By all accounts, John Ford’s The Searchers is not only one of the greatest Westerns of all time but one of the greatest films of all time. Indeed, according to the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (TSPDT), it stands as the ninth most-acclaimed movie ever released, and no less an authority than Martin Scorsese has called it one of his favorite films. But what, exactly, makes The Searchers so special?
Taken by itself, the plot doesn’t seem unique. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in an iconic role) is a Confederate veteran who has returned to his home on the Texas frontier — hard country matched only by Ethan’s hard-bitten personality. Clamorous, bigoted, and possibly criminal, Ethan is a poor fit for the homestead of his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), who hopes to quietly go about his work and to provide for a family that includes a son, two daughters, and an adopted son of Native American extract, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). Yet, when a Comanche war party attacks the ranch — Ethan and Martin had been lured away to help round up stolen cattle — tragedy ensues. Most of the family is murdered, and the two girls are taken hostage. Ethan, Martin, and a ragtag bunch of Texas Rangers head out in pursuit of the Comanche band, but, outnumbered and weary, the Rangers give up, thus leaving Ethan and Martin to fend for themselves. Even worse, when the corpse of the oldest daughter is found, it becomes clear that they are the last hope for the youngest girl, Debbie (Natalie Wood).
The tension between the two “searchers” lies at the heart of the film and, along with Ford’s captivating landscapes, accounts for The Searchers‘ reputation. Whereas Martin loves his sister and is hopeful that she can be rescued, Ethan is bent on vengeance. Indeed, he is convinced that, with the passing of time, Debbie has either been murdered or has assimilated into Comanche ways. In either event, she is less important than the killing of her abductor, a Comanche chief known as Scar. Moreover, Ethan swears that, if Debbie has become a Comanche, he will kill her too — a prediction that comes horrifyingly close to being true.
In this way, Ethan emerges as an icon of postlapsarian Adam. The world, in his view, is a cruel, merciless place. It has hurt him, and so he is right to hurt it back. For him, in short, the measure of a man lies in the degree to which he refuses compassion and, instead, imposes his will on others. Yet, when a tip leads Ethan to Scar (and to Debbie) again, he is given a chance to see — at last — another side of life, to bestow mercy instead of seeking revenge.
The German cardinal and theologian, Walter Kasper, has recently argued that the shift from a rigid sense of justice to an excessive, even unfathomable, mercy is central to Christian belief: “[T]he call for mercy surpasses the cry for justice in the Bible. The Bible understands mercy as God’s own justice. Mercy is the heart of the biblical message, not by undercutting justice, but by surpassing it.”
Of course, it would be a stretch to say that Ethan represents such a lofty notion. Nevertheless, in coming to save Debbie, he takes a first step toward redemption, which, in truth, is tantamount to a life in service to mercy. Indeed, it is no accident that Ford’s famous closing shot — his camera peering out from a dark doorway — frames Ethan as he wanders into the light.