) adopted into the family, and obsessed with her memory and in possession of letters which relate to her disappearance.
When he sets off again Martin proves his determination to accompany Ethan on his quest by refusing to accept Ethan’s rejection. Their journey is so drawn out that by the time they get word of her whereabouts Debbie is old enough to ‘marry’ and once Ethan discovers that this has resulted in her becoming the wife of the Comanche chief, ‘Scar’, his objective alters from rescue to murder, which his racist perspective would justify along the lines mentioned above. Earlier in the film, when he sees two white women who have been raped by Indians, their minds shattered, he dismisses them, "They aren’t white. Not anymore." Martin, as a half Cherokee himself is in a less clear cut position, particularly since he loves her as a sister. As a disgusted Ethan remarks early in the odyssey, "a fellow could mistake you for a half-breed."
In the climax of the film Ethan and Marty, united in the aim of finding Debbie, but differing over what to do with her when they do, approach the Comanche encampment. Marty pleads for a chance to extricate Debbie himself, quietly, for fear of bringing about her death, which is exactly what is on Nathan's mind. And at the end Marty even defends her from Ethan by standing in the way of his gun. "Stand aside, Marty," says Ethan, and we are left wondering whether Ethan really would have shot her if the next generation had not been more enlightened.
It is a remarkable film because it is securely based on fact, explores the myths of the reality and puts a contemporary perspective on the issues which transcend the time which it was produced. It is primarily concerned with the emotional responses which apply to any historical period. Even the cinematography is memorable and stands the test of time. In fact I wonder whether, in the twenty first century, it does this better than it did in the late years of the twentieth.
In the most poignant and emotional moment, at the end of the film, Ethan, on horseback, rides down a hill looking for Debbie. Debbie runs in fear of her life. Ethan pursues and overwhelms her, but he dismounts from his horse and cradles her in his arms. Uncertain whether to resist she intuitively looks up and puts herself within his control. Gently and caringly Ethan looks down, "Let’s go home, Debbie."