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John Wayne

The Searchers Theory: John Wayne’s Ethan Is Really Debbie’s Father

A popular theory for The Searchers suggests that John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is really the father of his kidnapped niece Debbie. Wayne spent many years starring in low-budget, “poverty row” Westerns when his career began. This includes Wayne’s only “horror” movie Haunted Gold, but it was the success of 1939’s Stagecoach that made him a star.
This John Ford directed Western featured an ensemble cast, but it was Wayne’s Ringo Kid who stood out to audiences. Wayne later cited Stagecoach as one of his personal favorites and acknowledged how much it – and his many collaborations with director Ford – changed his life and career. Wayne and Ford went on to work together over a dozen times, which included movies like They Were Expendable, The Quiet Man – another favorite of Wayne’s – while the three movies Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande formed Ford’s so-called “cavalry trilogy.”
Of the many collaborations between Ford and Wayne, The Searchers is often considered their masterpiece. This 1956 epic cast Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a bitter Civil War vet who returns to his family home after eight years. Shortly after his arrival, his brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew are all killed in a Comanche raid. His youngest niece Debbie was also kidnapped, so Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin set out on a years-long rescue mission. The Searchers is considered one of the greatest Westerns and greatest American movies ever made. It was an influence on filmmakers like David Lean, Martin Scorsese and even George Lucas, with the original Star Wars borrowing several ideas from it. It’s also been suggested that Ethan is Debbie’s father following an affair with his brother’s wife Martha, but is there any substance to this theory?
Ethan’s Relationship To His Family In The Searchers

the searchers ethan and martha subplot

The Searchers is a movie that trusts audiences to pick up on character and story details without spoon-feeding exposition. This can be seen in the opening, where Ethan returns after an eight-year gap. In the years since the Civil War ended, it’s heavily implied Ethan became a mercenary in Mexico, and that he and his brother Aaron share a slightly strained relationship.
His nieces and nephews are thrilled he’s back, however, and Ethan appears especially warm with young Debbie; he even gifts her one of his medals. The Searchers explores Ethan’s racism also, and he is depicted as having an obsessive hatred of Native Americans, even making veiled comments to nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter, who played Pike in Star Trek’s pilot) about being one-eighth Cherokee. The headstone for his mother reveals she was killed in a Comanche attack, which is likely where this hatred began.
What’s intriguing to note in these early scenes is the relationship between Ethan and Martha (Dorothy Jordan). While they rarely exchange dialogue they often give each other meaningful glances. When Ethan leaves to inspect a local cattle theft, Martha is seen lovingly looking at his coat in another room before handing it to him, and the two embrace as Rev. Capt. Johnson (Ward Bond) tries his best to ignore the obvious charge between the two. This moment would turn out to be the last time Ethan sees her alive.

Could Debbie Be Ethan’s Secret Daugther?

ethan and debbie in the searchers

Aside from the implied romance between Ethan and Martha, The Searchers reveals that Debbie is eight years old and that Wayne’s – who regretted playing Genghis Khan in The Conquerer – Ethan just happened to be away for eight years. This is far from proof, but Ford himself is said to have framed the relationship between Ethan and Martha in a way that audiences could imply something had happened between them; the eight-year timeframe is unlikely to be an accident on this front either.
Debbie being Ethan’s daughter doesn’t change the story of The Searchers much, but it does add an interesting subtext to Ethan’s quest. Throughout the film, Martin questions if Ethan actually wants to save his niece or if he plans on killing her for integrating with a Native American tribe. Racism and fear of miscegenation is a major theme throughout, which was introduced early over Ethan’s discomfort with Martin’s heritage and it’s repeated throughout, even by “civilized” characters. When Ethan finally finds Debbie – played by Natalie Wood – she has become a wife to Scar (Henry Brandon, of John Carpenter movie Assault On Precinct 13), the Comanche chief who led the attack on the Edwards homestead.
Scar is also a mirror of Ethan’s prejudice, and of his actions he states that after two of his sons were killed by white men that “For each son, I take many scalps.” Ethan’s revulsion at the mere idea of Debbie becoming part of a tribe sees him attempting to kill her, only for him to be wounded in the process. After becoming absorbed by his own single-minded need for revenge, The Searchers‘ ending sees Ethan chase after Debbie following a Texas Ranger raid on Scar’s camp. Instead of killing her, Ethan picks her up in his arms and carries her home.
Why Ethan Could Never Return Home

