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Themes of Extremism, Revenge and Manifest Destiny in “The Searchers” by John Ford: Analytical Essay

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Creative decision in “The Searchers” (1956) John Ford Film makers use various cinematographic techniques and attach special attributes to characters with the aim of passing their intended message in an emphatic manner. The Searchers is a 1956 film directed by John Ford that carries such a strong message on the themes. The film, based on a 1954 novel by Alan Le May is set to depict the Texan-Indian wars in the late 1860s. Ethan Edwards, a civil war veteran has returned home to find a raid by the Comache- a Native American tribe who has taken Ethan’s niece.

This story carries the themes of extremism, revenge and manifest destiny. The director uses costuming, The main theme of the story is that of manifest destiny. There is brutality and ugliness in several scenes in the film as several people lose their lives. To begin with Edward’s home has been set ablaze and three people have been killed- Aaron, his wife Martha and son Ben while two more – Debbie and Lucy have been abducted. The scene is a mess and shows the violent nature of the Comaches. As Ethan and his men pursue the attackers, they come across a burial site for some of the Comaches who had taken part in the raid.

Ethan mutilates one of the bodies in what comes across as a gory sight. More people are killed when Ethan and his men try to fight the Indians. Eventually they find Lucy brutally murdered. Further, Ethan kills Futterman who had trying to steal his money. Further Martin kills Scar. In all, many people are killed in fearsome attacks that leave the viewer with the perception of the casual killings between the first European settlers on US soil with the Native Indians. The director uses a Technicolor marvel in different shades of grey as well as a revisionist take to carry the theme of manifest destiny. The dull lighting and use of colors in the grey to black range depicts death, blood and revenge. The film carries the message that the transformation of America’s untamed lands was a tough conquest. It was a matter that brought death, desperation and savagery to all- the settlers and the natives.

Ethan, the protagonist has been depicted to be as conquered by the losses of key family members and friends as the antagonist-Scar who eventually dies. Ethan belongs to the untamed confederacy adherents who had to be dealt with before the settlers could fully focus on taming the indigenous tribes in a manner that they succeeded in taking away land and settling in the country permanently. As such, the depiction of Ethan and his men as lacking in considerable wisdom, caution and tactics shows that the group was unwanted and never meant to deliver the land to incoming settlers. The second theme that the directors and producers showed in the film is that of revenge. Many characters in the film have been fashioned as vengeful people ready to anything to achieve evenness with those that cross them.

Scar is presented as being fond of killing whites for revenge on the brutality that the confederates mete out to the Natives. He kidnaps white children out of revenge. Ethan also pursues the kidnappers largely not to rescue the girl but to revenge. Further, the owner of a trading post also plans to revenge and make a profit from killing Martin and Ethan whom he alleged had ill treated him. The director take the issue of revenge further when he depicts Laurie as having agreed to marry a person she never loved because she wanted to revenge on martin for marrying an Indian girl. The third theme is that of extremism.

The director has succeeded in using the extremism of a few people to stereotype entire communities and cultures. Scar and Ethan were both extremists on either side with the former representing the natives and the latter the confederates. The director has made the men leaders of their respective people and they both lack in patience, reason and tact with each rushing to kill. Just as Ethan ought not to carry the burden as the ultimate representative of all the confederates so should Scar also not be the symbol of all Native Americans. The directors have used several issues to support the three themes. First, the film opens with the words of Stan Jones from the song What makes a man to Wander? These words define the quest for lone men to wander, search and conquer the Wild West.

The song goes “what makes a man to wander, what makes a man to roam?…and turn his back on home?” (AMC Filmsite ). This song is followed by a black screen before the words “Texas 1868” appear as a depiction of the darkness of the time. As the film opens with a cabin door opening to show the frontier all is there for the viewers to get swallowed into al the happenings in the film. There is the stunning red beauty of the rock formations of the Monument Valley in what presents the wilderness as inviting yet dangerous and hence laying emphasis on the “searching” aspect depicted in the film’s title. While he inside of the cabin represented civilization, love for humanity and family values, the outside stood for brutality, danger, lack of civilization and adventure.

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The sunny outdoors shows a savage and threatening world. As such, the cinematographic depictions of the frontier as isolated, beautiful, dangerous, and adventurous are critical in carrying all three themes whilst being one of several creative decisions by the filmmaker. The director has used Western Genre conventions in the film. John Ford (1895-1973) the film’s director was one of America’s greatest Chronicler’s of American history. Some of his films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Citizen Kane were once cited as the best American films. Having worked on his first film in 1914, he had massive experience on how to direct films especially those dealing with the American conquest and transformation of the Wild West. Ford was unrivalled in his ability to depict the wild west especially the Monument Valley. He loved camping out in the area with crew and cast eating and sleeping in chuck wagons and tents. Indeed, the making of a Ford movie about the Western frontier almost always amounted to living like a Western for all involved in its production. As such, the director’s strong attachment to the West bonded well with the depictions on the topography which further makes it more believable that the characters displayed by Ethan, Scar and others were all authentic.

