The Darkness Of The Searchers Stuck With John Wayne Even When He Wasn’t On Set

One year after the release of “Red River,” Wayne turned in one of his most nuanced portrayals in Ford’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” But this was a warm-up for his turn as Ethan Edwards in Ford’s 1956 all-timer “The Searchers.” Wayne may be the protagonist of the movie, but the Confederate-soldier-turned-mercenary is as much of a villain as the Comanche chief who’s kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood).

Wayne wasn’t a stupid man. He understood Ethan. And, according to David Welky and Randy Roberts’ “John Wayne: Treasures,” being Ethan took its toll on him emotionally. Harry Carey Jr., a Ford regular and friend to Wayne, was struck by the star’s darkened demeanor.

“[W]hen I looked up at [Duke] in rehearsal, it was into the meanest, coldest eyes I had ever seen. I don’t know how he molded that character. Perhaps he’d known someone like Ethan Edwards as a kid. He was even like Ethan Edwards at dinnertime. He didn’t kid around on ‘The Searchers’ like he had done on other shows. Ethan was always in his eyes.”

Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent (working from a novel by Alan Le May) cleverly hemmed the Duke into a character who looked and sounded like just about every Western hero he’d been playing since “The Big Trail” in 1930. Ethan’s got Wayne’s trademark swagger and even gets a catchphrase (“That’ll be the day,” which, yes, inspired Buddy Holly’s definitive hit). But Ethan is a man burdened by hatred. He fought to preserve slavery for the South. He abhors the indigenous people of the land he’s travestied several different ways. There is no place for Ethan Edwards in the United States if this country is to bury its genocidal actions and rise to its lofty ideals.

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