John Ford's The Searchers is based on a very simple straightforward story of a man's search for his niece, who has been abducted by Indians. Yet, what makes the film an undoubtedly great masterpiece is that it succeeds in exploring the conflicting emotions within a human being that result in moral dilemmas and a personality full of contradictions, within the ambit of such a simple plot. The film accomplishes this through unraveling the character of Ethan Edwards, its central protagonist, as its story progresses. Thus, The Searchers, through the vehicle of its hero, makes a strong statement about the fact that the potential for tragedy lies in "...a pulling apart within the personality, a disturbance...of integration. The character is not 'one' but divided...the tragic experience, whether in art or in life...." (Heilman, 7)
Ford's intention behind The Searchers is, in fact, made pretty clear at the very start of the film, judging by the manner in which the very credits and the opening scene that follows are set up to establish that Ethan Edwards is a wanderer and loner. The credits, for example, are displayed before the backdrop of a brick wall, accompanied by the words of the ballad "What Makes a Man to Wander." The very choice of the brick wall represents home and hearth while the accompanying lyrics raise the question of "...what makes a man leave bed and board / And turn his back on home...." Thus, the note is set for the theme that follows of not just Ethan's search for his abducted niece and revenge on his family's killers, but the fact that personality issues can often lead to a man becoming a loner and wanderer. Indeed, the latter is evident given the shots that immediately follow the opening credits. The screen goes black and the super 'Texas 1868" appears, dissolving to the opening shot of the film of a frontier cabin door being opened. The door opening acts as a frame to reveal the contrast between the sheltered world inside and the wilderness outside. The darkness inside the cabin and the light outside also allows the camera to track the silhouetted figure of a woman from behind as she walks through the door into the open, and the deep field composition of the shot simultaneously shows the audience the figure of a man riding towards the cabin. The purpose of this whole mise-en-scene, with the use of the framed door as a visual metaphor, to place Ethan as a wanderer and an outsider is made evident by the shots that follow in the scene, which introduce the various members of Ethan's family and further place in context Ethan's period of absence from home. Aaron (Ethan's brother) comes out of the house to join the woman (his wife, Martha) and steps down from the porch asking, "Ethan?" As Martha and Aaron's children, Lucy, Ben and Debbie also join them and take places on the porch, the camera keeps cutting back and forth, in a personified action, between views of Ethan and the expectant faces of the waiting family. Lucy tells her brother, Ben, "That's your Uncle Ethan." And all through this action, the underlying soundtrack plays Lorena, a song that expresses lost love left at home, as a fitting accompaniment, leaving absolutely no doubt about the fact that Ethan has come home after a long time.
Though the opening shot and scene is clearly meant to establish Ethan as a wanderer, the scene that follows reveals that the wanderer is not bereft of family feeling. By doing so, the film sets up the viewer to reflect on the tragedy of a person whose wandering is perhaps prompted by the fact that he is a loner who suffers from an inability to bond with family, though he may desire it. The scene in question uses dialogue and visual expression to show that Ethan, a Confederate soldier, has been away from home without any explanation or information of his whereabouts even though a period of three years had passed since the resolution of the Civil War. The fact that Ethan has just returned from a rather prolonged absence leads him to mistake Aaron and Martha's younger daughter Debbie for Lucy. As he lifts her high into the air above his head, she tells him, "I'm Deborah. There's Lucy over there." In one fell swoop, within the content of an individual shot, the viewer is made to feel that a wanderer can never really be part of a family though he may reach out to family bonds every now and then. This is achieved through Debbie's words, which show Ethan's inability to recognize his nieces correctly while he is in the very act of demonstrating his affection. Yet, Ethan himself seems oblivious to the implication and his inability to connect to his family is revealed in his evading Aaron's questions about his brother's whereabouts during his time away. When Aaron tries to probe through asking, "How was California," Ethan retorts, "California? How should I know? No, I ain't been to California. I don't intend to go either." He answers but fails to satisfy his brother's curiosity by refusing to elaborate. And thus fails to understand that sharing personal information is important in creating strong ties with family.
Ethan's conflicting emotions vis-a-vis family ties is further expressed through a visually poignant scene the same night of his homecoming, which frames Ethan alone on the porch with just the family dog for company. Expressionism is used here to suggest Ethan's immediate feelings with his face carrying a sad reflective look, exemplified by his watching Aaron take Martha into their bedroom and closing the door for the night. This scene too uses the visual metaphor of the doorframe to signify that Ethan is a loner, an outsider to his own family. The meaning in this shot is inherent in its very composition as Ethan is shown looking back into the house through the doorframe and is made doubly meaningful in Aaron's action of shutting their bedroom door, thereby effectively shutting out both Ethan and the night. The symbolic use of the doors in the same expressive space that focuses on Ethan's sad, lonely figure speaks volumes about Ford's idea about the conflicts within a loner and wanderer.
The very next day, events transpire that unravel other dimensions to Ethan's personality to show a man who is not just a loner but also one with immense strength of character. A posse is formed to track down cattle rustlers or Indians who have stolen some cattle from the neighboring Jorgenson ranch. In the scene where the posse discovers the slaughtered but not eaten cattle, Ethan unemotionally informs everyone that in his judgment, the cattle were only a ploy to divert attention from a murder raid by the Comanches: "Stealin' the cattle was just to pull us out. This is a murder raid." The lack of emotion is demonstrated by Ethan's choice of words and his even tone of voice. The horrifying implication of what he says is, however, driven home by the way in which their voices are heard echoing off the towering sandstone walls that frame the visual scene surrounding them. Ethan's unemotional observation is further accentuated by Lars Jorgenson's reaction as he breaks down and rides off in frantic panic: "Oh please God. Please no!" Marty (Aaron's part-Cherokee, adopted son saved years earlier by Ethan from an Indian slaughter), too, gallops off in blind fear, despite Ethan's advice to stay back and first rest his horse. While, no doubt, the first reaction of the audience to Ethan's calmness and passivity in the face of impending disaster would be to pass judgment about his lack of emotional involvement with his family, the scene progresses to a shot, which shows that such a hasty conclusion would be a mistake. In one of the few close-ups of Ethan's face in the film, he is seen standing over his horse, with an anguished expression, quite obviously thinking about the possibility that his family could well be the target of an impending Comanche raid. Ethan, too, could well have rushed off, like Lars and Marty, to try and protect his family. Instead, the very fact that he is able to control his emotions and choose between impulse and imperative, in this particular scene, shows him to be a strong person who is conscious of his choices.
Unfortunately, the same Ethan who displays the fact that he has the strength to avoid choices based purely on emotional impulse also possesses the ability to fall prey to the weakness of doing so. And it is this dichotomy in his character that makes him into a tragic figure: "...impulse is open to challenge, judgment...imperative is not. Impulse originates in, is rooted in...the individual personality." (Heilman, 13) This aspect to Ethan's personality is brought into play when he discovers that Chief Scar and his Comanches have abducted his two nieces after murdering the rest of his family. He sets…