The director has an eye for bold, sure and iconic shots that become the backbone on which the film remains to be treasured. In a funeral scene early on the film there is a wagon lying towards the right while a group of mourners are gathered at the middle left as they head diagonally to a hill that bore the grave. The group sings a sorrowful hymn Shall we gather at the river. Further there is another iconic scene where there was a search party for the girl in a deserted valley with the Indians riding parallel to the settlers with the Indians silhouetted against the sky. Further, an adult Debbie upon being found is seen running down a sand dune leaving Ethan behind. Ethan doesn’t see her. These unique moments in the film make it special, authentic and a masterpiece in showcasing life as it was in the 1860s and beyond as the conquest of the Wild West went on. The director has also used the postwar context of making racism a common theme in films.

In The Searcher, Ford was trying or nervously depicting some sort of racism which led to the justification of the genocide meted out on the native Indians. It is slightly hard to notice but Ethan was racist. He ill treated Aaron’s adopted son Martin Pawley who was part (eighth) a Cherokee. The boy was an orphan and whom Ethan had saved from an Indian massacre and was raised up in Ethan’s family. Ethan takes note that the body does some things as a distinct native Indian would such as riding a horse on bareback and leaping off the horse. As he bursts into the doorway, it is clear that he is seen an in intruder into the white family. Ethan continually becomes prejudiced and shows hatred racism, intolerance and abuse towards the boy because of his mixed heritage. Indeed the director depicts Ethan at some point as sitting in a rocking chair facing a fire all alone. The scene presents Ethan as hard and guarded with some mystery that shows that he does not understand or accept the society around him. He wanted life for himself. The scene is reminiscent of the tug of war between what was happening in postwar America. Or after the American Civil War that had ended only three years to the years depicted in the film.

After the American Civil War and the subsequent changes such as the abolition of slavery as well as a number of changes in the country’s political structure, many people were left in a situation similar to Ethan. They did not know how to deal with white supremacy that had been the order of the day before. As such, the late 1860s have been subtly depicted as a time for self-reflection on racial relations with the majority of the whites feeling aggrieved at the disruptions in the social order originally established. There is a major stylistic component adopted in the film- satire and irony. Whilst many would be of the view that the ex-confederate soldier goes after the Comanche to rescue the girl and kill her abductors there is a twist. Ethan relentlessly pursues her beloved niece ready to die in the way with the intention of killing her because he considered her to have been tainted by being an adoptee among Native Indians!

The discovery of this irony dawning upon a viewer brings a heightened level of anxiety and tension as all await to see what Ethan would do were he o successfully meet his niece. Ethan states, “living with the Comanche ain’t living” (Ford, 1956). Ethan’s intention slowly and surely becomes clear as the story goes on and his hatred for the Indians and all that is associated with them becomes clear. At some point he shoots the eye out of an Indian corpse because he wanted the man’s soul to allegedly wander endlessly in the vast desert. Ethan goes further to learn some beliefs about the Indians so that he could hurt them further. As such, it slowly dawns on the viewers that were Ethan to find his beloved niece Debbie he would kill her and try to justify that by claiming that she was tainted.

People are used to seeing the protagonist emerge as the ultimate hero who does all that was supposed to be done though they me come out bruised and badly hurt. However in this case, the audience is confused on how to treat Ethan. He is set to become an anti-hero because it becomes clearer as the film goes on that he would kill Debbie his niece once he had “rescued her”! This is a classic stylistic setting where even the director, producer and the crew were unsure of how the audience would react to Ethan. Would the unfolding acts culminating in the murder of Debbie wreck the main character? As such the movie has one of the most intense plots that heightens massive tension towards the film’s ending. Eventually, Ethan seems not to have met Debbie who is brought to the Jorgensen ranch and reunites with Martin and Laurie with Ethan not in sight. The film falls into a category that has a significant following in America and the world- films with the plot of a cowboy trying to save a loved one who has been captured by Native Indians. Though largely a common plot, the film is unique in its own special way.

The screenwriter- Frank Nugent tool classic elements such as roaming cowboys, sweeping landscapes and Indian shootouts not necessarily to have them engage in battle-though they do but to explore the frontiers. The film showed why lobe cowboys would often go all out in the quest to rescue a loved one from the savage Natives. That reason is carried by Ethan who showed deep hatred for the natives that he would rather go it all alone and do that which hatred and ego makes him do rather than go in a group and tale time deliberating and even sympathizing with the natives. The 1956 classic film The Searchers by Ford makes use of several issues such as post war setting, stylistic devices, Western Genre conventions and an interpretation of themes to carry forward its message. The film is set to capture the Western frontier at the time of American conquest of the Midwest and Western states originally inhabited by the native Indians. The film carries the stereotypes of confederates being brutal racists as exemplified by the main protagonist Ethan while the natives are also depicted as brutal as shown by Scar. Overall the film successfully carries the themes of revenge, extremism and manifest destiny.

Works Cited

  1. AMC Filmsite . The Searchers (1956). 2019. 22 January 2019 .
  2. Ford John. The Searchers. (1956).

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Themes of Extremism, Revenge and Manifest Destiny in “The Searchers” by John Ford: Analytical Essay. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
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