A popular theory for The Searchers suggests that John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is really the father of his kidnapped niece Debbie. Wayne spent many years starring in low-budget, “poverty row” Westerns when his career began. This includes Wayne’s only “horror” movie Haunted Gold, but it was the success of 1939’s Stagecoach that made him a star.
This John Ford directed Western featured an ensemble cast, but it was Wayne’s Ringo Kid who stood out to audiences. Wayne later cited Stagecoach as one of his personal favorites and acknowledged how much it – and his many collaborations with director Ford – changed his life and career. Wayne and Ford went on to work together over a dozen times, which included movies like They Were Expendable, The Quiet Man – another favorite of Wayne’s – while the three movies Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande formed Ford’s so-called “cavalry trilogy.”
Of the many collaborations between Ford and Wayne, The Searchers is often considered their masterpiece. This 1956 epic cast Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a bitter Civil War vet who returns to his family home after eight years. Shortly after his arrival, his brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew are all killed in a Comanche raid. His youngest niece Debbie was also kidnapped, so Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin set out on a years-long rescue mission. The Searchers is considered one of the greatest Westerns and greatest American movies ever made. It was an influence on filmmakers like David Lean, Martin Scorsese and even George Lucas, with the original Star Wars borrowing several ideas from it. It’s also been suggested that Ethan is Debbie’s father following an affair with his brother’s wife Martha, but is there any substance to this theory?
Ethan’s Relationship To His Family In The Searchers
The Searchers is a movie that trusts audiences to pick up on character and story details without spoon-feeding exposition. This can be seen in the opening, where Ethan returns after an eight-year gap. In the years since the Civil War ended, it’s heavily implied Ethan became a mercenary in Mexico, and that he and his brother Aaron share a slightly strained relationship.
His nieces and nephews are thrilled he’s back, however, and Ethan appears especially warm with young Debbie; he even gifts her one of his medals. The Searchers explores Ethan’s racism also, and he is depicted as having an obsessive hatred of Native Americans, even making veiled comments to nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter, who played Pike in Star Trek’s pilot) about being one-eighth Cherokee. The headstone for his mother reveals she was killed in a Comanche attack, which is likely where this hatred began.
What’s intriguing to note in these early scenes is the relationship between Ethan and Martha (Dorothy Jordan). While they rarely exchange dialogue they often give each other meaningful glances. When Ethan leaves to inspect a local cattle theft, Martha is seen lovingly looking at his coat in another room before handing it to him, and the two embrace as Rev. Capt. Johnson (Ward Bond) tries his best to ignore the obvious charge between the two. This moment would turn out to be the last time Ethan sees her alive.
Could Debbie Be Ethan’s Secret Daugther?
Aside from the implied romance between Ethan and Martha, The Searchers reveals that Debbie is eight years old and that Wayne’s – who regretted playing Genghis Khan in The Conquerer – Ethan just happened to be away for eight years. This is far from proof, but Ford himself is said to have framed the relationship between Ethan and Martha in a way that audiences could imply something had happened between them; the eight-year timeframe is unlikely to be an accident on this front either.
Debbie being Ethan’s daughter doesn’t change the story of The Searchers much, but it does add an interesting subtext to Ethan’s quest. Throughout the film, Martin questions if Ethan actually wants to save his niece or if he plans on killing her for integrating with a Native American tribe. Racism and fear of miscegenation is a major theme throughout, which was introduced early over Ethan’s discomfort with Martin’s heritage and it’s repeated throughout, even by “civilized” characters. When Ethan finally finds Debbie – played by Natalie Wood – she has become a wife to Scar (Henry Brandon, of John Carpenter movie Assault On Precinct 13), the Comanche chief who led the attack on the Edwards homestead.
Scar is also a mirror of Ethan’s prejudice, and of his actions he states that after two of his sons were killed by white men that “For each son, I take many scalps.” Ethan’s revulsion at the mere idea of Debbie becoming part of a tribe sees him attempting to kill her, only for him to be wounded in the process. After becoming absorbed by his own single-minded need for revenge, The Searchers‘ ending sees Ethan chase after Debbie following a Texas Ranger raid on Scar’s camp. Instead of killing her, Ethan picks her up in his arms and carries her home.
Why Ethan Could Never Return Home
The Searchers closes on one of the most iconic final shots in movie history. Ethan carries Debbie back to the ranch of their neighbors the Jorgensens; Debbie enters, as does Martin with his love interest Laurie (Vera Miles from the original Psycho movie), but instead of joining them, Ethan turns and walks into the distance as the door closes behind him.
In The Searchers final scene, Ethan fulfilled his vow to bring Debbie back but likely realized his bitterness and rage has isolated him from his family and that he could never lead a normal life. His love for Debbie overrode his destructive impulse to kill her for becoming Scar’s wife – even if it was against her own will. The Searchers is easily one of the darkest roles Wayne played, and is far from the unambiguous hero he played in many of his Westerns.
The reading that Debbie is the secret daughter of Wayne’s – who thought Cahill U.S. Marshal was his worst Western – Ethan adds another texture to The Searchers, but it was left ambiguous by design. Earlier in the story, Ethan vindictively shot out the eyes of a dead Comanche warrior so his soul would be left to “… wander forever between the winds.” This becomes his own fate in a way, as he returns to the desert following Debbie’s return, knowing Martin, Laurie and Debbie represent a future he can never be a part of.