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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) Continue reading PROGRESSIVE WESTERNS: JOHN FORD’S THE SEARCHERS (1956)