(excerpt from chapter 3 of The Secret Life of Movies, on John Ford's The Searchers)
It’s not easy to like something you know nothing about.
—The Man with No Name, on “peace,” A Fistful of Dollars
The Western movie hero has generally been the
Ethan has rejected the solace and companionship of family, while his brother Aaron has married and reared several children. At the start of the movie, Ethan arrives at Aaron’s ranch after three years of wandering. Ethan, we soon realize, is in love with Aaron’s wife, Martha, and we are given to understand (through Ford’s delicate and assured directorial touches) that Martha loves and desires Ethan. We can only presume that it is Ethan’s commitment to solitude, his refusal to be “reigned in,” that made Ethan and Martha (or Ethan and any woman) an impossible match, and that consequently drove Martha into the arms of Aaron, the family man. As a result of this, perhaps, Ethan secretly smolders with jealousy and resentment for his brother Aaron, possibly even harboring an unconscious desire to see him dead so that he might claim Martha for his own. If so, Aaron (Abel to Ethan’s Cain) is the first suggestion of Ethan’s dual-personality, the split in his psyche.
Aaron embodies (both symbolically and literally) the conflict between Ethan’s desire and (what he presumably sees as) his duty, a duty not only to his brother, but also to his true nature, that of solitary man. His jealousy reveals that Ethan is divided against himself, having denied his sexual (procreative) instincts. Perhaps he believes he does this out of loyalty to his brother, from a desire not to come between Aaron and Martha, but it seems doubtful if family duty alone would be enough to repress Ethan’s powerful desire for Martha. Aaron represents all that Ethan has denied in himself, and as such is a threat to his peace of mind as much as a comfort for his soul (by being with him he can experience Martha vicariously, as her brother-in-law). At the same time, by refusing to admit his jealousy and hostility for Aaron, even to himself, and by doing the decent thing and repressing his desire for Martha (remaining passive), his soul is oppressed by longing. Just being around the happy family is a source of anguish to him, as evidenced by what follows.
If Wayne himself claimed the role of Ethan to be his personal favorite, presumably this was above all because it afforded him with a rare opportunity to act. But, besides being a fair bit more brooding, moody, and obsessive than his other roles, Ethan is to all intents and appearances the same
As Ethan’s shadow, his doppelganger, Scar acts out his repressed nature. This is overtly suggested in the movie by details such as both men speaking the other’s language, and by matching shots of Ethan and Scar (at different times) standing over a submissive Debbie. Both men wish to “take her in,” both wish to possess her physically, even though Scar acts where Ethan forbears. It is significant that, unlike what the standard revenge format would normally demand, it is not Ethan himself who kills Scar, but Debbie’s half brother (and half-Indian at that), Marty. In fact, Ethan is not even present to witness it. There is no suggestion that Ethan is denied the pleasure of revenge, either. He seems primarily preoccupied with Debbie, and apparently it is enough that Scar die. Ethan does not need the satisfaction of killing him.
Ethan’s hatred of Scar is leavened by an awareness of their essential affinity, their sameness. Ethan does not hate Scar so much as what he stands for and, above all, what he has done. It is his acts that he reviles, above all because they reflect Ethan’s own secret desires. Ethan’s hatred of Scar for destroying what he held most sacred is mixed up with envy for not having done it himself, for not having had the freedom to do so. If Scar is wanton sexuality and unbridled savagery (absence of repression), Ethan is restrained desire. He is self-disciplined, but the fetters of civilization weigh heavy upon him. As such, neither man can exist without the other: without repression there can be no civilization, and without savagery (pure instinct), there is nothing to civilize, nothing to repress. As complementary forces, Ethan and Scar are equals on equal ground, and recognize one another as essentially complicit. They are both warriors, hunters, men of proud individuality. The key difference between them, besides the manner in which they treat dogs (Ethan is seen patting a dog and Scar throwing a stone at one), is that Scar (like Aaron) is a family man, ironically enough the one thing Ethan can never be. And what a bitter irony it is for Ethan to see that, for all the savagery of his soul, Scar has attained what he can only dream of: a sense of belonging.
There can be little doubt with all this in mind that Ethan feels a deep and tormenting (because inadmissible to his conscience) envy for Scar and his lifestyle, especially since he can never knuckle down to being a house-husband himself (like his brother Aaron). The polygamous arrangements of Scar, in which the husband has many (non-clinging) wives who raise his many kids while he gets to hunt and fight the white man, must be painfully appealing to Ethan. Such an arrangement could only seem like the perfect solution, if only he were not blinded by social conditioning and crippled by repression. This is the essence of the schizophrenic experience: the battle between reason and atavism, between repression and instinct, civilization and savagery. What is remarkable about The Searchers is that it parallels the external, dramatic conflict (that of cowboys and Indians) with an internal, psychological conflict at the heart of its protagonist: Ethan’s tormented psyche is seen to reflect, not just vaguely but precisely, the genocidal chaos taking place in the nation.
The final, famous shot of the film has Ethan framed in the doorway of the family home, seen from the inside, the open desert behind him. He pauses for a moment, as if deliberating, then turns and slopes off into the desert; the door closes and he is swallowed up in darkness. The image is one of the most poignant and eloquent in the history of movies, and sums up all the loneliness and longing of the Western hero. A man of violence cannot opt for peace, any more than a wild cat can live on daisies—without denying his very nature. He can respect it, admire it even, and fight to defend and uphold it. But he can never enjoy it.