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John Wayne has been dead for over forty years, but still managed to create a storm of Twitter controversy recently when an old “Playboy” interview resurfaced—one in which he acknowledged belief in white supremacy, knocked Native Americans as “selfishly wanting to keep all the land to themselves,” and stated that “we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks.”
For anyone who remembers Wayne as a living actor, or has read even a brief bio, the only surprise here was social media suddenly discovering Wayne’s bigorty after it has been well-known for fifty years. As a political spokesperson, Wayne has long fell out of favor… until fellow draft-dodger Mango Mussolini made vilifying Native Americans fashionable again, along with broad bigotry against non-WASP males. January 6, 2021, Mussolini unlocked the trailer park gates and let loose his band of Jerry Springer-styled terrorist thugs who fancied themselves patriotic cowboys, chanting “1776!” As we all know—and some are hoping that we will soon forget—the result was five cold-blooded murders, including one law enforcement officer, with Mussolini’s Senate accomplices letting the inciter-in-chief off the hook. These parodies envision themselves as Duke wannabes, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. That cartoon redneck parody is an image that is all too often broadly assigned to the mythos of the American West.
I recall film and art students saying they were open to any genre, as long as it wasn’t a Western. That perception is easy to understand, but it is as erroneously stereotyped as anything the self-styled “Nationalists” drum up. The genre is much more complex and egalitarian. Even Wayne himself, as ignorant and mean-spirited as he could be, wasn’t so black and white. That complexity can be found even more in John Ford, who, with all of his artistic and personal flaws, was and remains in the top tier of American filmmakers. Ford was a card-carrying Democrat, which reportedly lead to countless arguments with his favorite leading man, Wayne (although both were bona fide supporters of the Vietnam War).
With The Searchers (1956) we see Ford’s evolving perspective taking shape and influencing his art. The result is what a lot of cineastes believe to be the quintessential Western, if not the greatest of all American films (the BFI currently lists it as the seventh best film of all time). Film critics are more divided, with Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael well-known (partial) dissenters. Occasional lapses into sentimentality, groan-inducing macho humor, racism and misogyny, a lumbering plot, overt characterizations (especially Hank Worden as Mose, the Shakespearean jester) and the complex message in the resolution involving Debbie (Natalie Wood) are frequently pointed out. Yet, despite its flaws, the greatness of The Searchers is widely acknowledged; the film is bigger than its missteps. Indeed, The Searchers is a film that has been written about almost as much as Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960) or Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane (1941). Andrew Sarris dubbed it “Ford’s greatest tone poem,” and others have compared it to Homer. Monument Valley, captured in magnificent Vista Vision, is a sojourn into the American soul, with all its paradoxical beauty and twisted repugnance intact.
The Searchers is a film that many would object to being classed as a progressive western. That objection has validity; perhaps a better description here would be a progressing western. The Searchers is one of several films that unintentionally set the wheels in motion for the diminishment of the western genre, which had appealed to many Americans of the period because it usually offered simplistic contrasts. There is a degree of truth in the classic western movie adage “the good guys wear white hats, bad guys wear black.” In Ethan Edwards (Wayne), The Searchers has the dubious honor of having a virulent racist as a protagonist; yet it is one of the most powerfully nuanced acting jobs in American cinema. Wayne’s performance mutes the lazy (and too frequent) assessment that he couldn’t act. As he unsaddles his fatigued horse, Wayne looks out towards the horizon, knowing that his family has been slaughtered. His expression is gut-wrenching; one that can be spoken of in the same breath as those of Lon Chaney, Renée Jeanne Falconetti, or Montgomery Clift. A thousand canvases could not as effectively capture the heartbreak written on that weathered face.
Later, Ethan is determined to find the family’s sole survivor, his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). His long, relentless search is not borne of an desire to save her, but rather to kill her, because she has been soiled by Comanche bucks. 1956 audiences, under the strangling grip of their Puritan heritage, recognized the obsessive WASP male vilification that consumes Wayne. Ford frames and lights the scorching rage and despair awash in Wayne’s face. Both director and actor were aware of what they were revealing and critiquing. It’s no accident that hardcore Wayne fans rarely discuss The Searchers. I never recall having watched the film once in all the years of “Rodeo Roundup Saturdays” my father put on. The Searchers is simply too arduous a mirror for those preferring flag-waving cowboys.
