THE SEARCHERS (1956, Director John Ford)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

The Searchers is a film that comes with impeccable genre credentials. John Ford is widely considered to be the greatest of all directors of movie Westerns, perhaps rivaled only by the Italian director Sergio Leone, the premier maker of Spaghetti Westerns. And The Searchers is widely regarded as the greatest of all Western films, perhaps rivaled only by Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In addition, The Searchers stars John Wayne, probably the biggest Western star of all time. And it addresses a number of crucial issues that lie at the very heart of the Western genre, though it does so in a way that not only draws upon the conventions of the Western (conventions that Ford did more than anyone to establish) but also challenges those conventions in a number of ways, calling particular attention to the element of racism that underlies the representation of Native Americans in so many Westerns (and the historical conquest of the West in the real world).

The Searchers tops off a particularly rich period in the evolution of the Western as a film genre. As Richard Slotkin notes, “the 1948–56 period—beginning with Fort Apache and ending with The Searchers—is extraordinarily rich in Westerns that are formally sophisticated, intellectually interesting—and seminal, in that some of them inaugurated major revisions of or additions to the genre’s vocabulary” (349). Slotkin’s crucially important study of the Western genre, Gunfighter Nation, is predicated on the fact that, in the mid-twentieth-century, the Western became the central expression of what Slotkin sees as America’s central national myth, the myth of “savage war.” In Slotkin’s view, the United States has established its national identity specifically in terms of its status as the nation that evolved through a series of violent victories over savage opponents. Central among these, of course, were the Native Americans who had to be defeated in order for the United States to become the nation it is, stretching from one ocean to another.

Slotkin’s view of the Western as a crucial expression of the story of the development of the American nation is not unusual, of course, even if it is unusual specific in pinpointing the way in which it tells this story. Robert B. Pippin also sees the Western as a sort of mythic retelling of the evolution of the American nation. Moreover, he uses The Searchers as his central example of his argument that

“many great Westerns are indeed about the founding or the early, struggling stages of modern bourgeois, law-abiding, property-owning, market-economy, technologically advanced societies in transition from, mostly, lawlessness (or corrupt and ineffective law) and war that border on classic state-of-nature thought experiments (or mythic pictures of origins). The question often raised is the question of how legal order (of a particular form, the form of liberal-democratic capitalism) is possible, under what conditions it can be formed and command allegiance, how the bourgeois virtues, especially the domestic virtues, can be said to get a psychological grip in an environment where the heroic and martial virtues are so important” (225–26).

In particular, Pippin suggests that, in The Searchers,“there is a direct confrontation with the fact that the origin of the territorial U.S. rested on a virulent racism and genocidal war against aboriginal peoples, a war that would not have been possible and perhaps would not have been won without the racist hatred of characters like the John Wayne character” (227).

For Slotkin, meanwhile, The Searchers “explores the myth of ‘savage war,’ and the racism that informs and energizes that myth, at a level of sophistication no previous fiction film had achieved” (461). In particular, what is special about The Searchers is that it not only draws upon this myth but interrogates it and the ideological structures that underlie it, demonstrating how the racism of those structures produces unreasonable and damaging cycles of violence. Moreover, Slotkin also points out that The Searchers was made at the height of the Cold War and that its particular version of the savage war myth is crucially informed by the logic of the Cold War, indicating still another dimension to this complex film.

The opening credits of The Searchers begin as dramatic music—with native American intonations—plays in the background. After the title of the film itself (which is displayed after the name of Wayne, indicating his major star status), the music suddenly switches to cowboy-style music, as the classic Western group Sons of the Pioneers sings the title song composed just for the film by Max Steiner. The opening titles sequence thus already establishes the classic “cowboys and Indians” structure that informs the film, ending with on-screen text that establishes the setting as “Texas 1868.” Then the film itself begins with a very famous shot from the darkened interior of the stone homestead cabin of the Edwards family. Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) opens the door of the cabin, and the shot through the doorway reveals the bright Western exterior, with Mrs. Edwards silhouetted in the doorway. She walks out onto the porch, and the camera follows her, giving us a look at her panoramic view of the classic Western landscape, a semi-arid prairie punctuated by dramatic rocky buttes. And it is a classic landscape indeed: though the film is set in Texas, these shots (and most of the other landscape shots) were shot in Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona, which Ford’s other films (and the films of others who followed him) had already established as the most iconic of all Western settings. In the distance, we see a man riding toward the Edwards homestead. That man will turn out to be Ethan Edwards, played by Wayne, the most iconic of all Western actors, here playing his most iconic role.

