Is “The Searchers” Portrayal of Native Americans Problematic?

In 2012, Quentin Tarantino was making the rounds, sitting down with reporters to discuss his new film, Django Unchained. When the filmmaker met up with Henry Louis Gates of The Root, he took aim at one of the greatest directors of all time… John Ford.

“To say the least, I hate him,” Tarantino told Gates. The director went on to describe Ford as a racist and someone who promoted “the idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity.” He also claimed the Native Americans in Ford westerns were basically “faceless Indians… killed like zombies.”

Of course, Tarantino isn’t the only one who’s condemned Ford’s treatment of Native Americans in his films. Quite a few critics have questioned the director’s attitude towards race, especially when discussing his magnum opus, The Searchers (1956).

This classic western has its supporters, but it certainly has detractors as well. Director Charles Burnett is decidedly not a fan, Josh Spiegel of Sound on Sight wrote the depiction of the Native Americans in the film made him cringe, and Stephen Metcalf of Slate said The Searchers was made by “semiprimitives”.

So is the portrayal of Native Americans in The Searchers problematic? Is it a racist film? The answer is… sort of… but not really.

Like many great westerns, The Searchers was made in the late 1950s, a time when America was wrestling with the concept of equality. While Martin Luther King Jr. was leading boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, Hollywood was figuring out its own messy racial politics. In 1956, the same year The Searchers hit theaters, Warner Bros. released Giant (1956)—a film that condemns southern racism—while United Artists released Around the World in 80 Days (1956)—a movie we can safely call xenophobic—and Cecil B. DeMille directed The Ten Commandments (1956), a Biblical epic with an all-white cast.

Much like other famous films of the fifties, The Searchers exhibits old Hollywood racism. The villainous Comanche chief, Scar, is played by Henry Braydon, a white German-American smothered in brown makeup. Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter) cruelly abuses his Native American bride, Look (Beulah Archuletta), a woman he marries by mistake. During one sequence, Look tries sleeping next to her unsuspecting husband. When Martin notices her settling in, he kicks her down a hill. As Steve Leftridge of Pop Matters points out, “Had it been a white woman lying next to Martin, there’s no way Ford would’ve shown Martin exact such violence against her and expect audiences to find it funny.”

Steve Pick, also of Pop Matters, ads, “It’s way too easy to root for the white people in the climactic battle scene. Ford films it from the point of view of John Wayne and the army, and he includes that stirring music so familiar from many other heroic sequences in previous films.” And it’s true. The first half of the climax is a little too exciting, a little too gung-ho, and the Native Americans come off as the terrifying, emotionless “Other”—bad guys who just need to be shot—similar to the Indians in Red River (1948) and Stagecoach (1939), also directed by Ford.

But to dismiss the entire movie as “racist” is not only inaccurate…it’s also flat-out wrong. While the film definitely missteps on several occasions, as a whole, The Searchers is actually condemning of white prejudice. In fact, the film was pretty radical for its day, using the all-American genre of the western to question U.S. history and heroes alike.

One of the biggest sticking points for people who hate The Searchers is the character of Ethan Edwards. Played by John Wayne, Edwards is a Confederate veteran who dedicates his life to rescuing his niece (Natalie Wood) from a band of murderous Comanches. Along the way, we learn Ethan is a malevolent racist, on par with the Klansmen in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the Nazis in Triumph of the Will (1935). He refers to his part-Cherokee nephew as “blankethead,” makes a distinction between Comanches and “humans,” and at one point, desecrates a Comanche corpse, forcing the warrior’s spirit to wander forever between the winds. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Ethan encounters a group of white captives who’ve lost their minds, and Ford zooms up on Ethan’s hate-filled eyes. When a cavalryman remarks it’s hard to believe they’re white, Ethan snarls, “They ain’t. Anymore.”

Worst of all, Ethan isn’t really going to rescue his niece. Now that she’s become “the leavings of a Comanche buck,” Ethan plans to put a bullet in her brain. It’s all pretty intense stuff, prompting one offended blogger to write, “I get this film was shot in 1956, but for me that doesn’t excuse the blatant racism and vitriol spewed from Wayne’s mouth regarding the Native Americans.”

However, just because a movie has a racist protagonist, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is racist as well. The crooks in Reservoir Dogs (1992) aren’t exactly civil rights activists, but Quentin Tarantino doesn’t hate African-Americans. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976) is a racist, but the film is not racist. When Jack Nicholson meets Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (1974), he’s just finished telling an insensitive joke about Chinese people. However, this film noir doesn’t have an agenda against Asians. With that in mind, yes, Ethan hates Native Americans, but that doesn’t mean The Searchers does too.

In fact, Ethan’s racism is the whole point of the film. The movie uses John Wayne’s character to explore early American prejudices and examine how racism played a key role in the concept of “Manifest Destiny.” By focusing on Edwards, by comparing him to the villainous Scar and showing Ethan’s savage beliefs in action (like shooting out a corpse’s eyes), Ford is actually siding against his protagonist. Or as author Glenn Frankel puts it, “He [Ford] gives you the typical John Wayne character on the surface, but he subtly undermines the myth as you begin to realize our great hero is also a psychopath.”

