A Profile of Ethan Edwards from The Searchers(1956)
On the last episode of The DudeMan Show, I talked about how Ethan Edwards is one of my favorite characters of all time and how an article on him may be very interesting. So, before I get into it, I have to point out two things. If you havenâ€™t seen The Searchers, this breakdown wonâ€™t make much sense. Also, I fully intend to spoil the climax. With these two things in mind, if you havenâ€™t seen the John Ford/John Wayne classic film from 1956, this wonâ€™t be very interesting. That said, letâ€™s begin.
Firstly, who is Ethan Edwards when the movie opens? He is first seen walking up still in Confederate uniform in 1868. He is defiant in the Southâ€™s defeat in the Civil War as it is a full three years after the surrender. In subtext, there is more to learn. Edwards was considering giving up cattle ranching in west Texas before the war. He is also deeply in love with his brotherâ€™s wife. Here we are presented with a man who has lost everything. His ranch, his war, and his love have all gone to others over the years. He has turned these constant defeats into a deep resentment that presents itself as constant insults to everyone he meets and a powerful racism against Native Americans, specifically the Comanche. He is detestable in almost every way.
The major turning point of the film is the murder of Ethanâ€™s brotherâ€™s family. All of the family is killed by a raiding Comanche party with the exception of the youngest daughter. At this point, Ethan should become our protagonist as he tirelessly pursues his one living relative, but it is hard to see him that way. He becomes even more embittered and makes his quest one of revenge rather than mercy. His already intense personality seems to receive a boost with this latest loss in the form of his only living family with the exception of his youngest niece. Ethan hates. This is his strongest trait in the face of adversity.
Ethan than solidifies that the audience will be unable to support his cause as he elects to kill his niece believing she has been corrupted by living with the Comanche in the many years since he began his pursuit. She has committed the sin of surviving the way she had to which is too much for the hateful nature of Ethan. His loss has become more than he can bear. He canâ€™t accept a corrupted form of his niece even if she is all he has left in the world. Before I get to his ultimate decision, I must bring in two other characters.
With Ethan being at his best an anti-hero protagonist and an antagonist at this worst, the movie doesnâ€™t really need a villain. The Comanche who took the girl doesnâ€™t appear in most of the film, but the audience is introduced to Scar, the chief of the raiding party, toward the end of the film. In most ways, he is exactly like Ethan. Scar lost his children and several other family members to the violence of white men. Scar has turned his loss into bitterness and anger. He, like Ethan, has spent many years seeking revenge against people who he feels wronged him. His pain has caused him to hate. He acts on it and invokes hatred from another just like him.
So, is there anyone in this film who does not turn pain into hatred and destruction? Martin Pawley, Ethanâ€™s constant companion through the search, is the solution to this problem. Pawley lived with and worked for Ethanâ€™s brother and was actually saved by Ethan as a boy. Pawleyâ€™s parents were killed by Comanche. (It later is revealed to have been Scar.) He then loses the family he had been adopted into. However, unlike the two previous examples, he doesnâ€™t become bitter and hateful. Pawley continues to look for hope. Even as Ethan spouts the racist epithet â€œBlanketheadâ€ at him due to Pawleyâ€™s Native American heritage, Pawley continues the search while holding out hope that saving the girl will bring something good. He looks to the future while the other two men are gripped by the past. He manages to stay engaged and keep his promise to the girl despite his long absence. (She goes almost grow tired of waiting, but he fights for it and wins her back.) Pawley is the true protagonist of the film. He has the right motives and is not the vengeful sort Ethan is. (He does ultimately kill Scar, but it is in self-defense. Ethan is the one who scalps Scar vengefully.)
So then, how do we explain Ethan Edwardâ€™s decision to not kill his niece? At the end, he has the opportunity as he runs her down at the edge of a cave. Somehow, in this moment, he lets go of all his anger and hatred and grasps the one thing that he can still hold out hope for. He looks into the future rather than being consumed by his past for just a moment. In the original script, there was a line where Ethan explains his decision by saying the girl reminded him of her mother. Thankfully, John Ford cut this line. Though this explanation makes sense, it would have undercut the drama of the scene which simply has Ethan sweeping up his niece, embracing her, and telling her that it is time to go home. The audience is allowed to see Ethan become the true protagonist and finally feel sympathy for him.
In the final scene of the film, the audience is treated to what Ethanâ€™s hatred has wrought. Even in his moment of a magnanimous choice, he gained nothing. He is alone. His niece cannot be truly his after he geared so much hate toward her. Martin is the same. Despite his optimism, he has seen Ethan at his worst. The audience sees Ethan through a doorway, holding himself, and walking away. Revenge gained him nothing. Hatred has left him bereft. Even in victory, Ethan is without any prize or reward. He drove a wedge between himself and world, and there he stays.
So there you have it. Ethan Edwards will always be one of the most interesting characters John Wayne ever played. Edwards was a man who did the right thing for all the wrong reasons and couldnâ€™t achieve any victory as a result. If you have seen the film, I would like to hear your opinion. If not, you can tell me what you think of the prose. Thanks for reading.