John Wayne did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.
One facet of the film that is always above these inconsistencies is the character of Ethan Edwards played by John Wayne. Obviously Wayne is no stranger in the western particularly not ones directed by John Ford, but Ethan is very much against Wayne's usual type. Wayne in the various westerns would play the likable hero who usually is a bit more sensible than anyone else in the story. His character would usually be quite similar in the films but that's not the case here. Ethan Edwards initial arrival seems to indicate this as it's a bit colder than the standard way in which Wayne usually rides up in the opening of the film. There's not that big welcoming smile or that usually friendly demeanor found to the usual characters played by Wayne. Wayne carries himself from the beginning with a far colder demeanor than usual showing from just his somber way of riding up that Ethan's life has not been a good one. There is just the most minor bit of Wayne's more common persona in simply the kinder attitude he presents in Ethan in the way he treats his brother's children, but Wayne only really shows this to be more of courtesy towards children than anything else.
In addition to that there is something that Wayne does especially well early in the film which is convey the relationship between Ethan and his brother's wife. Wayne specifically shows that the way he interacts with her is far more than the usual kindness between a man and his sister-in-law. Wayne is terrific as he gives the distance of the troubled past while still an obvious desire for her. It is made known that they obviously had an affair at one time, which is never stated out loud even once in the film itself. Wayne does great work by establishing that past relationship, which explains some of Ethan's distant relationship with his brother and some of his later motivation. Wayne does much with little early on as he creates the rawness of Ethan personality who still refuses to admit surrender in the Civil War and has clearly been robbing banks just before he arrived to his brother's home. Ethan's has had a rough life and that is worn by Wayne incredibly well. His life has not been the adventures of the usual character played by Wayne who still seems to have love of life even in bad situation, Wayne is quite effective as he seems to create Ethan as a man who seems like he might hate life.
Eventually the Comanche tribe seems to have attacked some cattle which leaves Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to join a posse to track them down while the rest of the family stays home. It turns out though that the Comanches only created a diversion to attack Ethan's family. Wayne has one particularly memorable moment when much of the posse goes to protect another potential target while that leaves Martin and Ethan to rush make the long way back to the Edwards's home. As Martin rushes off in the heroic fashion more fitting of probably the normal heroic Wayne type character Ethan rejects the idea. Wayne is brutally hard boiled in his delivery of Ethan's harsh wisdom as he states that their horses need rest and it is impossible to make the journey in time. Wayne does not hold back in portraying the cruel reality in Ethan as he basically says that he won't be the hero since there is absolutely no way in which to be one. Wayne though is very moving though as in the moment, unseen by anyone else and in complete silence, Wayne does express the reserved heartbreak in Ethan. In his eyes you see that Ethan knows that his family is doomed, but also knows that there is nothing that he can do about it.
The family is indeed massacred although it appears that Ethan's two nieces have survived and been taken by the tribe leaving the posse to take after them. Wayne is amazing in these scenes as he begins to reveal just how Ethan has been shaped by his interactions with the Comanche which likely started when they murdered his mother. Wayne does something particularly unique, for the time in particular, which is that he does portray Ethan quite bluntly, and I would say intentionally so, as a racist. Of course Ethan is given allowance for his feelings towards the Comanche, as revenge is often a good motivator for a hero, and that is usually considered acceptable. Wayne actually rejects this route because it is not the stoic type of hatred usually associated with that sort of character. Wayne makes it much more extreme, an absolutely searing thing which is a constant in Ethan towards the Comanche. Wayne does not make it a pretty hate no not all one. One scene exemplifies it the best where they find one of the dead Comanche raiders buried and Ethan goes about shooting out the corpse's eyes which the Comanche believe are needed to enter the afterlife. Wayne is amazing in the moment portraying a sadism in this, his hate is about more than revenge, he hates the people seemingly as notion.
What makes much of Wayne's performance so effective is that he never is the simple revenge seeking hero. He's really a mess of a man in all honesty and Wayne is convincing in creating the damaged mindset of Ethan as the story unfolds. One element so fascinating about his performance is that he never really shows an exact grief in Ethan. In the scene where Ethan has found that one of the nieces was in fact murdered, and probably worse. Wayne does not react with sadness but instead as almost a contained madness as Ethan mimes the burial and just another thing seems to snap in Ethan as he clearly thinking about another thing that he has lost to the Comanche. Wayne shows him to be a man, who's lost so much, that he's perhaps he's given up on grief leaving everything else but fuel to encourage his vendetta. Wayne carries himself with the needed intensity to convey just how much hate really is in Ethan's heart. One of his best scenes is when he comes face to face with the war chief Scar (Henry Brandon). It's a great moment as both men stare daggers into each other and we see the two men meet who have both been created in a way by each other, or at least men like them. I would actually say that the film would have benefited greatly if it developed the dynamic even more between Ethan and Scar.
That is sort of obvious though since all of the moments of the film that could be described as masterful involve Ethan, unfortunately the film takes its detours away from its compelling protagonist and leading performance. The detours are not good, although they don't harm Wayne. For one thing often he's just kinda to the side in these scenes, and when he is forced to interact he treads carefully enough to avoid being tarnished by them. The film does force him to be away from his darker side in moment but Wayne never forgets that side importantly. Actually some of his more memorable scenes are when Ethan gets slightly poetic. Wayne though makes Ethan's "That'll Be The Day", or "We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth.". Wayne makes sense of this, and delivers them quite brilliantly as coming technically from that same narrow view of Ethan. Wayne develops this in an outstanding fashion suggesting that Ethan is almost nothing without his violent intention. He succeeds in making the film's marvelous final shot honestly poignant as Ethan is left alone no longer with the purpose of the search or even revenge, left to drift since there is no place for him in decent society. Wayne creates a unforgettable subversion of his usual screen persona here giving a powerful portrait of a man truly created by the harshness of the west.