The same audiences ignores and/or dismiss Elvis Presley‘s Flaming Star (1960, dir. Don Siegel). Presley, like Wayne, is often claimed by conservatives as one of their own (and dismissed by liberals who tend toward over simplified stereotypes). In the case of Presley, they are wrong: there is plenty of evidence, the most obvious being Flaming Star, along with songs like “In the Ghetto,” “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” “I Believe,” and his numerous gospel records. Ford gets the same treatment from both sides (Quentin Tarantino has long expressed a loathing for the director). Yet, this is the same John Ford who has influenced everyone from Orson Welles to Akira Kurosawa. His influence is not simply in his aesthetics; in The Searchers we, like Ethan, are witnesses to Ford’s gradually evolving social conscience. Later, among the so-called “Guilt Treatment” films were Ford’s atoned for images of African-Americans (Sergeant Rutledge, 1960), Native Americans (Cheyenne Autumn, 1964) and women (7 Women, 1966).
The Searchers narrative is well known. Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards has finally come home, three years after the war’s end. The reason for his belated return is not given, but he may be wanted for various legal infractions, including bank robberies. Indeed, gunslinging preacher (no contradiction there) Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) suspiciously notes of Ethan, “you fill a lot of descriptions.” Ethan happens to have long been in love with Martha, the wife of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). Even though he is family, Ethan is not welcomed by Aaron. Likewise, Ethan is not at home with the Comanches, despite knowing their language and customs. He’s attached to his nieces and nephew, but hostile to his brother’s adopted son, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter)—because Martin is part-Cherokee, and despite that it was Ethan himself who saved Martin (as a child) and brought him to the family homestead after Martin’s family was slaughtered. “It just happened to be me. Don’t make more out of it than what it is,” Ethan snaps.
After a cattle raid, Ethan, Martin, and Brad (Harry Carey, Jr.) return home to find all have been murdered by the Comanches, with the exception of Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood, playing the young Debbie), who have been abducted. Ethan and Martin embark upon what turns out to be a five year search for the missing girls.
Ethan is a WASP male dinosaur headed for the tar pits. He damn well knows it, and his recourse comes by retreating into an obsessive hatred of all things non-white. He is aroused by his own hatred; it’s the only arousal he gets. He’s not passionate about Martha, even though we know he loves her. She’s a sexless Puritan prairie wife. When prairie girl Lucy is discovered to have been murdered by the Comanches, her boyfriend Brad is far more upset that she was raped than killed. The awkward romance between Martin and Laurie (Vera Miles) is equally chaste. It’s even disrupted by Martin unwittingly marrying a Comanche woman, who is treated reprehensibly. She likes to snuggle, and is kicked down a hill.
The Comanche who headed the raid is Scar (Henry Brandon). Although he is clearly the antagonist, he has reasons for his wrath; white men scapled and murdered his son. Scar has clearly spoiled Debbie. If that is meant to be viewed as a negative, the result works against intent. Wood, in her form-fitting Comanche dress, is the epitome of sex appeal, the only sex appeal found in the entire film. After Scar is killed, Ethan lifts her in his arms and surprisingly tells her, “Let’s go home.” Yet, in the famous closing shot, Ethan doesn’t enter through the doorway. He drops her off at the white Puritan shelter where she can be white again, freed of her feminine, non-Anglo Saxon hysteria, with white Martin and white Laurie as her family. However, Ethan knows it is a facade. He is rendered a brooding parody, an anachronism, sealed in the past, like Scar, like the dead Comanche whose eyes he shot out, like the fools of January 6, 2021. He is not part of the present or the uncertain future. He is too weak to change. His Confederacy is lost and he will never accept the loss. He did not Make America Great Again; Ford sees the hypocrisy and lie of that. The only thing Ethan can do is wander and fade away. Ford emotionally confronts America’s racist past with a “good riddance”; a vital element of that good riddance is Ford’s own look in the mirror.