Entry from July 11, 2007

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The fourth film in the series, John Ford’s The Searchers with John Wayne, screened on Tuesday, July 10th. Before showing the film, I spoke as follows:

I noticed in the paper this morning that the latest installment in the Die Hard movie franchise is advertising itself as being — in the words of Peter Travers of Rolling Stone — “terrific fun.” I don’t think anyone would ever describe tonight’s movie, The Searchers by John Ford, as terrific fun — or, indeed, any kind of fun — though lots of people have described it as terrific. There, in a nutshell, is the difference between real heroes and cartoon heroes. There’s nothing fun about being a real hero, and whatever else John Wayne is doing in The Searchers, he’s not having much fun. But is he a real hero? Back in Week One, I said that the first four films in the series would show us examples of what I called the Virtuous Hero. From him, we will go on, in the next three weeks, to the Cool Hero and, finally, to the Cartoon Hero, but first I have to explain how Ethan Edwards, Wayne’s character in The Searchers, can be considered a virtuous hero.

Whatever may have been our differences of opinion about Sergeant York or Sergeant Stryker or Marshal Will Kane, nobody has yet questioned their classification as virtuous, but I foresee some problems on this score with Ethan Edwards. We first meet him returning to his home in Texas from the Civil War three years after its end carrying a sack full of gold. It seems likely that he has spent the intervening period as one of the Confederate irregulars — Jesse James was the most famous of these — who fought on as guerrillas or bandits as the occasion demanded. “I don’t believe in surrenders,” he tells Ward Bond’s Reverend Sam Clayton. Those are words that we’ll want to remember. The fact that he never speaks of where he was or what he was doing before he turns up unexpectedly on his brother’s doorstep makes it pretty clear that Ethan is a man outside the law even if not, currently, an outlaw.

But it also becomes clear from the beginning that he is true to an inward sense of honor that has become detached from its social context, that is the honor group, which created it. In this he is a lot like that quintessential lawman, Marshal Kane in High Noon. “Figure a man’s only good for one oath at a time,” he says pointedly to the Reverend Clayton who is trying to swear him in as a deputy; “I took mine to the Confederate States of America. So did you, Sam.” That the Confederate States of America no longer exists by this time, doesn’t seem to bother Ethan at all. To him, what’s important is that he’s keeping faith with himself — and with the idea of honor and duty that he pledged when he swore his oath — even if he’s the only person left in the world who holds on to these standards.

As I said when we watched The Sands of Iwo Jima, there’s nearly always a certain element of nostalgia about the man of honor, who looks back on the great men of the past because he hopes to be able to emulate them. Insofar as he takes his “role-models” from among the dead — as perhaps a returning veteran would be even more likely to do — he cuts himself off from his living community. Ethan Edwards is such a man cut off. The film begins and ends with two of the most famous shots in movie history, both of them using a dark interior as a frame and opening a door on a magnificent Western vista in vibrant color with Wayne in the middle of it. When that door closes in the final shot, it is a reminder that he has been excluded from the society within and left to haunt that amazing landscape of which he has now become a part. Again and again in the Westerns of the 1950s we see this elegiac touch, the last of the cowboys riding off into the sunset at the closing of the heroic period of the West and its supersession by the tamed civilization that he did so much to make possible by fighting and finally vanquishing its enemies.

I hasten to add that I know that’s not how most historians — or most cinéphiles — look at the matter these days. And most ordinary people, now eager for morally unproblematic space wars and other fantasies to distract them from the burden of their own history, don’t think about it one way or the other. Now it has become fashionable to look at this civilizing process as a story of murder and oppression by the alien white, European culture of the aboriginal American one which a generation of academic sentimentalists has taught us to regard as superior. The Searchers shows us, I think, a much truer-to-life version of the West and how it was won. The world it presents to us is one of tribal warfare, the white tribe and the red tribe alternately seeking to kill or subjugate the other to its own ways before the same can be done to it.

Into the midst of this struggle, the introduction of the blue-coated U.S. cavalrymen is meant to be seen as a new and decisive element. And in all of his encounters with the Federal troops we can see that Ethan has decidedly mixed feelings about them. He has, after all, spent about as much of his life fighting against them as he has in the quest with which they are now supposedly assisting him. The scene when Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter as the supposed “half-breed,” Martin Pawley, find an Indian encampment where everyone, including Martin’s Comanche “wife,” has been slaughtered, presumably by the soldiers, is meant to remind us that with this new element in the equation, it must only be a matter of time before that long-running tribal war is resolved in favor of the white Europeans.

