And, despite some critical claims, the film is never subtle, not in its technique (from the many irises of light surrounded by the dark of doorframes or caves — geez, what could that symbolize?) nor in its casual and accepted racism. There is a scene where Martin has Look join him in sleep, only to have him kick her down the dune as Ethan laughs heartily. Martin’s remorse when she is later murdered does not mask his bigotry. Also, the racism of Laurie is evident when, as Martin is ready to join Ethan on a final quest for Debbie, she tells him that he should let Ethan kill her, for Debbie’s mother would agree with that. Never is the racism parallaxed, so that critics who see Ford as critiquing its ugliness can point to any proof.
Then there is Wayne, never an actor of grace nor subtlety. Latter day critics cite this as his greatest performance, but since Wayne was not a great actor, by any measure, it’s a fundamentally hollow claim. This performance, compared to other great actors, is not much. Were this sort of role done by a Henry Fonda it would rank as one of his lesser performances. And one merely needs to look at Fonda’s role as the villain in Once Upon A Time In The West to get a real comparison of two very similar characters. In fact, in the two most memorable and revealing close-ups of the two characters in each film, it’s essential to note how the two directors handled it because of their stars.
When Fonda’s character first appears all we get is a steady shot of Fonda’s steely blue eyes, replete with murderous hate. They just penetrate, as Fonda has an ability to act through his eyes alone, and needs no razzle-dazzle to display that fact. When Wayne’s character looks back at a couple of white girls who were kidnapped by Comanches, Ford does not trust Wayne’s ability to be expressive enough to convey his character’s rage and racism. Instead, we get the camera zooming in on Wayne’s eyes - as if to say, ‘Hey, look here. This is an important moment!’ Then, as if that were not enough of a giveaway, he has Wayne’s eyes shadowed under the brim of his hat to say, ‘As we gaze into this character’s soul, note the darkness, dear viewer!’
Never is there a moment in The Searchers where Wayne can break out of his persona and make Ethan a unique creation. His character is just a one dimensional sadist, even if we get hints that he has possibly bedded down with a few squaws himself — racists are hardly known for following their own codes to the letter. For instance, he shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche, so that he will ‘wander forever’ and never reach his version of Heaven, and then he sadistically shoots many buffaloes just so that the Comanches will not be able to live off their meat through the winter. Then again, why would Ford want him to? ‘John Wayne’ was box office, and John Wayne - not Ethan Edwards - is really the main character of The Searchers. Yet, Ford never pushed Wayne to make Ethan go over the top, so that the story actually could be claimed as a meta-film, critiquing Wayne or what he represents, filmically or politically.