Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
Even though the film was not nominated for any Academy Awards, The Searchers (1956) remains one of the cinema’s most revered movies. Directed by John Ford, the film depicts the decade-long search of Ethan Edwards for his niece, who the Comanche Indians kidnapped when she was a small girl.
The film is superbly directed, with the final scene being the most powerful. The scene is framed through the black edges of a door, and we see the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house in order to gain entrance to society. Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, stands momentarily at the door, considering his options. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards, played by Natalie Wood, to the porch. She is walked through the door with the Jorgensen family and to rejoin the community. Edwards steps towards the door but then moves back when a couple, Martin Pawley, who traveled with him and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway. They seem content in each other’s company, and it seems certain they would marry. Edwards then looks through the door, hesitates and eventually turns his back to the door, which swings shut – barring him from entry.
Earlier in the film, Edwards had shot out the eyes of an Indian corpse, cursing him to walk between the winds for eternity. In the final scene, the wind picks up, and dust swirls around him as he walks away. It appears that the curse has now returned to haunt him. After his heroism in returning his niece, he exiles himself from the community he longs to join. Even after repeated viewings, it carries a massive emotional punch, and this scene is rightly celebrated. Its impact can be seen in films and TV shows to the present day.
The most recent reworking was in the film News of the World (2020), based on Paulette Jiles’ novel. It is the story of a man’s efforts to return a child abducted by Indians to her original family. The parallels between the two films are obvious. Like Edwards, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a former member of the Confederate Army. Unlike Edwards, Kidd has surrendered to the Union forces and signed a loyalty oath. Edwards did not sign the loyalty oath. Kidd is also a cultured and caring man who suffers for his involvement in the war. Edwards is a borderline psychopath who delights in killing – particularly Indians.
Like Ford’s film, members of the child’s family are killed with severe violence, and the films are linked by their depiction of a ransacked home where its pioneer residents are slaughtered. Star Wars (1977) used similar imagery when Luke Skywalker returned to the house of his step-family. News of the World even duplicates a shot out of a window frame that could almost be lifted from The Searchers’ visual style. But it is a story with a revisionist view of the American west – far different from John Ford’s work.
In News of the World, the Kiowa Indians are no brute savages, and the little girl wants to remain with them. The Kiowa is the only community that shows Kidd some kindness in his efforts to return the child to her family – they give him a horse in a sand storm that saves their lives. In contrast, the white community will slaughter almost anyone, and some are quite prepared to sell off or abuse the child.
The child in News of the World is not comfortable in the world of the white people. Her biological family is cruel and uncaring, and she has no place there. Her rightful family is the Kiowa, but they have been killed or are roaming the plains. Like the cursed Indian in The Searchers, she is between both worlds. When the child is returned to her family in News of the World, we find that she does not seamlessly return to white civilization, and another solution must be found.
Scenes from the Searchers continue to crop up in various films and TV shows. In a flashback, the newly minted police officer, Jackson Brodie in the TV series Case Histories, finds a lost child in a field of long grass and raises her above him, in an almost identical shot to John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood, after searching for her for a decade. In the same episode, but in later years, returning as a hero, Brodie approaches a house with his potential girlfriend, and he is offered entry, but he walks away. Rejecting the home, Brodie is firmly in the mould of Ethan Edwards.
A reworking of the scene also occurred in Steven Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds (2005), the hero Tom Cruise returns his children to their natural mother, with whom he had previously separated. Set against an alien invasion, the film shows Cruise – who is a poor father – doing all he can to save his children. In bringing back his children, he had reunited the family and sent them through the door of their home. He seems content to have them return to their mother and her new partner and then begins to walk away. Unlike Ford’s version, Cruise is called back to rejoin the family unit – their arguments and disagreements appearing trivial compared to the carnage they had endured.
Intentionally or not, all these films touch on the ancient Greek myth of Hercules. The demi-God was capable of immense feats of bravery and strength, but Hercules was also capable of destructive acts of rage against those close to him. Edwards, at one point, is hell bent on killing his niece. Such a figure can be seen throughout western literature. Ford took the basic myth and refashioned it, in the simple context of a cowboy and Indians western. Film-makers continue to reinterpret the myth and employ Ford’s imagery.
 Among those who noted the similarity are: Devin Farci, In Defense Of Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, 19 February 2019, accessed at https://birthmoviesdeath.com/2013/02/19/in-defense-of-spielbergs-war-of-the-worlds on 9 March 2021.
 Eugene Wraith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden. Columbia University Press, 1962. In another vein, Richard Rowland has looked at the destructive side of the myth in Killing Hercules: Deianira and the Politics of Domestic Violence, from Sophocles to the War on Terror. Rowland asks why have artists across two millennia felt compelled to revisit this particular myth to examine violence?