Genre Review: John Ford’s The Searchers and the “End of the Western”?

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In the later films of John Ford (i.e., late 1930s onward), we already see how much the western has developed as a genre: yes, the depiction of women and “Indians” is still problematic, but, compared to most westerns of the day, characterization seems a bit more complex, motives more ambiguous, and the narrative more sophisticated as a result. To be sure, we’re still a decade or so away from really outstanding westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969), and a half-century away from the western’s complete overhaul thanks to programs on HBO, AMC, and FX. But both Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) demonstrated the potential for the genre to use the traditional western setting as a backdrop to bloody good story telling. The second film’s thematic concern with the dissolution of traditional boundaries such as race, nation, and home marks this film as one of the more complex of the period and signals that the genre had lost its innocence.

The Question of the Western’s Demise

Both Anne Thompson and Robert Kolker (who are by no means alone in their assumptions) have argued that the end of the western was a more or less definitive event, even if a specific death knell could not be pinpointed. Writing in the early 1990s, Thompson pointed to parodic pictures like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) as signs that the western was in decline. However, Thompson noted that the “cyclical nature of Hollywood” (52) meant that a revival was certainly possible. Writing nearly twenty years later, Kolker viewed the 1960s and 1970s westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969), and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) as evidence that the western had, indeed, “died.”

With successful film remakes like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), and TV shows like Deadwood (2004-2006) and, more recently, FX’s Justified (2010-2015), it seems hard to sell the idea that the western has ever come to an end. I would agree with Kolker that The Searchers questioned “the givens of the genre.” But I’d add that a particular type of western died out as a result and was replaced by the richly textured films of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood, and that it underwent another rejuvenation in the next twenty or so years.

The Case of Stagecoach

While The Searchers is the most sophisticated of Ford’s films, western or otherwise, Stagecoach demonstrates the early stages of the genre’s metamorphosis into a self-critical mode of cinema. The story (by Ernest Haycox, adapted by Dudley Nichols) is immediately engrossing since it features a cross-country journey in a stagecoach filled with several people of different social backgrounds, including a corrupt banker (Berton Churchill), the pregnant wife of a soldier (Louise Platt), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a prostitute (Claire Trevor), and an outlaw (John Wayne). The doctor’s opening quip to the prostitute sets the tone for a film that, while still conventional in its depiction of race, at least critiques traditional views of social class: “We’re the victims of a foul disease called social prejudice.”

And while the threat of an Apache attack looms large during the journey and constitutes an exhilarating conclusion (mimicked, of course, in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), the film’s real focus is on the passengers’ evolving relationships and, ultimately, what will happen to the outsiders once they reach their destination. As the prostitute Dallas puts it, in one of the film’s other memorable lines, “There are worse things than Apaches.” The outlaw, Ringo Kid, not surprisingly finds allies in both Doc Boone and Dallas.

Despite these strengths, Stagecoach was still marred by its uncritical prejudiced view of native culture: though the Apache are less visible in the film than in The Searchers, they are more wooden as a result. In addition, gender is still problematic. The “Ladies of the Law & Order League,” who drive Dallas out of town at the beginning of the film, are the sort of smarmy, self-righteous, tee-totalling kill-joys that were destined to promote the widespread growth of anti-feminism. I will give Ford a nod for the fascinating character of Dallas, who almost steals the show, if it weren’t for Ford’s obvious preference for the drunken philosophizing of Doc Boone (admittedly, portrayed well by Mitchell).

The Case of The Searchers

So where does The Searchers stand in relation to the earlier film? To answer that, I’ll defer to J. Hoberman, who, in his New York Times review essay on Glenn Frankel’s book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, said the following:

No American movie has ever so directly addressed the psychosexual underpinnings of racism or advanced a protagonist so consumed by race hatred.

This was written in 2013. But Hoberman notes that, despite the film’s obvious popularity in the 1950s and in the decades to follow, few Americans have really “seen” it, at least as director John Ford wished it to be seen: that is, as a “psychological epic.” (It certainly helps that the source text, Alan LeMay’s novel The Searchers, adapted for the screen by Frank S. Nugent, focuses heavily on a protagonist who is, like Ethan Edwards from the film, an “Indian-hating” Texas Ranger.) In particular, what makes the film stand out is its otherwise “heroic” protagonist’s psychosis, or his inability to recalibrate his thinking to the more complicated, more ambiguous boundaries formerly known as race, nation, and home.

The stage is set immediately with that most famous of establishing shots: the door opening. Man, what a beauty of a shot. We have cinematographer Winton C. Hoch to thank for that. In this opening sequence, Ford (at least as Hoch’s director) does a masterful job of tracking the different responses from the children and adults who see a stranger approaching on a horse. The two kids, Debbie (Lana Wood) and Ben (an uncredited Robert Lyden), respond excitedly, while the parents, Aaron (Walter Coy) and Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan), seem apprehensive. (And their dog seems restive as well.)