The famous opening shot of the film.

The rest of the family drifts out on the porch to greet the surprise arrival of Ethan, whose brother Aaron (Walter Coy) is the family’s husband and father. Ethan still wears the remnants of his Confederate army uniform and still carries his battle saber, marking him as a veteran of the Civil War. This status also helps to establish Ethan as a classic figure from Western lore—the individualist Confederate vet who moved West after the war to avoid going under the yoke of postwar Union rule in the South. The family had thought Ethan to be in California, but he cryptically explains that he hasn’t been to California and has no plans to go there. The family is then completed by the arrival of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who had been adopted by the Edwards clan in infancy after Ethan discovered him, his family having been massacred (presumably by Indians). After Ethan gruffly remarks that the dark-skinned Martin might be mistaken for a “half-breed,” Martin explains his understanding that he is, as far as he knows, one-eighth Cherokee. Ethan seems hostile to the young man, despite having been the one to have saved him, and it soon becomes clear that Ethan bears racist hostilities toward Native Americans in general.

Ethan arrives at the beginning of the film, riding through a classic Western landscape.

Ethan’s racism lies at the very center of what makes The Searchers such as special film, and Wayne’s portrayal of this highly complex character—strong, loyal, and courageous, but also driven by bitterness and unreasoning hatred and prejudice—makes Ethan one of the most interesting characters in the entire history of the Western, establishing him as a sort of allegorical representative of the American national identity, itself driven by a nominal devotion to freedom and equality that is nevertheless tainted by a long history of racism and injustice.

As Slotkin notes, Ethan is a classic case of the “Indian hater,” a figure that runs throughout American narratives of savage war against Indians (462–63). What complicates this figure in the case of Ethan is that he is also clearly the “hero” of the film, portrayed by an actor typically identified with heroism. As a result, audiences might find themselves sympathizing with his position, at least to a point, an identification that might cause viewers to examine their own latent racist tendencies. Meanwhile, Ethan’s character gains even more complexity from the mysterious nature of his activities during the three-year period since the end of the war. For one thing, he simply disappeared after the war, and no one knows where he has been during the past three years. For another, he is bearing a substantial supply of freshly-minted gold “Yankee dollars,” of unknown origin.[1] Meanwhile, soon after his arrival, Ethan gives his apparent niece Debbie a medal that appears to be Mexican in origin, suggesting that he might recently have been fighting in Mexico, where there had been considerable fighting in the years during and immediately after the American Civil War, as Mexican Republican forces led by Benito Juárez eventually overthrew the Second Mexican Empire (established in 1861) and executed its emperor, the former Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria (installed on the throne with the support of France’s Napoleon III) in a conflict that ended in June of 1867.[2]

It is also impossible to miss the clear tension that seems to accompany Ethan’s return. The Settlers is a film with a number of complex emotional undercurrents. One of the most important of these is the clear hostility that exists between Ethan and his brother Aaron, which is accompanied by a rather awkward, but obvious, mutual attraction between Ethan and Aaron’s wife Martha, an attraction that is clearly noticed by Rev. Clayton in a way that suggests he suspects that something has gone on between Ethan and Martha. Many commentators have interpreted this vague emotional triangle to imply that Ethan had been involved in an earlier affair with Martha and that he might, in fact, even be the father of Debbie (to whom he does very tenderly give that Mexican medal).

Slotkin, incidentally, argues that the design of this medal identifies it as an artifact of the Mexican Empire, which suggests that Ethan had been fighting on the losing side (as well as the more racist side) in Mexico, just as he had in the Civil War. Thus, Ethan might well be bearing the scars of two spectacular defeats in war, which might help to explain the size of the chip he seems to be carrying on his shoulder when he returns to Texas. Ethan’s status as a two-time loser in civil wars, though, is perfectly suited to his characterization throughout the film: though there is perhaps something romantic about his tendency to fight for lost causes, it is also the case that, in both Civil Wars, he fought for the less virtuous (and more white-supremacist) cause.

