A major theme in the film is the distinctly American notion of "manifest destiny." The white settlers feel that, for all the brutality and difficulty of living in the American West, it is their god-given right to be stretching out civilization into the desert. Early American settlers' conviction that they were entitled to the land they began to settle on throughout the 19th century was intrinsic to American identity, and is what justified the violence and danger of the many conflicts that arose between pioneers and Native American populations. This theme is perhaps best encapsulated by Mrs. Jorgensen when she says, "It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothin' but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next. Maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Some day, this country's gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come." She suggests that the sacrifices the white settlers in the area are making and the dangers they face will make it all worth it because Texas will become a good place to live one day.
The theme of miscegenation comes up in various ways in the plot of The Searchers. Firstly, Marty Pawley is 1/8 Pawley, the product of interracial relations between white and Native American individuals. Ethan, the salty and racist Confederate, is skeptical of the boy because of his mixed racial makeup. Then, when Lucy and Debbie are kidnapped by the Comanche, Ethan fears that they will be taken advantage of sexually. When they find Debbie and she is living as one of Scar's wives, Ethan's worst fears are confirmed, and he thinks Debbie would be better off dead than living with the Comanche. The central conflict of the film follows a group of white settlers as they seek to free an innocent white girl from the sexual custody of a Comanche chief; the fear of miscegenation is a pervading theme in the film, as many characters consider it to be a fate worse than death.
Vengeance drives many characters in the films. Scar kills white families and kidnaps their female children out of revenge against the poor treatment Comanches receive from white settlers. Ethan embarks upon an odyssey to find the kidnapped Debbie out of a sense of righteousness and revenge. Ethan even plans on getting revenge on Debbie herself, when he realizes she has integrated with the Comanche tribe.
Revenge and betrayal occur throughout. The owner of a trading post, Futterman, seeks to gain a measure of revenge for what he deems to be bad treatment by hunting down Ethan and Martin to try killing them after tipping them off about Debbie's whereabouts.
Ethan Edwards is the most overtly racist character in the film, but all of the white characters exhibit prejudicial attitudes towards the Comanche characters in the film. Comanche people are alternately feared and ridiculed in the course of the film. Director John Ford presents the chief Scar as a savage and violent leader. Ethan never misses an opportunity to brutalize a Native American. The Comanche woman who follows Marty after he accidentally purchases her as a wife is the butt of a great deal of ridicule, and Marty even kicks her down a hill at one point to show his distaste for her. The tension between Native Americans and white settlers, and the racist sentiments that the white characters feel towards the Native population, is nearly constant, and constitutes a great deal of the central conflict.
The early American settler is a figure who is defined by his individuality; he is a person who has decided to face the dangers of unsettled territory in the hopes of staking out a bit of good fortune. Thus, the film is concerned with this spirit of individualism, the willingness to live in relative isolation in order to make a new life.
Ethan Edwards, in particular, is the perfect representation of rugged individualism. He answers to no one, and follows what he thinks is best at nearly every turn. Sometimes this is to his detriment and sometimes it serves him well, but he always maintains a sense of his own subjective position within any situation, listening to his own moral compass over the group consensus, sometimes in unpredictable ways.
Ethan and Marty wander through many different landscapes and weather patterns in their search for Debbie. As such, they are in thrall to the unpredictable, majestic, and treacherous natural landscape of the American West. In a way, nature and the surrounding landscape are a distinct character in the film, serving as both a backdrop for the action and a reflection of the treacheries and excitement of their journey as "the searchers."
The film begins and ends with the family, which Ford positions as a redemptive force in the grand scheme of the American frontier. The Edwards family is torn apart and destroyed by the dangers of the West, and Marty and Ethan spend the whole film trying to reconstitute the family by returning the innocent Debbie to civilization. By the end of the film, they succeed in bringing Debbie back to the Jorgensen homestead. Images of the family home, reunions and togetherness, bookend the action of the film.
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.