the searchers doorway ending

The Searchers closes on one of the most iconic final shots in movie history. Ethan carries Debbie back to the ranch of their neighbors the Jorgensens; Debbie enters, as does Martin with his love interest Laurie (Vera Miles from the original Psycho movie), but instead of joining them, Ethan turns and walks into the distance as the door closes behind him.
In The Searchers final scene, Ethan fulfilled his vow to bring Debbie back but likely realized his bitterness and rage has isolated him from his family and that he could never lead a normal life. His love for Debbie overrode his destructive impulse to kill her for becoming Scar’s wife – even if it was against her own will. The Searchers is easily one of the darkest roles Wayne played, and is far from the unambiguous hero he played in many of his Westerns.
The reading that Debbie is the secret daughter of Wayne’s – who thought Cahill U.S. Marshal was his worst Western – Ethan adds another texture to The Searchers, but it was left ambiguous by design. Earlier in the story, Ethan vindictively shot out the eyes of a dead Comanche warrior so his soul would be left to “… wander forever between the winds.” This becomes his own fate in a way, as he returns to the desert following Debbie’s return, knowing Martin, Laurie and Debbie represent a future he can never be a part of.

John Wayne

John Wayne’s Cause of Death and His Last Words

John Wayne is a legendary Western movie star who the world will always recognize for his contributions to the medium. However, his final words on his deathbed didn’t have anything to do with movies or his career. Rather, he used them to speak sentimental, heartfelt words aimed at his daughter, Aissa Wayne, who stayed at his bedside.

John Wayne’s cause of death was stomach cancer

John Wayne wearing a cowboy hat

John Wayne | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

According to, Wayne died on June 11, 1979, of stomach cancer at the age of 72. However, it wasn’t his first encounter with cancer, as he fought it for more than a decade. Unfortunately, the doctors reported that the actor was too weak to begin chemotherapy and experimental treatment, which the actor approved of.

Wayne coined the term “The Big C” for cancer in 1964. He ultimately needed to have his left lung and four ribs removed. Wayne seemed to recover at the time, despite regularly being short of breath. However, he didn’t stop his habit of smoking and chewing tobacco regularly, which certainly didn’t help with his situation.

John Wayne’s last words were to his daughter, Aissa Wayne

Outsider confirmed that Wayne was surrounded by his family during his stay in the hospital. He was never left alone, as the doctors tried to do all they could to strengthen his physical state. However, their efforts ultimately failed. Wayne spent his last days before his death in and out of consciousness.

Wayne’s name is generally associated with a tough sense of masculinity, but he also had a sentimental side of him. These stories particularly come from his family, including Wayne’s final words.

Wayne’s daughter, Aissa, was at his bedside at the time of his death. She was holding her father’s hand and asked him if he knew who she was. He responded with his last words, “Of course, I know who you are. You’re my girl. I love you.”

‘The Shootist’ was his final acting role

Wayne’s final movie role before his death was starring as J.B. Books in The Shootist. The film follows his character, who is an aging gunfighter who has cancer. He heads to Nevada and rents a room from the widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son, Gillom (Ron Howard). Many folks confront Books for various reasons involving his notoriety. However, Books doesn’t plan to die quietly but will go out with a bang.

Wayne surprised critics and audiences with his performance, as many folks previously believed that he simply played himself in all of his roles. However, he wouldn’t ultimately earn an Oscar nomination for his role.

Wayne earned his first two Oscar nominations for Sands of Iwo Jima and The Alamo. However, it wouldn’t be until 1969’s True Grit that he would finally earn the golden statue. Many of his fans still believe that he deserved to get an Oscar nomination for his final work on The Shootist.

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John Wayne

John Wayne Was ‘Miserable’ Because of ‘Venomous Remarks’ on ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

The Western genre went through a series of changes over the years. However, John Wayne will always remain one of the most iconic depictions of the Western film genre with performances in big titles, such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Unfortunately, he didn’t have such an easy time on the set. Wayne had a “miserable” time filming because of John Ford‘s “venomous remarks.”

John Wayne played Tom Doniphon in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' John Wayne as Tom Doniphon and James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard shouting at assembly

L-R: John Wayne as Tom Doniphon and James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance follows Senator Stoddard (James Stewart) as he returns to a small town for a funeral. The press questions his arrival, but they’re about to hear the story of his connection to a local man named Tom Doniphon (Wayne). The story brings audiences back in town when Tom saved Stoddard from Liberty Valance’s (Lee Marvin) crew of outlaws. However, Stoddard and Tom are the only two willing to stand up to him and his crew.

Wayne’s performance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is iconic. He once again delivers his Western charm along with his repeated use of the line “pilgrim.” As a result, popular culture continues to refer back to the legendary actor’s performance.