Ethan has arrived back in Texas just as trouble is brewing with the local Indian population, a situation that is based on the historical “Texas-Indian Wars,” in which white settlers grappled with the local Native American population for control of the Texas plains in a conflict that raged off and on for much of the nineteenth century.[3] By 1868, when Ethan arrives, these conflicts had already been going on for nearly half a century, so there was considerable bitterness between the settlers and the native inhabitants of the region. By this time, most of the Indian tribes had, in fact, been wiped out by genocidal extermination, leaving the Comanche tribe, known as particularly fierce warriors, to lead the battle against intrusions of the settlers.

The war comes into the film in force as someone (the Comanche, as it turns out) begins to raid local homesteads. Aaron and Martin are deputized to join the Texas Rangers in trying to track down the raiders. Ethan, however, insists on taking Aaron’s place but refuses to be sworn in as a deputy, due to the fact that he has already sworn an allegiance to the Confederate States of America and feels that he can only be loyal to one oath at a time. However, Ranger Captain Rev. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) suspects that Ethan might not want to take the oath because he would be ineligible to be a Ranger if he were wanted for a crime, adding still more murkiness to Ethan’s background. The main plot of the film is then kicked into action when the Comanche attack the Edwards homestead and kill everyone except the two young daughters, Debbie and Lucy (Pippa Scott), who are taken captive by the Comanche chief Cicatriz (Henry Brandon).

Cicatriz (aka “Scar”), the blue-eyed Comanche chief.

Ethan and Martin set out with a posse led by Rev. Clayton to try to recover the girls. On the way, they discover the body of a Comanche buried in a shallow grave. Ethan shows his contempt for the Indian by shooting out the eyes of the corpse, which will (according to the Comanche belief cited by Ethan in one of several signs of his extensive knowledge of Indian lore[4]) prevent the Indian from entering the Spirit Land. We are never quite sure, incidentally, just how reliable Ethan’s knowledge really is, given that it is underwritten by a strong racial prejudice. At one point, for example, he delivers this wisdom, which suggests both that Ethan does not regard the Comanche as human and that his stories about them are often fictionalized for effect: “A human rides a horse until it dies, then goes on afoot. A Comanche comes along, gets that horse up, and rides him twenty more miles. Then eats him.”

Eventually, the posse is attacked by a much larger force of Comanche, though they are able—in a sign of the kind of superior white capability that is a standard cliché of the Western—to easily fend off their attackers. This attack, though, causes Clayton to order the posse to turn back until they can get reinforcements. All follow his lead, except Ethan, Martin, and young Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey, Jr.), who is betrothed to Lucy, to continue the search. Soon afterward, Ethan finds Lucy’s body, but does not initially inform the others. When he finally does, a distraught Brad asks, “Did they … was she?” “What do you want me to do,” Ethan asks angrily. “Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me. Long as you live, don’t ever ask me more!” It seems clear here that Brad is asking whether Lucy had been raped and that, given the vehemence of Ethan’s response, the answer is in the affirmative. Overcome, Brad jumps on his horse and suicidally charges the Comanche camp. He is quickly shot and killed.

Most of the remainder of the film involves the efforts of Ethan and Martin to locate Debbie, who remains with Cicatriz (aka “Scar”) through most of the film. In this sense, The Searchers is an example of the “captivity narrative,” one of the important genres of American frontier literature. Though captivity narratives of various sorts exist in many cultures, the most prominent ones involve the capture of white settlers (especially girls or women) by Native Americans. However, The Searchers actually provides viewers with relatively few details about the experiences of Debbie while held captive by Scar, focusing instead on the efforts of Ethan and Martin to rescue her.

Indeed, most of the details concerning Debbie’s captivity can only be speculated at. What we do know is that, when Ethan and Martin do finally find her years later, she has become the wife of Scar. Presumably this would mean that she has had interracial sex with Scar, a prospect that is clearly horrifying to Ethan, such miscegenation being one of the things that racists are generally most horrified by. What the film does not reveal is just how Debbie initially came to be Scar’s wife, though many have speculated that it was probably by force and that, at some point, she had also been raped by the Comanche. Thus, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, in her study of rape-revenge narratives, finds that The Searchers fits in this category and notes that the “implied rape of Debbie … drives the narrative” (71).[5]

