“Dissolving in Chaos”: The Trauma of the Gunman

“Dissolving in Chaos”: The Trauma of the Gunman

By: Molly Berg

John Ford’s The Searchers presents Ethan Edwards as a character who deconstructs and contradicts the archetype of the western hero. Although his stalwart reserve and extreme violence portrays Ethan as a man who is “master” of himself and his surroundings, his gunmanship suggests the opposite.[1] When confronted with opposition, Ethan fires shots in relentless determination, a violent act that belies reason and rationality. His aggressive behavior suggests that Ethan wants to “remain whole despite internal explosions”, and these “internal explosions” are what truly fuel his search.[2] His actions on the front lines in battle thus reflect a deeper battle that lies within, and indicate that Ethan lives in a world of inner chaos; haunted by trauma, Ethan’s precarious treatment of his gun is indicative of his instinct to fight his own internal dissolution.

Ethan’s gun acts as “body armour”, and he even has a form of “body armour” for his gun—a Native American sheath that conceals and protects his rifle.[3] It is hard to know what to make of this adornment, considering the character’s visceral hatred toward Native Americans combined with his intimate knowledge of Indian culture and practice. Did he acquire it from a Native American whom he killed? Was it offered to him as a gift? Ethan’s contentious relationship with the Indians remains a source of ambiguity throughout the film, and the tribal sheath further demonstrates this; unsure as to what the protective sheath means to Ethan, the audience is left to ponder its subliminal importance. The Native sheath and Ethan’s gun are literally and symbolically connected. Wexman describes the “soldier-male” as someone who fears contact with the ‘racial other’, and viewers see this fear manifested in the character of Ethan. Wexman explains the reason why the “soldier-male” fears contact with the racial other: “miscegenation would inexorably cause him to disintegrate”.[4] Wexman’s interpretation of disintegration deals with a concern of “bodily purity”, a concept that informs viewers of Ethan’s paradox and inner turmoil. Although Ethan is a virulent racist, his primary tool of violence demonstrates a kind of miscegenation between the Natives and his gun. Ethan’s sexual purity is thus called into question, a notion that threatens his disintegration; Ethan’s speculative relationship to Native Americans contradicts his racial bigotry, thus the object of the gun and sheath is representative of the interior paradox that runs deep in Ethan’s psyche.

In terms of phallic symbolism, the combination of these two parts is suggestive of the Native American sheath shielding, or preventing, Ethan’s phallic substitute from reaching Martha. When Ethan sees the Edwards’ home ablaze, he throws off the sheath and rides forward with his gun pointed upwards—an indicator of his sexual desire for Martha and his violent intention for the Comanche. Ethan’s removal of the Native sheath indicates his anger—and perhaps jealousy—toward the Comanche, and signifies that he doesn’t want to be in contact with the Natives; Ethan doesn’t want to come close to the idea that he may be quite similar to the Natives—particularly Scar—or acknowledge his repressed longing to do to Martha what Scar presumably had already done. He runs into the house with his gun, calling out for Martha, but he’s too late: Martha is dead and the Comanches are gone. Ethan props his rifle against the house and leaves it there for the rest of the scene, an acknowledgement that his gun—both literal and symbolic—is useless. Unable to discharge his bullets, Ethan is rendered impotent; the scene is thus representative of his thwarted sexual desire for Martha and inability to protect the woman he loves.

The scene might also be interpreted as what Caruth would describe to be a moment of severe trauma for Ethan. The violation of Martha and the destruction of his family occurred without Ethan’s presence, thus it is a missed, “unassimilated” moment.[5] Ethan suffers a rupture that’s “inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind”; this mental wound indicates not only the loss of his family, but also a loss of self worth.[6] Ethan’s inability to fulfill his role as masculine “soldier male” ignites a quest to reclaim his moment of trauma, and in doing so re-discover his sense of self.[7] The gun plays an important part of Ethan’s search, as it is connected to this moment of trauma—a moment of failure—and perpetuates his pursuit of revenge. Ethan imagines that vengeance will bring order to the chaos that is his life—but it is his unremitting violence that is the greatest threat to his dissolution.

Another scene that speaks to Ethan’s motivations is the moment when he shoots the dead Comanche in the eyes. Reverend Clayton questions Ethan’s brutal behavior, and Ethan explains that without eyes, the Comanche “can’t enter the spirit land” and “has to wander forever between the winds”. Ethan’s gunfire reflects both a punitive act against the Comanche and an acknowledgment of the native’s culture. In removing the Indian’s eyes, Ethan condemns the Indian to eternal disorientation; yet the violence itself indicates Ethan’s understanding and validation of Comanche tradition. Although the shooting is a clear act of hatred and disrespect for the Comanche tribe, it also indicates Ethan’s cognizance of its meaning. Just like his relationship to the Native American sheath, Ethan’s relationship with Comanche religion is complex—it is hard for viewers to see what belief system Ethan identifies with. It is no accident that the prior scene is Ethan’s dismissal of the Christian funeral, where he interrupts the ceremony and declares, “there’s no more time for praying”. Both of Ethan’s encounters with religion show a blatant disregard for belief systems and indicate that Ethan identifies with neither Comanche nor Christian practice. Although he’s a man of both worlds, he’s also a man of neither; Ethan thus takes matters into his own hands, halting the funeral to commence the search and forcing the Native to search “forever”. His power over himself and those around him suggests a confidence and an orientation, but it is a mere shield of self-denial over his own internal search. Although Ethan uses his gun to control another man’s fate, it’s his own fate he ultimately cannot control; just like the Comanche, he too is doomed to “wander forever between the winds”.

In the shootout between the Comanche tribe and the search group, Ethan’s gunmanship reveals his explosive behavior and a fear of vulnerability. When Reverend Clayton runs out of ammunition, Ethan tosses him his revolver, mocking, “watch it, it’s loaded”. This jeer signifies not only Clayton’s unpreparedness in contrast to his counterpart—it also demonstrates that Ethan is someone who is always “loaded”. Ethan is never without his guns, and it’s telling that he has not one, but two ready at hand. His mocking behavior with the Reverend comes to a startling halt when Clayton attempts to control Ethan and his gun through physical contact; as Ethan continues to fire shots even after the Comanches have receded, Clayton grabs Ethan’s rifle and tells him to let them bury their dead. Suddenly, Ethan’s mood darkens; he explodes at the comment and jerks his gun out of Clayton’s grasp. Enraged, Ethan yells, “Well Reverend, that tears it!” The use of the word “tear” is an interesting choice on behalf of Ford The “tear” personifies the connection between Clayton and Ethan that is now severed; Ethan refuses to take any more orders from Clayton and tells him, “I’m going on alone”. It is not just the Reverend’s verbal command that infuriates Ethan, but the physical command as well. Wexman argues the fear of psychic disintegration is connected with the fear of contact, and viewers can see this fear in Ethan at work here.[8] Ethan’s fear is coated through violence and detachment; his response to Clayton demonstrates his need to be “alone” and separate himself from physical contact. His continued shooting is an expression of his desire to remain, as Wexman says, “whole”, and when Clayton ruptures this act, Ethan’s deep fear of vulnerability is exposed. Ironically, it is contact that threatens Ethan’s dissolution, a touch that “tears” his armor of violence. For Ethan, to stop shooting is to self-destruct.

Ethan’s treatment of guns in the buffalo scene demonstrates that he is not a master of himself, but rather a man who has lost control. When Ethan and Martin come across a herd of buffalo, they decide to hunt them down for food. Ethan kills one with ease on his first shot, but the scene is far from over. The following pan shots depict the herd of buffalo scrambling to escape as shots off-camera continue to ring out in the air. As the stampede runs away from the camera, the shot cuts to Ethan as he runs into the frame, chasing the wild animals. Ethan proceeds to shoot rapid-fire at the buffalo with a manic hysteria, determined to puncture and destroy anything he can. The scene mirrors the aforementioned shootout with the Comanches, but his relentless shooting demonstrates that Ethan has further lost control since that encounter. It’s also significant that Ethan chases something that is fleeing; his shots seem an attempt to hold something that’s out of his reach. His actions are unnecessary, and point to his immature and irrational traits when it comes to violence.

Like Reverend Clayton, Martin attempts to stop Ethan’s endless shooting; he exclaims, “Ethan, it don’t make no sense” and tries to take his gun away. Furious, Ethan yells spitefully at Martin and punches him to the ground. The scenes between Reverend Clayton and Martin reveals that Ethan’s ‘fear of disintegration’ transcends miscegenation; he shuns contact from any ‘other’ who tries to touch his gun. Physical proximity for Ethan is dangerous because it threatens him from feeling “whole”, thus Ethan resorts to his gun to exert his self-imposed boundaries between himself and the world around him. Ethan’s forceful retaliation to Martin demonstrates his further regression through violence; whereas Ethan uses words to fight off Reverend Clayton from touching his gun, he reverts to physical aggression with Martin. His immature and brutal attack demonstrates that Ethan is not the controlled and ascetic man that he tries to represent. Ethan’s use of his gun thus disarms “the validity of the mature image that he [Ethan] so confidently projects” and suggests that his outward aggression is an overcompensation for his internal repression.[9]

The scene further emphasizes that Ethan is a man who has been deeply traumatized. The moments in which Ethan wields his gun depict recurring scenes of violent outbreaks and aggressive behavior. There is a sense of repetition that’s integral to Caruth’s notion of trauma that is embedded in Ethan’s violent scenes; the respective battles against the Comanche and the buffalo bear striking resemblance, and Ethan’s beating of Martin recalls the earlier scene in which Ethan keeps the young man from seeing Martha’s dead body. The repetition of these moments of violence throughout the film indicates that Ethan is caught in a cycle of aggression. Just like Martin says, Ethan’s ceaseless firing “don’t make no sense”, as one buffalo would certainly provide enough food. Ethan’s treatment of his gun is thus senseless, a subconscious and repetitive action that evokes the state of perhaps his earliest trauma—a soldier on the battlefield. Of course, the buffalo are retreating, not attacking, which implies it doesn’t matter who or what Ethan’s opposition is—the external world is his enemy. His mindless shooting is his attempt to establish himself and annihilate his surroundings. Put another way, the repetition of physical violence is “the very attempt to claim one’s own survival”.[10] Ethan is in a state of shock—Martha is dead, Lucy is dead, and Debbie might be dead—and the only comfort he finds is through shooting his gun, an act that makes him feel ‘whole’ compared to the penetrated ‘other’. Ethan’s gunmanship reveals his inner fractures; just like his shooting, Ethan’s inner self is frantic, aimless, and out of control. Ethan’s shooting is a “profane space”, as Eliade would put it, for it is a moment of complete chaos. Ethan’s shooting does not have a “fixed point” with a projected orientation—rather, his shots disperse into the abyss of the world, into his own meaningless existence.[11]

Ethan’s bellicose actions with his gun do not demonstrate ‘regeneration through violence’; there is a regression, but there is no renewal. Indeed, it is the lack of gun use that ultimately resolves the film; Ethan’s decision not to shoot Debbie marks a notable shift in Ethan’s character. Although Ethan’s motivations for saving Debbie rather than killing her remain obscure and interpretive, his action suggests that perhaps Ethan can be reborn and reoriented from his prejudice and violence. However, the final scene in which a gun-less Ethan ambles off alone into the desert portends a tragic future; though he saved Debbie, viewers get the sense from the film’s final shot that Ethan is a figure who cannot be saved. Although his search finally comes full circle and he returns a “whole” Debbie back home, there is no sense that Ethan himself feels complete. The film’s outward resolution belies Ethan’s internal recursive battle; he remains a man who is at war with himself, “dissolving in Chaos” and haunted by trauma.[12] His return to the desert’s void establishes the repetitive nature of his existence; lost in the “fragments of a shattered universe”, Ethan is doomed forever to search the land for something he can only find within himself.[13]

 Works Cited:

[1]Thompkins, Jane. “Landscape.” In West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. (104)

[2] “Wexman, Virginia Wright. Star and Genre: John Wayne, The Western, and the American Dream of the Family on the Land. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993 (112)

[3] Wexman 107

[4] Wexman 108

[5] Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. (3)

[6] Ibid

[7] Wexman 107

[8] Wexman 108

[9] Wexman 113

[10] Caruth 64

[11] Eliade, Mircea. “Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred.” In The Sacred and the Profane. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959. (23)

[12] Eliade 64

[13] Eliade 24