When first asked to write a blog about my favorite Western film, the Lays Potato Chips slogan, "betcha can't eat just one," flashed into my mind.
At the top of my list is John Ford's The Searchers, a 1956 film ahead of its time.
When I first saw the film, I felt a little off-balance watching Wayne's Ethan Edwards.
The valley is a stand-in for a story that takes place in west Texas in 1868. The landscape plays as integral a role in the film as the actors. Its rugged beauty, utter vastness, and emptiness befits Wayne's vengeful character.
In The Searchers, Wayne delivers Ethan Edwards as an imperfect protagonist--a dark, brooding, mysterious loner whose eyes and words reflect his undisguised hatred of Indians.
The nephew, by the way, is one-eighth Cherokee. In yet another plot twist, we learn that Ethan was never comfortable with Martin being a part of the brother's family even though Ethan is the one who found Martin when he was abandoned as an infant.
She meets her uncle and half-brother outside the camp and tells them to leave without her because she has become Comanche. Blinded by rage, Ethan tries to shoot her, but Martin shields her from harm.
Ethan is wounded by an Indian arrow, but the two manage to escape, Martin saves his uncle by tending to the wound, but is furious at Ethan's attempt to kill Debbie, and wishes his uncle dead. "That'll be the day," Ethan responds.
We realize Ethan's commitment to rescue Debbie isn't for any humanitarian reason. He feels compelled to kill her because she has become "the leaven's of a Comanche buck."
Clayton plans a direct attack, but allows Martin to sneak in and rescue Debbie, who welcomes him. Martin ends up killing Scar.
Ethan provides the finishing touch by scalping the Comanche leader.
When Debbie sees Ethan, she tries to escape, and he gives chase. Martin is unable to intervene.
This sounds too tidy. Too simplistic. Ethan Edwards, as far as I'm concerned, is far too conflicted for such a neat one-sentence conclusion. Emotions - pain, loneliness, revenge and hate - don't change or vanish with a snap of a finger.
Debbie's rescue provides no evidence Ethan's racist views toward Indians changed in any way.
Ford, in several scenes, reveals that atrocities committed by the Indians fueled Ethan's hatred and thirst for revenge. Sixteen years earlier, Ethan's own mother was massacred by Comanches.
At the same time, Scar's viciousness stems from his own appetite for revenge: "Two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many . . . scalps."
Ford's symmetrical closing of The Searchers reflects the film's opening.
Does the healing process begin for Ethan? Maybe or maybe not. I doubt it.
The Searchers enjoyed box-office success. The American Film Institute named it the Greatest American Western of all time, even though it received no major Academy Award nominations.
For some strange reason, the New York Times, in a June 12, 1979, obituary of John Wayne, never once mentioned his role in The Searchers. How it could be ignored is baffling.
This is merely a Cliff notes version of The Searchers. There is so much more to this story and the characters who star in its telling.
Last Stand At Bitter Creek,
Finalist: Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award, Best Western First Novel