The Production Code would not have allowed a rape actually to be depicted, of course, though the rape of Debbie might have been more clearly implied—as is the rape of Lucy. Perhaps Ford did not want to emphasize this potential part of the narrative out of his desire to produce a Western that was relatively sympathetic to Native Americans, though it should also be said that The Searchers, while more enlightened than most of its predecessors among Westerns, is far from a radical pro-Indian (or anti-racist) narrative. Indeed, the representation of Native Americans in the film is rather ambivalent, while the film also tosses in a handful of cliché Mexicans (though one of the them ultimately displays a certain honor), suggesting that its racial politics are anything but fully progressive.[6] What is clear, though (and what is more important) is that Ethan would almost certainly be more horrified by Debbie’s willing participation in her marriage to Scar than he would be by her rape, given that he seems driven throughout his search for Debbie less by concern for her welfare and more by his desire to wreak vengeance upon the Comanche.[7]

After a brief respite in which Ethan and Martin, dissuaded by blizzards, give up the chase and return to white civilization, Ethan then attempts to jettison Martin and go on alone in his search for Debbie, but it is clear that Martin fears this will lead to disaster for Debbie—either because Ethan might recklessly attack the Comanche or because Ethan might (as he ultimately does) even try to kill Debbie himself, as a way of freeing her from the despised Comanche. After all Ethan, has made made it clear that he feels death would be preferable to a life with the Indians for Debbie. Martin therefore sets out after Ethan, with a horse reluctantly supplied by Laurie Jorgenson (Vera Miles), who knows she can’t stop him though she prefers that he stay and marry her, given that she has been his sweetheart since childhood.

As Ethan and Martin continue the search, Martin inadvertently picks up a Comanche wife in a misunderstanding with comic intonations. Ethan is much amused by the misunderstanding, though the treatment of Martin’s Indian wife, Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky (aka “Look,” played by Beulah Archuletta) is uncomfortably cruel to the eyes of most twenty-first-century viewers, and she is driven away fairly quickly. Meanwhile, we see another instance of Ethan’s racist fanaticism when he starts wantonly firing into a herd of buffalo, trying to kill as many as possible, just so they cannot go on to provide food for Comanche. Soon afterward, we see more graphic evidence of the effects of white racist hatred of Native Americans when Ethan and Martin come upon a Comanche encampment that has been attacked by the U.S. Cavalry, most of its inhabitants massacred and others taken captive. There is no sign of Debbie, but they do find the body of Martin’s “wife” among the dead.

They track the cavalry back to their headquarters, hoping Debbie will be among those taken from the encampment. Again, there is no sign of her, though the cavalry have rescued two white girls and a white woman from the Comanche, all of whom have been driven insane by the horrors of Indian captivity. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” says a cavalry officer. “They ain’t white,” snarls Ethan with disgust. “Not any more. They’re Comanche.” Once again Ethan’s racism comes to the fore—this time in a way that suggests that he would probably no longer regard Debbie as white, either, and once again raising the question of just what it is he hopes to achieve by searching for her.

This scene of the white women who have lost their minds due to Indian captivity will become crucial later on when Ethan and Martin finally locate Debbie, now living (apparently happily) as Scar’s wife. If the insane women have been unable to maintain their sanity through their transition to Indianness, Debbie seems to have made the transition quite nicely, presumably making her even more of a Comanche and thus more the object of Ethan’s scorn. To Ethan, she has become a sort of race traitor who has thrown in her lot with the hated Comanche, turning her back on her white origins and suggesting that there was something insufficiently “white” about her to begin with.

When Ethan and Martin finally encounter Scar, we learn that Scar’s campaigns against white settlers are themselves motivated by revenge, his two sons having both been killed by white men. This element of the film can be taken as another sign of the film’s attempt at more even-handed treatment of Native Americans as well as to suggest parallels between Ethan and Scar. Indeed, combined with the cavalry attack on the Indian encampment, the film comes close to acknowledging (but never overtly states) the fact that far more Native Americans were killed by white settlers in the conquest of the West than the other way around. At this point, Scar also has an opportunity to kill the two white men, but declines to do so out of “Comanche hospitality,” though Scar does rather cruelly taunt the two white men by revealing that Debbie is now his wife and by showing them the scalps of whites he has killed, including Martha’s.[8]

Ethan and Martin view Scar’s scalp collection.

When, soon afterward, Debbie approaches Martin and Ethan outside Scar’s encampment, Ethan’s immediate response is to draw his revolver, and it is only Martin’s intervention that prevents him from shooting her on the spot. Ethan tries to kill her anyway, but is then wounded by an Indian arrow, after which a band of Comanche led by Scar launch an attack.[9] In this scene, then, Scar becomes the savior who rescues Debbie from Ethan rather than the other way around, once again deconstructing the polar opposition between Scar and Ethan and showing that such polar oppositions (the logical basis of racism itself) are simplifications that cannot adequately encompass reality.