When Ethan slaughters a herd of buffalo so his Native American enemies will starve, we’re not supposed to sympathize with the man. When he chases after Debbie with murder in his eyes, Ford doesn’t want us to root for the guy. And even when the Civil War veteran scalps Scar, we aren’t supposed to cheer. Ford wants us to feel revulsion and disgust. Despite what some critics might say, Ethan Edwards is the true villain of the film, not the Comanches, a point most audiences in 1956 probably missed.

But unlike most racist characters, Ethan never changes his ways. Sure, he spares Debbie, but he never renounces his beliefs. While some say this means The Searchers is racist, it’s actually an incredibly gutsy move. Really, we don’t need every movie character to make a last minute conversion or receive some sort of third act punishment. In Taxi Driver (196), Travis Bickle is an unrepentant racist who vehemently hates African-Americans, but by the end of the film, he’s (probably) become a national hero. That doesn’t make Taxi Driver a racist movie. Instead, it’s commenting on the American public, a society that often deifies hypocrites and monsters.

Similarly, The Searchers is using Ethan Edwards to critique the United State’s racist and bloody past. Ethan’s feelings towards Comanches are historically accurate. Most white settlers in the 19th century hated Native Americans, and as the film unfolds, we discover even the lovable and longsuffering Laurie Johnson (Vera Miles) has a thing against Comanches. More importantly, by keeping Ethan racist but giving him a moment to shine (when he spares Debbie), Ford is commenting on the complexities of U.S. history.

After all, America was founded by slaveholders, and many Americans glorify figures like Thomas Jefferson, Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, and Wayne himself, men who had their good points, who indelibly impacted the culture, but were definitely racist, much like the pioneers who settled the West. Slamming both American history and American heroism was a radical thing to do in the 1950s. As Roger Ebert put it, “In the flawed vision of The Searchers, we can see Ford, Wayne, and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero.”

In addition to damning Ethan, The Searchers condemns racism in a lot of other interesting ways. When Ethan and Martin confront Scar, the chief reveals his sons were killed in battle. Just like Ethan, the Comanche is driven by a need for revenge, and while he’s definitely a murderer, at least we’re given a minute to understand his motivations.

In another startling scene, we watch as cavalrymen herd a group of Native Americans into a prison, treating them more like animals than human beings. Finally, there’s a brilliant moment in the final climax when the Texas Rangers attack the Comanche camp. Yes, as mentioned above, the scene is a little too rousing for its own good, but there’s one brief shot where we see a concerned Comanche parent scoop up a terrified child and flee the camp, shielding the kid from the gunfire. Regardless of whether Ford came up with the idea or whether it was all improv, the director decided to keep the scene in the film when he could’ve easily cut it out.

Perhaps the most striking argument against calling The Searchers racist is the character of Martin Pawley, the true hero of the film. Like many movies, The Searchers is based on a novel. Written by Alan Le May, there’s actually a huge difference between Martin in the movie and Martin in the book. In Le May’s novel, Martin is a white man. In Ford’s film, he’s part Cherokee. If The Searchers really was a racist film made by racist filmmakers, then why would they go through the trouble of changing Martin’s background?

Further, Martin is the moral compass of the movie. He’s the one trying to stop Ethan’s murderous quest. He gives up his personal happiness to save his long lost sister. He’s the only character who thinks Debbie is worth saving after so many years with the Comanches, and he’s also the only one who feels any sympathy towards Native Americans. In perhaps the movie’s most shocking scene, Martin stumbles upon the site of a massacre. An entire Native American tribe has been decimated by the U.S. Cavalry. As Martin wanders through the camp, he discovers his runaway wife, Look, who’s been murdered by white men for absolutely no reason. It’s a pretty disturbing scene, and coming from the same man who directed Rio Grande, this is an incredibly huge statement.

Finally, many critics point to John Wayne’s opinions on race which are troubling to say the least. Not only did the man once claim to support “white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” he also believed white people did the right thing “in taking this great country away from” Native Americans. Interestingly, Wayne never viewed Ethan’s character as a villain either. But do Wayne’s personal beliefs really affect the meaning of the film? Not really, especially when we take a look at John Ford’s thoughts on the matter.

Despite what Quentin Tarantino says, John Ford wasn’t a hate-filled racist. Did some of his early films present Native Americans in a negative light? Most definitely. Did he often rely on stereotypes in his films? That goes without saying, and we shouldn’t dismiss or forget his more troublesome work. But Ford was a complex man, and overtime, he grew as a person and a filmmaker. Near the end of his career, the great director released several movies like Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Two Rode Together (1961), and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), films that were quite thoughtful regarding race and pretty hard on white pioneers. Just like The Searchers, John Ford slipped up from time to time, but at the end of the day, both the director and his classic film were bold enough (and humble enough) to challenge the American mythos and shine a light on the country’s racist roots.