AFI film school #5: The Searchers — Finding an antihero


Get your six-shooter loaded. We’re traveling back to the wild west this week.

Once again I look at one of the AFI top 100 movies (following along with the order of the rad podcast Unspooled), and I discuss what the overall theme of the movie is, and what you can take away as a writer, a filmmaker or just a lover of movies.

And man oh man for such a bright setting, this is a dark AF movie.

We’re going with 1956’s The Searchers directed by John Ford and written by Frank Nugent.

What is a hero?

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Looking at the underlying theme of this movie, essentially what the movie is either saying or asking, I get from this one “sometimes there’s not good or bad--there’s shades of gray.”

And there’s no shade of gray that could be any grayer than Ethan Edwards.

Ethan is mean to everyone, racist, stubborn, insensitive towards a guy who just lost the love of his life, so reckless he carries out a plan that could easily have gotten Martin shot, willing to kill his own niece. I mean I could keep going with this. He’s the epitome of an antihero.

Yet anti-heroes are still kinda heroes. He’s on the side we’re probably. The fact that he’s played by John Wayne, someone audiences are used to rooting for, makes the contrast even wider. He’s fighting to get his family back. And we know from his past that he’s done some good things, like saving Martin when he was a baby. We know that we’re on his side throughout the movie, but he’s a tough person to be next to.

And although he does wind up helping to rescue his niece, his defining heroic moment is deciding not to murder her. Not the typical flawless character sort of stuff.

Scar and the other indigenous people in this movie are also complex. Scar is for sure the antagonist, but he and his people are also victims. Though he commits some atrocious acts, it is easy to see similarities between him and Ethan.

Martin is the truest hero, but he does have to take a dark journey, and he becomes less good-natured because of it. Part white, part Cherokee, he suffers from both Ethan’s abuse, and the actions of Scar.

At the end of  the film, after bringing his niece into safety. Ethan doesn’t go into the house like a hero. That kind of happy ending doesn’t quite have a place for him. He instead wanders back into the west, the door shutting on him, perhaps noting that while people like Ethan did some good, it’s also better to shut the door on people like him.

What can be taken away


As one of the most iconic movies in film history, The Searchers really changed what westerns were. Prior to this film, they were a bit less complicated, with more defined heroes and villains.

This kind of nuance is a fascinating lesson. Life is complex, and by transcending some of the genre’s tropes, it creates a richer, albeit more disturbing experience.

The movie does some other things that we can take away.

The power of symbols

There was a common trope in westerns before The Searchers was made: the good guys wore white hats, the bad guys wore black hats.

This added simplicity to the story. Like with wrestling, we knew exactly who to cheer and who to boo.

The Searchers said “screw it” to that. By having John Wayne wear a black hat but be the “hero” of the film, it tells us he’s very much not the typical sort of hero. It allows the movie to say, “hey, we don’t think that this guy is a role model either.”

There’s a scene when Ethan sits down with Scar where he’s wearing a white hat. This is the moment where he’s the closest to being a hero. Like a gentleman, he talks with his enemy. He’s close to saving his niece. He’s about to be the old John Wayne we all know and love after all.

But after he sees his niece has acclimated to being Scar’s wife, he breaks some serious bad and becomes the worst version of himself. He has so much hate he goes from wanting to save her to wanting to kill her, thus losing his white hat forever.

Martin starts off as the most pure character. He even balks when Laurie walks in when he’s in the bath. He doesn’t like Ethan’s bad qualities, and he then becomes furious with Ethan after he tries to kill his sister. However, he does become darker throughout the movie, getting into fights, taking a more aggressive stance towards his enemies. When he comes into the tent to rescue Debbie, he’s now wearing a black hat too.

Martin never goes that far, though, as he does wind up going into the house at the end, another piece of the film’s symbolism.

Creative transitions

The Searchers takes place over the course of several years. Sometimes filmmakers get lazy when they have to show a lot of snippets of scenes, making jarring cuts or telling things purely through exposition.

This movie does show how you can get creative with the way that you include transitions.

At one point we need to see what happened over the course of a long time, including Ethan killing someone, Martin accidentally marrying an Comanche woman, and the two of them stumbling upon Scar’s camp.

The Searchers handles this by having Laurie receive a letter from Martin chronicling what happened over the course of time. We transition back and forth between her reading the letter and the events happening to Martin and Ethan. This also gives us the benefit of seeing her reaction to Martin getting married, which is important later in the story.

Having creativity with potential storytelling problems like this can be the difference between something sloppy and something cool.


While this movie can cause a lot of discomfort and show ugly characters, it also is subversive by doing that. It takes away all the comforts we usually have in a western, heroes we can root for and villains we can hate, and puts us in a position where we have to actively decide how we feel about particular characters..

It allows us to experience complex feelings like “I don’t like that person, but I hope he succeeds.”  It helped lead the way for the rich, complex characters we get in movies and TV today (in my opinion much more interesting than the perfect hero or the evil to the core villain).

Complex characters, even complicated cheese-dicks like Ethan, tell a fundamental human truth: no one’s hat is all one color.

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