John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is a film that tends to be discussed today either in attempts to grapple with its status as a possibly racist work or, less interestingly, as the blueprint for Star Wars (1977). Setting aside the latter, I doubt it’s possible to reach a conclusion as to whether or not The Searchers is racist, simply because I think it’s impossible to conclude whether or not John Ford was racist. Certainly there are racist elements in Ford’s films (including this one), but Ford also made the very nonracist Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Donovan’s Reef (1963), which goes beyond racial tolerance to depicting complete acceptance. Ford and his work are finally too complex to allow for easy pigeonholing. The question really is whether you assume that Ford or the film endorses the undeniably racist attitudes of the John Wayne character—and that’s a huge assumption that seems to me to not hold much liquid in light of the direction the film takes.
Wayne’s character decidedly hates the Indians, and he does a number of truly unconscionable acts in the course of the film (like killing off buffalo so the Indians will starve). Moreover, his plan to put a bullet in the head of his kidnapped niece (Natalie Wood) if he finds her—because she’s been “sullied” by the Indians—is utterly repellent (it verges on Birth of a Nation-level racism). But this is not how the film plays out, and in the end, Wayne’s character finds himself alone, shut off from familial ties. He’s become an anachronism in a world that’s outgrown his viewpoint. In this regard, the film strikes me as a statement on the passing of racism, not an endorsement of it. In any case, it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking—one of Ford’s best works—and I’d urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to do so—and decide for themselves what the film is or isn’t saying.