When I started thinking of movies to include in this month’s series, “The Searchers” was not one of them at first. I didn’t make a connection between that story and Jesus’ parable until about a year ago, re-watching it for probably the twentieth time. I think I’ve said before that I admire John Ford’s films, and this is by far my favorite. “The Searchers” is not only a special kind of Western; it is a funny, emotional, beautiful character study of a man who must put aside prejudices to save his family. And in my opinion, it belongs in this series.
The film opens with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into Texas a few years after the Civil War to see his brother Aaron and his family. His brother’s wife Martha is there to greet him, as a flame between her and Ethan is quietly kindled without anyone really addressing it. There are three children in the family, four including the boy they adopted who isn’t really a boy anymore. This is Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), whose parents were massacred by Native Americans before Ethan found him and gave him to Aaron. Ethan, however, thinks nothing of it; we learn later that he is a racist against the Native Americans, which may be part of the reason he didn’t return home as soon as the war ended.
Later on, as Ethan and some others discover a raid on a neighbor’s cattle, Aaron’s family prepares for an impending attack. They send their youngest daughter Deborah out to hide, but the chief “Indian” finds her before the film fades out and back in to the next day. Ethan and Martin find Aaron’s home on fire, with the eldest daughter’s bloodied dress found outside and Martha’s corpse within. Ethan is, as we can imagine, incredibly distraught, and he sets out to find Deborah and the eldest daughter Lucy with Martin and Lucy’s beau Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.). I won’t explain all the details, but Ethan eventually finds Lucy’s corpse, which he doesn’t describe to Brad or Martin, and buries it in secret. Brad is so distraught that he rides off into the desert and shoots himself.
Ethan and Martin continue on their journey, and along the way, they visit the home of Brad’s family. There, Martin is re-acquainted with Brad’s sister Laurie (Vera Miles), who it turns out has been in love with Martin for a long time. When Ethan tries to convince Martin to stay at their home after Ethan finds a clue to where Debbie might be, Martin refuses:
MARTIN: I started out looking for Debbie, I intend to keep on.
MARTIN: Why! Well, because she’s my—
ETHAN: She’s your nothing. She’s no kin to you at all.
MARTIN: Well, I always kinda thought she was; the way her folks took me in, they raised me—
ETHAN: That don’t make you no kin.
MARTIN: All right, maybe it don’t! But I intend to keep on looking anyway!
And sure enough, the two push on together, and after an altogether five-year journey, they eventually come across the same chief who led the attack on Aaron’s family. When they sit down with the chief known as Cicatriz—that’s Spanish for “Scar”—they finally see Debbie (Natalie Wood), who is no longer a little girl but now a young woman who has seemingly become part of the tribe. When she runs to Martin after the meeting and tells the two of them to flee, Ethan pulls out his gun ready to kill her. To him, there is no hope of saving her; she has gone too long in the company of the violent, disgusting Native Americans.
The two men are attacked and flee for a time before returning to Laurie’s home, but Martin now understands that Ethan no longer accepts Debbie as his flesh and blood. And now, it’s almost as if Martin hates Ethan just as much as Ethan hates the “Indians”. But when the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond) finds out that Scar and his tribe are not too far off from where they are, he employs Martin and Ethan to help him and his men rescue Debbie and run off the tribe’s pony herd, thus forcing them to make an agreement with the white men.
Ethan is at first unwilling to have Martin go ahead of them all and rescue Debbie himself—he lets Martin know that as the two of them noticed earlier that Scar collects white men’s scalps, Ethan noticed that one of the scalps belonged to Martin’s mother. But Martin is still determined to save Debbie’s life, even if it means risking his own. And soon, Martin sneaks into the tribe and finds Debbie before escaping death. The white men follow him in on horseback, but Ethan goes off separately to cut off Scar’s scalp and catch Debbie himself. Martin chases after him with his gun, convinced that he will kill her. But instead, Ethan lifts her up, carries her, and tells her: “Let’s go home, Debbie.”
As the film ends with Martin and Laurie re-uniting, along with Debbie coming into Laurie’s home and Ethan heading back into the great unknown of the West, I’ll admit I was a little confused at the first few viewings of the film. Ethan Edwards is one of the most complex characters ever put on film, and it’s very hard to actually figure out why he does what he does. His relationship and past with Martha is never expressed in words; his history with Native Americans is never explained; and the real reason why he saves Debbie’s life is never really determined. The audience sort of has to figure that out on its own.
What I think, though, is that Ethan was moved by Martin’s courage. Martin was willing to risk his life to save his sister (albeit not a flesh-and-blood sister), even when he knew what the Native Americans might do to him. Perhaps this is what convinced Ethan to put his racism aside and give Debbie a chance at life. But it’s up for interpretation, and it probably will be for years to come as audiences continue to rightfully call “The Searchers” one of the greatest films ever made.
So what does all this have to do with Matthew 18? To me, this story is another example of a man’s journey across the world (or, in this case, the United States) to find just one person. And this person isn’t exactly close family; she doesn’t yet have many prospects; she’s simply a child. But nevertheless, Ethan and Martin travel the country to rescue her from harm. And considering that they could have wasted five years just to find out she was dead, the fact that they went on this journey is pretty bold.
And guess what? God would do the same for you and me. As a shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep to find one that was lost, so would my God go through the whole world to rescue just one prodigal son. I serve a great God, a loving God; and I pray that wherever you find yourself today, that you would realize the amazing love that God has for you. Praise the Lord!