It’s fascinating to review the many opinions film critics have held about this movie. While Newsweek called it “remarkable”, Variety found it “handsomely mounted and in the tradition of Shane“, but “somewhat disappointing” due to its length and repetitiousness.
Frankly, I think it may be one of the (if not the) most complex and emotionally layered Westerns ever.
We start off with the return of Ethan Edwards (played grouchily and with nary a thought to political correctness by John Wayne), who’s come home to his brother Aaron and family after fighting the Civil War—for the Confederacy. He has a whole mess of gold (and God knows where that came from). There also seems to be a weird vibe between Ethan and Aaron’s wife, Martha. There is the subtle suggestion that Martha and Ethan did the nasty got it on had intimate relations and that the youngest of the family, Debbie (played at different ages by real-life sisters Lana and Natalie Wood) is their offspring.
On top of that, Ethan looks down his nose at Martin Pawley, aka Marty (played by Jeffrey Hunter), the adopted orphan son who happens to be part-Indian. He also refuses to forsake his oath to the Confederacy in order to swear allegiance to the Texas Rangers.
But the dog likes him. So, I guess Ethan (racist grouch that he is) can’t be all bad.
After Comanches brutally kill Aaron, Martha, and their son, Ben, and abduct the girls, Lucy and Debbie, Ethan becomes driven to find the Indians who committed the atrocity.
Marty and Brad Jorgensen (played by Ford favorite Harry Carey, Jr.) insist on joining Ethan in his quest, much to his dismay.
This quest becomes an odyssey and an obsession for Ethan, who’s clearly out for revenge. And after a certain point, finding Debbie becomes less about saving her life then taking it, because she’s done what the British would call “gone native”.
Ethan’s nastiness and the gravity of this storyline are punctuated at points with moments of light humor—primarily in a romantic subplot between Marty and the Jorgensens’ daughter, Laurie, among other things. 🙂
I won’t reveal the end, except to say that Ethan is forced to choose between his prejudices and his family. It’s deeply moving and resonates with me in a way no other Western has.
For any movie lover, Western or otherwise, this one’s a must-see! 🙂