John Wayne's character, Ethan, in The Searcher is used to not only embody the physical characteristics of the desert but also its tendency to constantly change. While Ethan's appears to fit Tompkins' description of the western hero: "To be a man in the Western is to seem to grow out of the environment, which means to be hard, to be tough, to be unforgiving (73)," his temperament isn't as solid as the audience is led to believe. We, as an audience, perceive Ethan to personify "the desert's fierceness in his hard struggle to survive, its loneliness in his solitary existence, and its silence in his frugal way with language (Tompkins 84)." However, the true value in Wayne's character is hidden beneath his hardness and is only glimpsed in his characters' transformation in the climax of the film.
After the seemingly endless search for Debbie, Ethan and Martin discover that she is hardly the nine year old girl they once knew. She has adopted the Comanche way of life as her own. While Martin remains determined to bring her home, Ethan remains true to the characteristics of the desert and disregards any emotion in the pursuit of revenge. However, when Ethan has the opportunity to kill her, he turns against the hardness of the desert, revealing the real the value of The Searchers, for Ethan finally understands that the desert is not only a hard, dry, infinite plain, but as Tompkins explains "The hero's passage across the landscape has ultimately a domesticating effect. Though it begins in anxious movement and passes through terror and pain, it continually ends in repose. A welcoming grove of aspens, a spring, and a patch of grass probide shelter and sustenance... If nature's wildness and hardness test his strength and will and intelligence, they also give him solace and refreshment (81)." The Searchers uses this moment of vulnerability to convey the other side of the desert and the hero, Ethan.