Henderson makes clear in his essay that Ethan Edwards is a stand-in for fathers and uncles across America in 1956 who were mortified by the Brown v. Board of Education decision that included within its coordinates the legal sanction for inter-ethnic coupling.
However, it should be noted that it was not until April 1967 with the Loving v. Virginia decision that all anti-miscegenation laws barring inter-ethnic marriage were finally revoked. The point in mentioning this is that, whereas the Scorsese film was about a certain social unrest caused by the Vietnam War personified by Travis Bickle, the Ford film has Ethan as a stand-in for a different kind of social unrest.
It would be quite difficult to say that John Ford was anywhere near Yasojiro Ozu, we are talking about a Classical Hollywood Cinema director who was confined to the norms and procedures of his era, including basic three-act narrative arc and the archetypal characters.
However, within those coordinates, Ford does almost everything imaginable to be subversive. He casts John Wayne, who at the time was at the zenith of his stardom and popularity, as a homicidal racist harboring potentially incestuous fantasies about his niece. Laurie Jorgenson, intended to be the typical love interest of Jeffrey Hunter’s character, utters some of the most repulsive and openly white supremacist lines where she says it would be better if Debbie, who she knew as a young girl, were to shot in the head rather than continue in her inter-ethnic relationship with a Comanche Indian. And because Laurie is able to say such things, she is in fact articulating views held by the wider community, including her parents, thereby indicting the entirety of “white civilization” as an essentially racist institution.
This in turn offers a unique set of insights about the famous final shot of the film that would be described by Schrader’s criticism as “the Transcendent”. The overwhelming critical consensus is that Ethan Edwards being left outside the house as the door closes is intended symbolically, because of his homicidal impulses and racism, to designate him as ostracized from the community, the center of the Fordian universe. However, this is simply a misunderstanding when considering how racist and homicidal Laurie’s comments are. In reality, Ethan is ostracized precisely because he had repudiated this ideology when, in the moment when he finds himself looking down at Debbie, unarmed and in a position when Ethan could kill her, he instead takes her up in his arms and says “let’s go home”.
It is worth mentioning here that, in this reading of the ending, elements of the narrative previously cited by scholars as problematic suddenly make sense. For example, Douglas Pye makes much of the way the film treats the Indian woman Look, who Martin inadvertently marries and proceeds to both physically and emotionally abuse, calling it as a racist and sexist moment in a film that deals with breaking down racist and sexist barriers (Pye 225-229).
But when one understands from the ending of the film that the Ethan is ostracized because of his climactic rejection of patriarchy and white supremacy, a contradiction suddenly resolves itself and becomes a detail in a much more dire image.
In this sense, there is something profoundly Transcendental about the resolution of THE SEARCHERS that, while it is absurd to say a Classical Hollywood Cinema picture even exists on the same plane as a work by Ozu or Dreyer, it is not absurd to mention that we are talking about the same John Ford that was influenced by the expressionist and realist currents of European silent cinema for the film noir-styled cinematography of THE INFORMER. Perhaps THE SEARCHERS should, in this sense, be called either “transcendental lite” or an homage in some places to these transcendental films.