In the first shot of the film, we see Martha Edwards walking out of the darkness of her home to welcome Ethan, who is walking towards the house from the desert, the majestic horizon of the American West as his backdrop. This image symbolizes the family opening their home to the wildness of the land, and the settler's plight more broadly. Then at the end, when Ethan and Marty do what they have set out to do, and return Debbie to the Jorgensens' farm, we see the Jorgensens waiting for the "searchers" on their front porch, an echo of the very first shot. The image signifies that the family is being reconstituted, and the characters can return to the safety of the family home.
Marty's Mother's Scalp (Symbol)
When Ethan and Marty go into Scar's tent, Scar shows them the scalps that he has taken from his enemies. Later, when Marty wants to continue trying to save Debbie from the Comanche, Ethan tells him that the scalp that they saw in Scar's teepee belonged to his mother. Ethan wants Marty to see the violence and horrible deeds of Scar for what they are. This does not deter Marty, however, who continues to want to save Debbie.
Ethan returns to the Edwards' home with his saber from the war and gives it to his nephew, Ben. After the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers turned in their sabers as a sign of surrender, but Ethan did not. By not doing so, Ethan indicates that he has not given up on the war. He is still a Confederate soldier, fighting for white supremacy. It also symbolizes Ethan's stubbornness and steely individualism; he does not play by the rules.
The Plot of the Film (Allegory)
Even though director John Ford did not care to be thought of as a poet or a symbolist of any kind, the film's plot can be interpreted as an allegory for white westward expansion and the aims of American settler colonialism at large. As Mrs. Jorgensen suggests, the hardships that the white settlers endure in the film will not be for naught if it means that they can pave the way for future generations to live there. This logic is what propels the settlers into the unknown, and what motivates Ethan and Marty to go in search of Debbie. The threat of miscegenation, that Debbie will reproduce with a non-white mate, is subversive to the American vision of white supremacy, and serves as a central motivating force for the characters. Ethan is horrified when he finds that Debbie is happy living with the Comanche, because it goes against his very ideas about white supremacy. The film's plot, two men searching for the white woman who has been stolen from white society by the Comanche, is an allegory for the justification that white settlers felt in settling the West and claiming the land as their own, and their desire to protect their own.
The film is noted by many fans and critics for its stunning cinematography of the Western landscape. The landscape itself, the horizon line and topography of Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah, becomes a motif, an additional character in the plot of the film. In between scenes that tell the film's story are sweeping shots of natural splendor, which serve to both orient the viewer in the setting and show what giant and marvelous forces the protagonists are up against.
The Searchers Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Searchers is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.