And that will mean an end to the way of life of Ethan as much as to that of the Comanche chief, Scar, played by Henry Brandon. Ethan’s extensive knowledge of the Indian language and culture that he professes to despise is just one of the ways in which the film shows the similarity between these two men, in spite of their being deadly enemies. That similarity is already apparent to us long before Ethan’s taking of a scalp seems to drive it home even to him — and, with it, the realization that his way of looking at the world has become obsolete. Yet this affirmation of racial pluralism, if that is what it is, is also one of many ways in which The Searchers shows us that our idea of “racism” is inadequate to describe what is going on here. Early on, Ethan explains to Martin and Brad, played by Harry Carey Jr., why the Comanche raiders who have carried off his niece, Little Debbie, are so hard to catch that they scarcely seem like “human men.”

“A human rides a horse until he dies, then goes on on foot,” he tells Martin. “Comanch comes along, gets that horse up and rides him another 20 miles — and then eats him.” Here the disjunction between the “human” and the Comanche works in favor of the latter, who seems to his most dedicated enemy to be almost super-human. Later, he describes what he thinks is his own advantage in this otherwise unequal contest. “Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we”ll find ‘em in the end, I promise you. We”ll find ‘em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.”

It’s another way of saying that he doesn’t believe in surrender — but it’s also a great simile because it reinforces the whole visual logic of the picture. From the opening shot of the man and the landscape framed together in the doorway of the Edwards ranch, everything works towards the identification of this man of the West with the West itself: the desert and the magnificent mesas of Monument Valley, Utah, and the sky. His referring to himself as a “critter” is perhaps a back-handed way of claiming for himself that extra-human status he attributes to the Indians.

Ethan’s elemental quality, his alignment with the forces of nature, is what raises him to the stature of the heroic, but we still have to consider the matter of his virtue. And here, I fear, some of you may resist my description of him as virtuous. Even if you agree that calling him a “racist” would be silly and anachronistic, you still may not want to let him slide on the question of his determination to kill Little Debbie, played as a teenager by Natalie Wood, once she has been defiled, as he sees it, by becoming assimilated among the Comanche and taken as one of Scar’s wives.

The audience of 1956 was nearer in time than we are to the 19th century’s notions of feminine purity and pollution portrayed in The Searchers, but in some ways it was even more remote. The Victorian euphemism for rape — “a fate worse than death” — was already regarded as a joke and probably even more of a joke than it is now, after decades of feminist consciousness-raising on the one hand and our awareness, on the other, of that large part of the world outside the West where so-called “honor killings” of rape victims by their loved ones show that, to them, it still is a fate worse than death. John Ford and his screenwriter, Frank Nugent, took a big chance by forcing their audience into imaginative sympathy with an attitude towards sex and purity that were regarded as long out of date.

For it’s not just Ethan who is horrified by the Comanche’s sexual practices. Laurie Jorgensen, played by Vera Miles, has herself been waiting for Martin Pawley since they were three years old, so her reaction is perhaps not so surprising when Martin tells her that he means to bring Debbie home after she has spent years with the Comanches.

“It”s too late,” she says, “She’s a woman grown now.”

“But I gotta go, Laurie, I gotta fetch her home,” says Martin.

“Fetch what home?” she says. “The leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own?. . . Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He”ll put a bullet in her brain. I tell you,” she adds, referring to Debbie’s dead mother, “Martha would want him to.”

Whether this is true or not, people are prepared to believe it could be. Martin’s insistence that Debbie is alive and must be rescued looks almost naive in the light of the scene with the deranged white women that the cavalry have rescued from the Indians. The closer we look at it, the more it seems that the essential difference between civilization and savagery boils down to sexual restraint on the part of the former, and the sort of romantic love we see in Laurie and Martin. At the least, we ought to be able to understand what Ethan means by his brutal response that — for a woman, at least — “Living with Comanches ain’t being alive.”

Of course, the irony is that for him living, if not exactly with the Comanches then closer to them than to his own people and very much in the way that they live, is the only way of being alive. When the civilization on whose behalf he has fought them so fiercely finally triumphs and their way of life ends, so does his. It’s not any harder to imagine how Debbie, raised as a Comanche, is going to function in white society than how he is, which is why the camera leaves him outside the circle of Christian civilization, still a part of that Western landscape at the end. And here, I think, is another comparison with Marshal Kane. He’s an outcast because he has been doing civilization’s dirty work for it. Once it has been done and civilization is safe, the civilized don’t want to know how it was done. And they don’t need him anymore either.

We notice, for instance that Ethan is the only one who sees the most horrible sights in The Searchers — the loved ones, including his loved one, who have been raped and murdered — and this makes those sights more horrible to us than if we had seen them, which we don’t. Ethan forbids the others to look. Like us, they can only imagine what he has known. This terrible knowledge he must bear alone, even though it separates him from his own people. That’s a theme to which Ford returned six years later in another movie he made with John Wayne, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and it is perhaps the last word in heroism. After this we have only the cool hero and the cartoon hero, whose adventures in a world that doesn’t need saving or isn’t worth saving may be terrific fun but will never again be terrific the way The Searchers is terrific.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts