Q. I’ve long suspected that not so deeply layered in the John Wayne’s and John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) is the idea that Debbie isn’t Ethan’s niece — she is his daughter. Ethan’s sister-in-law Martha (Dorothy Jordan) is clearly in love with Ethan (Wayne) by the way she treats him and by the way she holds his clothes close to her when she believes no one is looking. The sheriff (Ward Bond) pointedly ignores what is going on behind him when Ethan and Martha interact. Her daughter Debbie (Natalie Wood) is the apple of Ethan’s eye.
Ethan’s reactions are driven by something deeper than a man’s unrequited love for the woman who married his brother, seen in his pursuit to at first rescue Debbie, and then to kill her to save her from a “fate worse than death.” If Ford did intend to hint at this, then the story takes on a deeper, and more awful meaning. I guess the wonderful thing about art is that it can be interpreted in many ways. Matt Kaufman
I found your idea intriguing and turned for help to people who know more about films than just about anybody else: The legendary critic Andrew Sarris and his wife, the equally legendary Molly Haskell, and the noted University of Wisconsin scholar and author David Bordwell.
Molly tells me: “Although that interpretation is certainly possible, Andrew and I both felt it to be improbable, it just doesn’t belong in the Fordian universe. The feelings between the two are palpable, but never (it seems to both of us) overtly expressed. That tacit love is quite sufficient to explain Ethan’s special feeling for his niece.”
David writes: “In grad school long ago we talked about this; good to know that some people are still doing so. Still, I’m skeptical, since there’s little evidence of the sort that I guess lawyers call ‘probitive’” Ethan loves Debbie, true, but his expression of affection is typical of how you’d treat a child; he’s quite affectionate to little Lucy, too. Of course Martha is in love with Ethan, but there’s no direct evidence that that love has been consummated. Ward Bond does avert his eyes, but that’s just as likely because a moment of tenderness between Martha and Ethan would be something he’d overlook out of gallantry in any event.
“Ethan’s reactions are driven by something deeper than revenge for the death of his brother and his family, but there is evidence that that something is racism — as indicated in his comments, before the attack, about the obvious Indian ancestry of Martin Pawley. Finally, if Ethan were trying to save Debbie from rape at the hands of the Comanche, several characters point out that he’s long since failed; she’s obviously come of age and probably has become a warrior’s wife. It’s that state of sexual maturity, at least according to the orthodox reading, that impels the later years of his quest: Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) is convinced that Ethan means to kill her for becoming defiled and his struggle to keep Ethan from doing so is the engine driving the last portion of the film.
“All of this is more interesting, at least to me, than some hidden blood tie. It presents a more complex portrait of a man so blinded by codes of honor, family loyalty, masculine pride, sexual jealousy and racial prejudice than would a reading that indicates he’s out to rescue his daughter. This mix alone is extraordinarily edgy for an American movie. It seems to me that everything we see in the film supports this interpretation. I think we’d need some anomaly or extra clue to infer that Debbie is Ethan’s child.
“And the context of Ford’s other work doesn’t suggest the hidden-affair account: Think of the unrequited yearning of Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon in ‘How Green Was My Valley,’ or Wyatt Earp and the schoolmarm in “My Darling Clementine” (1946) or even Lincoln and Ann in ‘Young Mr. Lincoln.’ For Ford, as for many of his contemporaries, it seems that unconsummated love is deeply poignant. Something else we’ve lost, maybe.”