It's a story about bigotry and cruelty made by a bunch of guys who- to use a phrase Ford liked to apply to himself- were "hard-nosed" about those sort of things. The landscapes are beautiful- mostly Utah pretending to be Texas- but the things that are going on in the foreground are foul. Violence and rape- the memory of them, the fear of them- are never far away. They get frosted over by lumpish attempts at humour- which, like the equally lumpish humour in Shakespearian tragedy- only serves to point up the ghastliness. Ethan Edwards- with whom we can't help identifying- (and please don't tell me John Wayne couldn't act- because this is one of the greatest performances on celluloid) comes with the bigotry baked in- and acts accordingly; his sidekick Martin is just as cruel- but out of insensitivity and ignorance (his treatment of women is abominable.) Ethan knows too much, Martin knows too little. Together they cut a swathe across the West but at least Ethan knows what he's doing- and why.
I didn't watch the ending this time round but I remember vividly how the preacher and his vigilantes go tearing through the teepee village, killing indiscriminately- and how Ethan scalps Scar and finally walks out of the knees-up at the end, clutching his arm, having returned Debbie to the chintziness of Mid-Western civilization. The wilderness reclaims him. The door swings to behind him. He's helped make America and it wasn't pretty and those who can stomach it can keep it.