I said to a fellow moviegoer, “Ethan in The Searchers is pretty sure of himself--and he can be a son-of-a-bitch about it. He’s ready to kill the girl, mutilate corpses, kiss off anybody who doesn’t kowtow to his decisions.” “Yeah,” he said, “but when you’re standing on the riverbank and a screaming horde of Indians is racing at you, who else would you want at your side?”
But how did we get to that riverbank? Why do we need Ethan so desperately? Well, maybe we don't “need” him--but we durnshootin made him--because we wouldn't have gained the American continental empire without him, growling “That’ll be the day” with such withering scorn out there in Monument Valley, where no one gives an inch, where everybody stands on somebody else’s bones, as the old settler lady put it--thinking of her own bones, someday soon down there in the foundation of the real home someone else will make. And even old Mose, his face vacillating between worry and bliss, needs Ethan, who will make the family whole again, and make that front porch and rocking-chair comfortable--and of course, John Ford tells us, once it’s all settled we’ll turn from Ethan, the Thing from Another World in the doorway, and we’ll shut him out, let him step his crooked little John Wayne saunter into Monument Valley--fitting name for it, all open and tall and dry and hard.
I don’t know if we can make any more Westerns after The Searchers--at least not without Wayne's long, receding shadow cutting the wide-open screen in half. It’s as though he and Ford have been trying to find a way to finally close the frontier--Frederick Jackson Turner more than a half-century ago laying his hand on the latch--but the big man and his boss put their shoulders to it and give us what we want, the screen blank.