Soon afterward, Ethan writes a will leaving all of his possessions to Martin on the basis of the fact that he has no living “blood kin,” indicating that he now rejects any kinship with Debbie, whom he knows perfectly well is still alive.[10] Martin furiously rejects the will, and one could argue that, from this point forward, the center of the film shifts to Martin, who becomes the true hero of the film’s final half hour. The film immediately cuts from the will scene to one in which Rev. Clayton is presiding over the wedding of Laurie Jorgenson, repelled by reports of Martin’s marriage to an Indian “squaw,” to oafish cowboy Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis). Luckily, Martin and Ethan arrive back just in time, preventing the wedding and ultimately allowing Martin to reclaim Laurie (after a comical fistfight with McCorry).

Then a young cavalry lieutenant (played by Wayne’s son Patrick) arrives and recruits all the participants to join in a “joint punitive action” against Scar, though Laurie in a final display of the ugliness of racism, attempts to convince Martin to stay behind because Debbie, in Laurie’s own racist imaginings, is now nothing more than “the leavings of Comanche bucks, sold time and again to the highest bidder.” Martin goes nevertheless, and fully establishes his hero status when he goes into the Indian camp alone to effect Debbie’s escape and guns down Scar in the process. The somewhat sanitized attack (the cavalry is shown killing only armed Indian warriors, with no women or children being hurt in the fight), then leads to a final resolution in which Ethan chases down Debbie but then decides not to kill her, experiencing a sudden, deus ex machina change of heart and lifting her into his arms like an infant. Then she experiences a change of heart as well, placing her head on his shoulder and going with him willingly. She rides all the way back to the Jorgenson homestead in his arms[11] and then joins the Jorgensons, walking inside with them as they are all silhouetted by a shot from the interior, thus echoing the opening shot through the doorway of the Edwards homestead. Martin then walks in with Laurie (and will presumably soon marry her). Ethan turns and walks away alone (with Wayne’s famous swaying gait), as the heroes of Westerns so often do.

Ethan softens his attitude toward Debbie.
The newly constituted Jorgenson family moves inside their home, with Ethan Edwards left outside.

It is unclear whether Ethan’s racist attitudes have substantially changed, or whether his acceptance of Debbie was a special case. The film as a whole, though, would seem to have clearly rejected Ethan’s earlier racism. After all, what is left behind, with clearly utopian intonations, is a new multiracial community, as the Swedish Jorgensons take in Debbie while preparing to marry their daughter to the part-Indian Martin.[12] On the other hand, it should also be noted that the condemnation of racism in The Searchers probably appears more obvious to twenty-first-century viewers than it did to contemporary viewers in the 1950s. For example, Slotkin notes that, in the years immediately after the release of the film, positive interpretations of Ethan Edwards that saw his actions in the film as heroic and justified by circumstances were quite common, even prevalent. Several subsequent films also focused on the theme of Indian captivity, emphasizing the savagery of the Indians in such cases. And, for Slotkin, the prevalence of attitudes that would see Ethan’s harsh attitudes as motivated by his superior understanding of just how savage Indians were can also be linked to Cold War attitudes toward communism, which suggested that critics of the Western demonization of communism were simply naïve and didn’t understand how dangerous communism really was. By extension, Slotkin suggests that this attitude was crucial to the American attitude toward Vietnam, with supporters of all-out military American intervention in Vietnam moving, per Slotkin, in an “‘Ethan Edwards’ direction” (472). For Slotkin, then, positive readings of Ethan Edwards made him, not only a prototypical frontier hero (in the mold of Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett), but also “the incarnation of the counterinsurgency fighter envisioned by the Doolittle Report[13]: a man who intimately knows the ways of an enemy whom he identifies as the supreme embodiment of evil and with whom he fights a battle to the death” (473).

It might also be noted that Wayne, himself a proponent of extreme anti-communist views, was one of the most outspoken proponents of the American incursion into Vietnam. And, as late as 1971, in a now-infamous interview with Playboy magazine, he expressed openly racist views that are not that far from those of Ethan Edwards. On Native Americans, for example, he said “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Given these views, it seems clear that Wayne himself did not intend to make a strong pro-Indian statement in The Searchers, whatever Ford’s intentions might have been. Then again, Wayne also starred in Big Jim McLain (1952), an overtly anti-communist film so extreme that it might now be seen by many as a critique of the problematic extremism of 1950s anti-communism in general. The political rhetoric of film is a complex phenomenon and the same films can potentially deliver differing messages to different people, either because those people are receptive to different views or because attitudes in general change over time. However one reads the politics of The Searchers, it is undoubtedly a very rich film that perhaps explores the parameters of its genre more thoroughly than does any other individual Western.


