Welcome to my page of notes on John Ford's famous film starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter.
Aaron Edwards and most of his family have been attacked and kidnapped or killed in a Comanche raid. Ethan (John Wayne), Aaron's brother, accompanied by a young family friend Martin Pawley, set out on what will become an epic search for Ethan's niece, Debbie.
One of the central themes, and the one which underpins all others, is family. Family provides security and purpose in spite of all hardships as members of the various families seen in the film pull together to survive, support one another (in spite of superficial bickering), and to make something of their difficult lives. Family life is certainly idealised, though within acceptable limits, and here the hard-working, principled and devoted family members are likely to be regarded as "normal", with recognisable relationships, traits and quirks.
Men are seen as practical and hard-working providers offering home and physical security, while women are clearly the driving force providing comfort and guidance. Men are also seen as somewhat tongue-tied and clumsy in matters of love, while women are clear-headed and show common sense.
Love, in several different forms, is also one of the main driving forces behind the action - be it love in the form of family devotion, friendship or youthful passion, love propels most of the characters and indeed may be seen as the very reason for all of Ethan's woes as love has brought him into conflict with family values and devotion.
Ethan loves his brother Aaron's wife and she is in love with him. Nothing is said or explained, but it is clear through a series of gestures, looks and silences that there is a strong bond of affection between them. Similarly, Ethan's hatred of Comanches is never fully explained, though we may impute considerable and perhaps awful experience, given his detailed knowledge of their ways.
The fact is, however, that the roots of Ethan's rage and racist hatred may lie not so much in his experience with them, but even more fundamentally in his deeply felt but impossible love for Martha, his brother's wife. Just as love can lead to happiness and fulfilment, so its deprivation can lead to feelings of discontent, non-fulfilment and then resentment.
Ethan Edwards is a driven man - driven away by an impossible love as a result of which he must choose between hurting himself or others, driven by principle which led him to put others before himself, and finally driven by bitterness and resentment which have eaten away at him as he has lost not just his love and his family, but also the beloved nation he fought to defend.
Having lost his country and his very way of life, with no-one to offer comfort or commitment, Ethan allows himself to be so overwhelmed by anger and bitterness that he questions the very values he (presumably) set out to defend and (it is suggested) he commits criminal acts including robbery and perhaps even murder.
In the intervening period between his departure and his return we may assume, through his knowledge of Comanche ways, that apart from participating in the Civil War, he has been an Indian fighter and a hunter, among various other possible occupations. It has been suggested that his behaviour and entire manner are due to some innate racism, and while it is undoubtedly true that he displays racist attitudes, it should be pointed out that Ethan is equally dismissive of virtually everyone and whatever values they live by - be it Indians, his own brother (with whom he is decidedly tetchy at the start of the film), the Reverend, the army or traders. Ethan is equally disillusioned with them all. It is not so much that he is cynical, more that he has lost the edge of idealism and sees things clearly.
It would be easy to write Ethan off as ruled by hatred and negativity, suspicious and dismissive of everything, but how did he arrive at this point?
I would suggest that the answer to that question lies in the profound dissatisfaction coupled with a sense of loss and pointlessness arising from the situation with Martha. His emptiness and resentment undoubtedly led to a loss of direction and then rebellion - rebellion against life itself. Perhaps by putting himself in harm's way he hoped to put an end to his emptiness, but his anger was greater than his despair and this fuelled his spirit, leading him ever farther down the path of disillusionment and bitterness.
Now, after his return, the loss of his brother, his brother's two older children and of course the woman he loved, only serves to compound that anger and bitterness, though now they are crystallised into a single purpose (to retrieve his niece) and a single object of hate or channel for all his feelings (Comanche chief Scar).
Ethan's sense of loyalty to family (and perhaps the fact that the kidnapped Debbie is the daughter of the woman he loved) fuels his determination to find Debbie and save her from life with the Comanches. This search becomes an obsession and provides his whole purpose for living. He channels all his energy and efforts into finding the girl, aided by the younger and much more idealistic Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).
Together they strike a good, if somewhat uneasy, balance between experience and idealism. Martin represents hope and faith (in the sense of confidence in their purpose and a positive attitude), while Ethan is the world-weary existential "realist" all too willing to see the worst in people. Neither would be successful in achieving their purpose without the other.
Ethan, however, becomes almost consumed by the search for Debbie, so much so that he appears to lose sight of the very reason for their search, and indeed of himself, as the anger, hatred and effort he uses to fulfil his purpose become more important than his objective. As a result, because Debbie has lived as a Comanche, he no longer regards her as his niece and makes it clear he would prefer to kill her, as he would any other Comanche.
Strongly enigmatic, Ethan is not a pleasant man, yet we want and hope that he will find some happiness. Perhaps because we have some understanding of his situation (even if we don't approve of his attitudes), and we admire his determination to find Debbie, we feel there is a good man beneath the gruff facade, and we want him to find some way to release that other man.
In the end it is idealism that saves Debbie (in the shape of Martin Pawley), though this would not have been possible without Ethan's grim determination. Ethan cannot bring himself to kill Debbie - perhaps he sees Martha in her as he comes face to face with her, or perhaps he has found some common humanity. Like many events in the film, this is not explained and this may be one reason for the film's enduring popularity. It invites people to ponder over Ethan's motives and reasons. It also suggests, perhaps, that people's actions cannot be fully and logically explained.
At the end of the film we are left with what must be one of the most famous shots in cinema history, and one which says far more in a few seconds of wordless movements, gestures and framing than pages of dialogue could put across.
Ethan was and is a loner. An outsider. Searching for Debbie gave him a purpose, and that purpose is now fulfilled. Now he must face the nothingness of his normality, while the others return to their normality. He is an outsider whose dogged determination based on bitterness and hatred meant that he was what was needed in extreme circumstances, but there is no place for him in "normal" life. If Ethan had managed to let go of his rage and bitterness they would probably not have succeeded in finding Debbie, yet these very qualities mean that he has essentially become a social outcast.
There are striking resemblances between Ethan and Scar, the Comanche chief responsible for Debbie's kidnap. Both are driven by a desire for revenge after an acute sense of loss and grief (in Scar's case, the killing of his sons in a massacre perpetrated by white men), and both are prone to sweeping generalisations, holding entire races responsible for the woes that have befallen them. Toward the end, Ethan even scalps Scar's dead body, showing that each is as bad as the other.
Racist hatred and a blind desire for revenge may provide a powerful driving force, but one which is nothing but destructive. Surely the suggestion here is that as long as this cycle of hatred and revenge continues, social and moral progress is not possible.
Hope is offered in the shape of Martin Pawley who is willing to move on and put the past behind him. Perhaps men like Ethan and Scar were needed at one time, in certain circumstances, but as time and circumstances change, so they must change or withdraw in order to allow progress to take place.
Beautifully photographed and produced, the film remains enigmatic, perhaps, as suggested above, because not everything is fully explained and so we, the audience, are more engaged as a result.
Exciting, emotional, thought-provoking and even humorous (a phenomenal achievement, to be able to mix what amounts to tragedy with comic undertones!), the film is a monument to the talents of all those involved, and the fact that it has endured in the memories and affections of so many for some fifty years is surely the greatest testament to quality any film can receive.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some value.
I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss the film itself or this page of notes. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .