Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) undergoes a characteristic upheaval throughout this masterful rendition of the classic Western revenge story. From a returning member of the defeated Southern Confederacy boiling over with racial hatred, self hatred and uncontainable violence, Ethan becomes a somewhat humane and sympathetic version of the ‘Ranch guardian’.
Wayne manages to encapsulate almost all of the meaningful ideologies present in the Western narrative, especially the role of the masculine character. However, most poignantly, he hovers between Brutality and Confinement and Savagery and Humanity which contributes to the influence of the famous, final scene.
As the subject of an ‘inside-out’ shot, Ethan floats awkwardly on the porch allowing all the members of the reunited and partially reconciled family that he himself saved to come together inside. The door closes and he is left, alone, outside.
This becomes one of the most famous scenes in one of the most celebrated Westerns of all time, and for good reason. It symbolises the contradiction of the Western perfectly; leaving the protector, the saviour, of western frontier society to “ride away” - as the lyric instructs - because he has become inimical to the very society he redeemed. There is no place for Wayne’s’ character in a community which strives to separate itself from the savagery and brutality of the Native American and the landscape. Wayne conflicts with these very intentions as an expert of the wilderness and a brutally violent character.
When identifying further reasons why Ethan cannot be apart of society after his 5-year long search for Debbie it helps to review his likeness to ‘Scar’, the Indian chief.
Throughout the film, Ethan displays savagery and violence that make his character a mirroring of Scar himself. He scalps his kills and shoots the eyes out of an Indian corpse. He mindlessly slaughters Bison and madly glares, like Mose, as he shoots down oncoming tribesman. It can be said that Ethan and Scar are two sides of the same coin. They highlight the haziness between the binary pairs of the West. They fill the ‘grey area’ between Savagery & Humanity and Brutalisation & Refinement.
Ethan physically stands upon the porch, but it is what he represents that wont be allowed in. His likeness to the savage is to apparent for the idealistic American society. Although he - through great effort and risk - extends the law and civilisation of the frontier culture, in doing so, he must escape it.