Number 2 Most Wanted – Ethan Edwards (John Wayne)
The Searchers (1956)
If you’ve never seen The Searchers, you should still be familiar with two iconic aspects of it. There’s THAT shot; Ethan Edwards silhouetted within a doorframe against the expanse of the frontier. It’s a shot that has echoed throughout the history of cinema. Everything from The Simpsons, to Red Dead Redemption, and Inglorious Bastards, have tipped their hat to John Ford’s imagery.
Then there’s the man in the shot, played by John Wayne, an icon forever synonymous with the genre. Here he’s a former confederate soldier returning home three years after the end of The Civil War, who sets out on a mission to ‘save’ his niece from a Native American tribe.
Hailed as a revisionist Western by some, The Searchers, and in particular Edwards, have faced justifiable criticism over the years. Most notably, his belief that his niece should be killed, rather than suffer the ignominy of a ‘savage’ upbringing. After all, this is supposed to be our hero.
So why include such a morally dubious character in a list of notable cowboys? It’s simply because he prompts so much discussion. Ethan is such a psychologically layered anti-hero from an age we hoped we’d left behind; bigoted, racist, and judged for that in the narrative by Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin, who just happens to be 1/8th Native American. Rest assured, of our Magnificent Seven reserve list, we’ll bump him off in the opening reel.