When my brother and I were young’uns, our mum briefly visited Canada and the US, and brought my brother and I back cowboy and Indian paraphernalia as souvenirs. I don’t remember ever seeing a classic western as a kid, but somehow we knew the tropes; the “Indians” were baddies, and the cowboys were goodies. When we were creating our little narratives in play, (perhaps unknowingly brainwashed by the Hay’s Code) the cowboys had to win. That was the way the world worked.
I imagine this naïve innocence, built-up and reinforced by so many classic westerns, made the first of the genre revisions, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), all the more “uncomfortable,” as Martin Scorsese put it in his recent review of the film for the Hollywood Reporter. Perhaps it’s this feeling that can account for the Academy’s total snubbing of the film at that years Oscars. Despite this, The Searchers is now lauded as one of the best in film history.*
Ethan Edwards (played by western stalwart John Wayne), a former Confederate soldier, returns to his brother Aaron’s home in Texas after a few years of dubious wandering following the Confederate loss in the Civil War. Though Ethan stridently defends the Confederate value of white supremacy like they’d never lost. He derides Martin, a young man with Comanche heritage, brought up by Aaron and his wife Martha, as a savage.
When a local farmer has his stock stolen by the Comanche, the men of the valley are rounded up for a recovery (and to reap revenge). Ethan offers his services to the mission and tells Aaron and his son Ben to stay home with Martha and their two daughters, Lucy and Debbie. They discover the missing cattle dead, and Ethan realises the theft was a ruse to lure the men from defending their properties. They return to find Aaron, Martha and Ben slaughtered, and Lucy and Debbie kidnapped.
The men set out, waging war with the Comanche across river and desert, finding a raped and murdered Lucy, but failing to recover Debbie. The other men retreat, but Martin, who sees Debbie as his kin, and Ethan, who’s primary motivation seems to be revenge, continue on their quest to find her.
Despite his immense hatred for the Comanche, somewhere in Ethan’s hazy past he’s learnt about their spirituality and language. When the men are first looking for the girls, they find a dead Comanche ceremoniously buried under a rock. Ethan pulls his gun and shoots at both the Comanche’s eyes. “What good did that do you?” Asks the Rev. Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond). Ethan replies, in that deep, stout southern drawl;
“What you preach, none. But what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit land. He’ll wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.”
The act satiates Ethan’s desire for revenge, as well as validating the customs and spirituality of the Comanche (there being little chance of the nomads returning to their buried dead to witness the desecration). The Comanche are also shown to have reason for their brutal acts in the film (as the whites have). When Ethan finally comes face to face with their leader, Scar, he tells him why he has exacted revenge on the whites, “two sons killed by white men. For each son, I take many… scalps.” How many Comanche have Ethan and Martin killed in their own quest for revenge?
Ethan is a flawed hero, at once selfish, unforgiving, murderous, and unwavering, patriotic and fearless. Ethan serves as a critique of the rugged, male masculine heroes that once graced the genre without interrogation. Wayne rarely played a questionable character, his parts were always heroes of unambiguous morality. When he read the script of one of his later films, The Shootist, he made the writers change the script, purportedly telling them, “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.”
In real life Wayne was, as one would assume, a Republican, though wasn’t afraid to support the Democrats based on policy. He did however, lack pragmatism in his views on race. In a controversial interview in Playboy, he stated,
“I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people … I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans] … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
Perhaps Wayne found no fault with Ethan, or his views, unaware that Ford’s tale had a more nuanced moral agenda. Ford on the other hand possessed a tolerance in the least more sophisticated than Wayne. In an interview with the BBC, Ford said that during the making of the film, he hired Navaho, “to put these people on their feet.” In one of his later films, Sergeant Rutledge, a black cavalryman is wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a white girl. While perhaps atoning for the unambiguous portrayals of white morality in his earlier films, Ford certainly displayed more sensitivity and awareness of racial tension in his later works.
When The Searchers was released, it clearly didn’t sit well on the palette of an audience who liked their goodies and baddies clearly defined, always of course with the white American cowboy on the side of good. History, as we know, isn’t quite as clear-cut as Hollywood would have us believe, and America, like many other countries of similar ilk (like my own, Australia), is still coming to terms with a genocidal past. The film is optimistic, but weighed down with regret for the past and confused with a still-evolving historical conscience.
The film is bookended by a memorable frame; in the beginning, Aaron steps out on to his porch to survey the valley, his black silhouette juxtaposed against the colour-saturated Texan landscape, from which Ethan, the prodigal son, will return. To close the film, Ethan is framed in the same black silhouette walking back into the desert, his quest over, unsure of the future. Perhaps Ethan would be comforted by John Wayne’s own words,
“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
*American Film Institute poll in 2007 had The Searchers at 12th place, up 84 spots from the 1998 rankings, it is ranked 7th on Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, up from 13th on the 2002 poll, and 10th in the Cahiers du Cinema 2008 poll – after not even ranking in their top ten of the year in 1956.