John Wayne was ‘miserable’ because of John Ford’s ‘venomous remarks’ on the set

Wayne worked with Ford on many films, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. However, the filmmaker often targeted Wayne with “venomous remarks,” verbally attacking him. Michael Munn’s John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth detailed some of the comments that Ford made toward the actor, which really made him angry.

“But the most damage Ford did was to the friendship me and Duke Wayne might have had,” co-star Woody Strode said “He kept needling Duke about his failure to make it as a football player, and because I had been a professional player, Ford kept saying to Duke, ‘Look at Woody. He’s a real football player.’”

However, the comments didn’t stop there. Ford brought up Wayne not serving in the military while on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As a result, he praised Stewart’s service. This is a particular weak spot for the actor, who deeply regretted not serving in the military when he had the chance.

Strode continued: “It’s like he’d needle him about whatever reasons he had for not enlisting in the war by asking Jimmy, ‘How many times did you risk your life over Germany, Jimmy?’ And Jimmy would kind of go, ‘Oh, shucks’ or whatever, and Ford would say to Duke, ‘How rich did you get while Jimmy was risking his life?’ … What a miserable film to make.”

‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ goes down as one of the best Westerns of all time

Ford never came forward with a specific reason for verbally attacking Wayne on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Perhaps it was to get a better performance out of the actor. However, it clearly left an impact on the cast and crew.

Fortunately, that didn’t negatively impact the finished product. Wayne fans often assert that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the best Western films of all time. It continues to impact filmmaking to this day. The film only earned an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, but it remains a classic that many viewers rewatch.

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John Wayne

John Wayne Was ‘Ready For a Fight’ With His ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ Co-Star

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of John Wayne‘s most iconic roles. However, he didn’t have the most enjoyable time behind-the-scenes. Wayne’s frequent collaborator, John Ford, gave him a difficult time. As a result, he was “ready for a fight” with co-star Woody Strode, who once explained the severity of the situation.

John Wayne plays it tough as Tom Doniphon in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance finds Wayne playing a local man named Tom Doniphon in a small Western town. Senator Stoddard (James Stewart) comes into town for his funeral, which confuses the press. However, the distinguished man tells the story of how Tom helped protect him against a crew of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).

Moviegoers embraced Wayne’s signature dialogue delivery. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance includes one of Wayne’s most iconic words: “pilgrim.” He repeatedly calls Stewart’s Stoddard this, which was an insult within the time period. Nevertheless, Tom maintains Western masculinity as shown in both his narrative and the way the actor plays the part. The character is typically accompanied by his handyman, Pompey (Strode)

John Wayne was ‘ready for a fight’ with co-star Woody Strode

Michael Munn’s John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth chronicles the iconic actor’s career, including his work on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford repeatedly harrassed Wayne on the set with rude remarks that intentionally pushed his buttons. However, the actor took it out on Strode.

“This really pissed Wayne off but he would never take it out on Ford,” Strode said. “He ended up taking it out on me. We had one of the few outdoor scenes where we hightail it out to his ranch in a wagon. He’s driving and I’m kneeling in the back of the wagon. Wayne was riding those horses so fast that he couldn’t get them to stop. I reached up to grab the reins to help, and he swung and knocked me away.”

Strode continued: “When the horses finally stopped, Wayne fell out of the wagon and jumped off ready for a fight. I was in great shape in those days and Wayne was just getting a little too old and a little too out of shape for a fight. But if he’d started on me, I would have flattened him. Ford knew it, and he called out, ‘Woody, don’t hit him. We need him.’”

However, Wayne ultimately calmed down to allow them to continue filming. Nevertheless, Strode felt that “miserable” tension on the set as a result of Ford’s behavior.

“Wayne calmed down, and I don’t think it was because he was afraid of me,” Strode recalled. “Ford gave us a few hours’ break to cool off. Later Wayne said to me, ‘We gotta work together. We both gotta be professionals.’ But I blame Ford for all that trouble. He rode Wayne so hard, I thought he was going to go over the edge. What a miserable film to make.”

James Stewart has top billing on ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ultimately gives Stewart top billing over Wayne in all of the promotional materials. However, the film itself and the theatre marquees place Wayne’s name above his co-star. Some audiences contemplate which role is truly the main character of the story, as they both experience hardship and change.

However, neither actor would get an Oscar nomination for their performances in one of the greatest Western movies ever made. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance only earned a nomination for Best Costume Design, although it lost to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Nevertheless, the movie remains a vital part of cinema history.

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