There aren’t a lot of happy endings in westerns. Shane (1953), High Noon (1922), Unforgiven (1992)…they’re all kind of downers. Even The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a tad depressing, and let’s not get started on The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Of course, as far as endings go, you really can’t get any more bittersweet than the final few seconds of The Searchers (1956). It’s the perfect blend of victory, tragedy and iconic imagery, and that’s why it’s one of the best endings of all time.
John Ford’s classic film opens and closes with essentially the same scene. The movie begins in darkness. Suddenly, a door opens, a silhouetted woman steps outside, and we’re greeted by the breathtaking sight of Monument Valley. In the distance, there’s a rider approaching, a man by the name of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). A dusty and weary Confederate soldier, Ethan is returning to his brother’s West Texas homestead, accompanied by Max Steiner’s mournful score.
As he approaches the cabin, Ethan is greeted by his family, all eagerly waiting on the porch. When he slides off the saddle, it’s like the return of the prodigal son, and after stepping inside, Ethan picks up his young niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), hoisting her in the air as a sign of affection.
Fast forward to the end, and Ethan is holding Debbie in the exact same way. Only now, she’s a full-grown woman, having spent most of her life living with the Comanches. As for Ethan, he’s spent years searching for his niece, with the sole intention of killing her. However, when he finally tracks her down, Ethan decides to spare Debbie’s life.
After lifting her into the air, Ethan famously whispers, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” The two climb onto Ethan’s horse and ride back to civilization. Just like in the beginning of the film, Ethan rides up to an old homestead and is greeted on the porch by smiling faces — only this time, Ethan and Debbie are met by old friends, as most of their relatives were murdered in a Comanche raid. When the two approach the house, the settlers shower Debbie with affection, but Ethan is left behind, watching silently as the ranchers escort Debbie inside. Even his nephew/partner, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), passes Ethan by, doting on his sweetheart (Vera Miles) instead.
Max Steiner’s score kicks in again as the Sons of the Pioneers croon, “Ride away, ride away.” We see Ethan holding his arm against his side, framed in the door, a scene that’s been copied in films like The Godfather (1972) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). He’s staring inside, forgotten by his friends and family members, and that’s when the old soldier takes the song’s advice. He walks off into the distance, the door closing behind him, moseying off into one of the most bittersweet movie endings ever, right up there with The Third Man (1949) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
Fade to black, and Ethan is right back where he started. Alone.
But why did Ford frame Ethan in a doorway? And why did John Wayne choose to cradle his arm like that? Well, in regards to the second question, Wayne’s body language was actually a tribute to his old friend, cowboy actor Harry Carey, Sr. In his commentary for The Searchers, famed director Peter Bogdanovich explains that Harry Carey often hugged his arm in a similar fashion, and Wayne thought it was an incredibly “lonely gesture,” perfect for the film’s solitary finale.
As for the doorway, it’s a brilliantly simple way to show Ethan is trapped between two worlds: the outlaw West and civilization. Like many cowboy protagonists — think Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch (1969), John W. Burns in Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) — Ethan Edwards is a throwback to an older time, a more violent age when the frontier was still wild. He’s a loner, a desperado who’s broken his fair share of laws and isn’t above shooting a man in the back. He isn’t cut out for family life like Martin, and now that his mission is over he’s outlived his purpose.
When Ethan returns from his journey, he discovers a world where settlers are throwing parties and the great Comanche war chiefs are dead. Texas has become a more peaceful place, only Ethan can’t bring himself to settle down. He doesn’t belong in this civilized world, and, really, he isn’t even welcome there. None of Ethan’s friends or family members invite him inside, and the door closes to lock him out. There isn’t anywhere for Ethan to go. He isn’t welcome with the Native Americans; the Confederacy lost the Civil War; and everyone he knows has either died or left him behind. Much like the Comanche corpse earlier in the film, Ethan is fated to “wander forever between the winds.”