John Wayne has a complicated legacy, to say the very least. Many consider him to be the single greatest icon of the western genre, while others consider him to be a relic of an outdated belief of masculinity. A common phrase that’s thrown around when talking about controversial actors and artists is to “separate the art from the artist.” Herein lies the problem.
John Wayne was an actor who famously demanded roles that align with his values and beliefs. This is why all his roles seem to be the John-Wayne-type, which is this rugged, manly, and authoritative cowboy figure. With these limitations set on all of his films, he did not receive many opportunities to play complex characters. That is of course, until 1956’s “The Searchers.” Wayne’s ninth collaboration with director John Ford, “The Searchers,” is not only considered by many (including myself) to be John Wayne’s greatest movie, but the greatest Western film of all time.
In the film, John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran who spends years searching for his niece after she is kidnapped by a Comanche tribe. It sounds like a generic John Wayne flick, but it is much more. For the first, and quite possibly the only time, the movie takes the John Wayne archetype and completely flips it on its head. He’s rugged, manly and authoritative all right, but he’s self-righteous and blinded with hate, to a point where getting revenge against the Comanches seems to be more important than rescuing his own niece.
John Wayne manages to absolutely master the role. It’s the first time in his career when he manages to lose a little bit of that “John-Wayne-brand-coolness” about him. It’s clear that Wayne really took the role of Ethan Edwards as seriously as he possibly could. As mentioned before, he really does not have many opportunities to play anyone outside the usual “John Wayne archetype.” He really pours everything he has into this performance.
John Wayne is not the only outstanding actor. Jeffery Hunter plays Martin Pawley, an excellent sidekick and antithesis to Edwards. He serves as the sense of humanity that Edwards seems to have lost. Natalie Wood, then an up and coming star, also does a wonderful job as Debbie Edwards, the niece in which they are searching for. She brings an intriguing perspective to the role.
In any other movie involving a kidnapping, the victim tends to be the damsel in distress. However in this movie, Debbie doesn’t seem to be in any distress. After all the years it took for Ethan and Martin to search for her, she grew accustomed to the Comanche culture. Whenever Wood is on screen, it never really feels like she’s in any danger. She’s no longer a victim, she’s simply a citizen of the tribe. It begs the question of whether or not she should be “saved” at all.
The actors should not get all the credit for the movie’s brilliance, however. John Ford is by far one of the greatest directors of all time. In movies like “Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and especially “The Searchers,” Ford showed the world that American cinema was certainly a force to be reckoned with. He always seemed to squeeze out the best performances, the most stunning shots, and the best overall quality from all of his films. He was considered “the greatest american director of all time” by Orson Welles, director, writer, and star of “Citizen Kane” (aka the greatest film of all time). Ford brilliantly composes every aspect of the film to give you an emotional response with almost every frame. Whether it be the joy of a returning family member, the dread of a missing family member, or the feeling of watching someone turn into a monster before their very eyes.
John Ford’s work on this film has echoed across decades in pop culture. Star Wars, Taxi Driver, and even the series finale of Breaking Bad are only some of the things that draw inspiration from “The Searchers.” However, I believe it proves one of the most intriguing points in all of cinema history. Is John Wayne really the icon that people say he is, or is he the outdated “quintessential male archetype?” Simple answer. He’s both.
He is the star of some of the American films of all time, yet he is a prime example of the raging toxic masculinity and rampant racism of his time. It’s a messy answer, but that’s usually how the truth tends to be. To focus on one side of that and ignore the other simply would not be the truth. This is why the legacy of John Wayne remains so complicated.
There is no real, black and white answer to who he really is. Much like Ethan Edwards, Wayne is a complex subject. Both are considered “heroes” of their respective stories, however both are plagued by the troubles of their respective times. Edwards may be the single most unique performance in his career, but I believe it is the one role that truly is closest to the real “John Wayne.”