When Clayton has good results in the shoot-out with the Comanches, he exclaims “Hallelujah!” It is saturated with theological significance while simultaneously demonstrating the genocidal meaning of Manifest Destiny in America’s frontier. A few minutes earlier, Brad Jorgensen and Ethan had desecrated a Comanche body they discovered along the trail. While Brad’s part was done in a fit of rage, Ethan’s was done for gleeful sport but also so to damn the soul of the dead man. By shooting out the eyes, Ethan has condemned him to “wander forever between the winds.” Unlike the typical paternal colonial religious ideologue, who would perhaps offer Christian prayers or rites to the non-believer, Ethan is operating on the Comanche plane of theology so to further demean and condemn in eternity.
This is in full accord with Fordian ethos about the representation of religion, which could be described as catholic in the real meaning of that term, universalist. Even if a Fordian faith has different characteristics that makes it seem unique, they all function as relays to communicate similar theological tenets about grace, be it Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Quakerism, or American Indian practices. THE SEARCHERS stands out in the Ford canon in this fashion. Unlike the other Ford films, we have a Euro-American religion that functions in a method akin to what Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus”, “a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions” (Althusser), communicating not grace but white supremacy.
Perhaps the most definite moment of how Ford is going against his typical practices of representation with Protestant religion comes in the scuttled wedding between Laurie Jorgensen, the unapologetic white supremacist, and Charlie McCorry, the slack-jawed village idiot who is a poor replacement for the beloved Martin Pawley. When the wedding is commencing, the typical Fordian religious theme Shall We Gather At The River? is performed in a manner akin to a funeral dirge. Earlier in the film, when the same hymn is being performed at the graveside of the recently-massacred Edwards family, it is such a paltry and lame rendition that Ethan loses his patience and effectively ends the ceremony by bellowing “Put an amen to it!” This demonstrates that there is something definitely wrong with this particular group of religious celebrants and that their congregation is without typical Fordian grace precisely because it is the religion of white supremacist settler-colonists in Texas.
Grist indicates that Travis’s efforts to rescue Iris from Sport is indicative of his desire to “supplant Sport…in his psycho-sexual position as Iris’s father-figure” and that the efforts of Palantine and Sport to pay Travis to go away in various scenes indicates their desire to “assert their patriarchal potency” (Grist 180). Travis’s attempted assassination of Palantine, for Grist, carries semblance to what Frank Krutnik describes as the genre’s ‘criminal adventure’, the quasi-Oedipal plot of such films wherein the “male protagonist is driven by his desire for a sexually alluring woman/femme fatale of similar age to kill…her older, materially comfortable husband” (181).
This can give further credence to the assertion by Eckstein that Ethan’s loathing Debbie’s womanhood engaged by inter-ethnic congress carries a sexual element that goes beyond typical misogyny and into the realm of incest. The economic element of the latter offers a striking perspective on the scene when Ethan, Martin, and Scar sit inside his teepee and the pole hung with scalps is displayed before the three.
This pole then becomes not just a display of war trophies but a demonstration of Scar’s wealth, as it were.
While Travis’s Oedipal revolt is psychoanalytically consistent with the return of his repressed desires, his almost successful transgression likewise implies a failure of super-ego dominance, suggesting that Palantine is a flawed authority figure… Palantine’s representation extends the film’s concern with culturally determined identity (182).
And so what does this say about Scar but also Ethan? In the scene when Debbie runs to Ethan and Marty after they meet in Scar’s teepee and Ethan takes out his gun to shoot her before being blocked, yelling “Stand aside Martin!”, one can and should interpret the unholstering of the weapon as a threat of rape as much as a threat of homicide considering the phallic nature of the gun in these contexts.
This gesture reflects an effort to repudiate the “flawed” nature of his ontology. He is the defeated Confederate soldier, the unrequited lover of Martha Edwards, and so is marked repeatedly by an ontological threat to his manhood. To make this all the more obvious, the film cleverly reveals in the earlier scene, when a young Debbie hides at the gravesite of her grandmother, that in fact the matriarch was killed in a Comanche raid, cementing this existential threat Ethan feels from the Comanche.