New audiences must have also wondered who this mysterious stranger was approaching the lonely homestead, until the camera finally revealed to us a recognizable western hero, John Wayne. But Wayne’s Ethan Edwards does very little to assuage the adult apprehension, particularly since he himself becomes the dark invader of other “homes,” including that of his enemy, Scar (Henry Brandon). It helps that Ethan is a stubborn, taciturn, and non-surrendering Confederate soldier. Unsure of even having a home to settle in, since his brother Aaron has accepted the Union’s victory of 1865, Ethan is immediately fired up when the “savages” that pose the biggest threat to American domestic comfort strip it away by abducting Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (played by sisters Lana and Natalie Wood).

Race, Nation, and “Home” Undermined

Though perhaps not as intelligent an analysis of “heroism” as a contemporary film like Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), The Searchers actually confronts the racism inherent in the western’s binary of hero/savage. An immediate counter-narrative to Ethan’s racism is offered by Martin, whose appearance makes him seem “half-savage” to Ethan. Martian is initially a foil to the older man who refuses to see him as a legitimate part of white society. Once it is discovered that Lucy has perished at the hands of her captors and that Debbie has become acculturated to the Comanche ways, Ethan and Martin are then completely at odds since Ethan shifts from a mission of rescue to one of murder: Debbie “ain’t white anymore.” But, as we discover, Martin undergoes his own psychological transformation as the result of Ethan’s influence.

Compared to Stagecoach, The Searchers complicates the easy manner in which men oscillate between the adulation of women and violent misogyny. (Though, again, the figure of Dallas, from Stagecoach, might be a small exception.) The best example is Martin’s repulsion to the Comanche woman “Look” (Beulah Archuletta), whose tribe offers her to the white men in exchange for material goods. Both white and Comanche society is clearly patriarchal and sexist, but Martin does not see the contradiction: he is out for the blood of men who have mistreated women, and yet he sees nothing wrong in his verbal and physical assault of Look, another woman. The contradiction is reinforced when Martin protects the newly Indianized Debbie from Ethan: they are actually two of a kind, despite Martin’s perceived role as a saviour and an enemy to Ethan.

Though he would see himself as a protector of women, Ethan actually strikes fear in the women he seeks to protect. As Kolker astutely notes, when Ethan encounters a group of rescued women who have spent time in Comanche society, his face reveals “a gaze that is at once full of hate, anger, and fear, and an agonized pity.” But the women themselves respond with fear when he approaches them, suggesting that he poses just as much of a threat as the hated Comanche. Martin, too, begins to acquire Ethan’s attributes of menace, so that, when the two men interrupt the wedding of his former love interest, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), they’re looked upon as almost uncivilized, as anathema to the traditional domestic space.

Both men’s responses to the Indian culture they encounter are, at least in part, Kolker argues, related to the anxiety over the inability to properly define what is and is not “Indian.” So, in one fell swoop, both notions of gender and race are undermined: these are supposed to be white women (Debbie and the other “rescued” women), and yet they appear to be neither since they exhibit behaviour that seems both uncivilized and unwomanly. While it is tempting to simply conclude that the film is taking a traditionally racist and misogynistic stance here, the ambiguous ending, where a white woman assimilated into native society is welcomed into a white home, says otherwise. The ambiguity is more pronounced since, long before she returns to the old homestead, Debbie has informed Ethan and Martin, “These [the Comanche] are my people.”

Ford ultimately turns the very idea of western “heroism” on its head. First, as it has already been established, Ethan’s arrivals and returns almost always inspire anxiety, if not dread. And Martin, the corrupted youth, has the same impact. Appropriately, when the door closes at the end of the film, Ethan remains outside, while the “half-savage” Debbie Edwards is allowed into the home. (Is there any real comfort in the fact that Martin is allowed into the household?) Moreover, The Searchers spelled the end of a certain type of western, not the least because the very idea of “home” (and the associated categories of nation and race) had been overturned. “Home” and its instability was surely on the minds of both the anxious pioneers in the period depicted (ca. 1868) and the audience of the 1950s who were looking out for new kinds of “red” men—Martians and Communists.

Works Cited

Hoberman, J. “American Obsession: ‘The Searchers,’ by Glenn Frankel.” New York Times. 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. [Full text available here.]

Kolker, Robert. Media Studies: An Introduction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Web. [Partial view available on Google Books.]

Thompson, Anne. “Beyond-the-Pale Riders.” Film Comment 28.4 (1992): 52. Web. 22 Sep. 2015. [Available through ProQuest.]

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