Freedman, Jonathan. “The Affect of the Market: Economic and Racial Exchange in The Searchers.” American Literary History 12.3 (Autumn 2000): 585–99.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study. McFarland, 2011.

Lehman, Peter. “Texas 1868/America 1956: The Searchers.” Close Viewings: An Anthology of New Film Criticism. Ed. Peter Lehman. Florida State University Press, 1990. 387–415.

Matheson, Sue. “‘Let’s Go Home, Debbie’: The Matter of Blood Pollution, Combat Culture, and Cold War Hysteria in The Searchers (1956).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 39.2 (2011): 50–58.

Pippin, Robert B. “What Is a Western?: Politics and Self-Knowledge in John Ford’s The Searchers.” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (Winter 2009): 223–53.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.


[1] The newness of these coins suggests that they might have been stolen in one way or another. Meanwhile see Freedman for a discussion of the important role played by these coins in the plot of the film.

[2] The classic Western Vera Cruz (1954), starring Gary Cooper, is set during this conflict, often referred to as the “Franco-Mexican War.”

[3] The Searchers is clearly based on this real historical situation. Many critics have noted that the story bears considerable resemblance to the story of the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, who subsequently spent 24 years with the Comanche, ultimately marrying a chief and bearing him three children before being “rescued” (against her will) by Texas Rangers. However, it seems more accurate to say that the story of the film is partly fictional and partly based on a composite of several different historical narratives, with the Parker story being the most important.

[4] As Slotkin points out, Ethan is a classic example of “the man who knows Indians,” one of the crucial hero types that runs through the entire Western genre (461).

[5] In this sense, it is also important to note that many critics have assumed that the Comanche who had attacked the Edwards homestead (mostly likely Scar himself) might well have raped Martha in the course of killing her. Thus, Ethan has special reasons to hate scar, even aside from the taking of Debbie.

[6] See also Freedman for an argument that Futterman, the treacherous merchant who tries to murder Ethan and Martin in order to steal those Yankee dollars, is coded as Jewish. Freedman also interprets the addle-pated Mose Harper (Hank Worden) as half-black. It should be noted, though, that Harper is a largely positive character whom some have seen as analogous to the Shakespearean fool.

[7] Willing participation as Scar’s wife would presumably make Debbie more “contaminated” (from a racist point of view) than would being raped. As Slotkin points out, real women who were rescued from Indian captivity were typically treated as “pariahs” who had been “sexually and spiritually ‘polluted’ or racially transformed by their intimate contact with Indians” (467). Ethan’s racist/misogynist attitude here, then, would not have been unusual in the nineteenth century.

[8] If this moment makes Scar appear genuinely savage, it is balanced by the moment later in the film in which Ethan scalps Scar, whom Martin has just killed, thus echoing the earlier moment in which he shot out the eyes of the dead Comanche discovered on the trail. Ethan’s scalping of Scar, of course, also provides a reminder that while the Indian practice of taking scalps is well known, white authorities consistently offered bounties for Indian scalps as early as the Pequot War of the 1630s.

[9] This attack seems to put the badly outnumbered white men in an impossible position. Nevertheless, they escape, as the Indians again demonstrate the kind of ineptitude that they typically show in Westerns.

[10] See Lehman for an argument that this will can be taken to suggest that Ethan is Martin’s father, relying partly on the fact that it was Ethan who supposedly “found” the infant Martin.

[11] This ride is accompanied by background music derived from the 1857 song “Lorena,” a particular favorite of Southern soldiers during the Civil War (and one that sounds at several points in the soundtrack). Every detail of The Searchers seems to have been chosen carefully.

[12] See Matheson for a discussion of the significance of Ethan’s inability to join this community.

[13] The Doolittle Report, written in 1954 by Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, depicted communists as implacable enemies bent on the destruction of the United States and recommended that the United States abandon its stated principles in the interest of defeating communism by any means necessary. The fanatical anti-communism of this report clearly has much in common with Ethan’s attitude toward Native Americans.