Glenn Frankel interprets John Ford's The Searchers as a film about race, missing what makes the film bookworthy. His interpretation is typical of contemporary criticism and dismissive of the older sort. Explaining why reviewers in 1956, when the film was released, didn't mention race, Frankel cites Ford biographer Joseph McBride's view that Americans then were endemically racist, thus blind to the obvious. He should look to the beam in his own eye.
Frankel's book begins with a disproportionately long account of the historical event behind the novel behind the film: In 1836, a band of Comanche attacked a stockade in Texas, massacring five settlers and taking five captives, including nine-year-old Cynthia Parker. Cynthia spent 24 years in captivity and bore three children before being returned to the world of her family and enduring, understandably sadly, the short time left her. More relevant to the novel and to the film is Cynthia's uncle, James Parker, who spent eight years searching for the captives.
Alan LeMay's novel The Searchers, published in 1954, set the massacre and kidnapping in 1868 and chronicled an eight-year search for a girl named Debbie by her uncle, a Confederate war veteran named Amos Edwards, and a wholly imagined character named Martin Pawley. Frankel characterizes the uncle in the novel as motivated solely by hate, which is inexplicable given that Amos articulates the theme of the novel—pioneer virtue and stoic endurance—in a speech repeated almost verbatim in the film, but by a settler woman:
This is a rough country. It's a country know how to scour a human man right off the face of itself. A Texan is nothing but a human man way out on a limb. This year, and next year, and maybe for a hundred more. But I don't think it'll be forever. Some day this country will be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.
Frankel suggests that Ford reassigned these words in the film because the uncle, renamed Ethan Edwards, is played by John Wayne, for whom the sentiment was "too philosophical." The more plausible explanation is that Ford altered the uncle's character in the film, making it considerably darker to suit the story and theme Ford aimed to convey, so the speech no longer fit him.
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For Frankel and other contemporary critics, Ethan's dark and vengeful anger in The Searchers is reducible to racism. Indeed, Frankel views Ford and all his westerns through the prism of race: there is something "malign," he writes, in Ford's treatment of Indians in his 1924 silent film The Iron Horse; in Stagecoach in 1939, Apaches are unduly depicted as "murderers and rapists"; Two Rode Together in 1961 endorses "racist sentiments." At best, Ford is inconsistently racist: biographer McBride is cited as approving of Fort Apache, made in 1948, as "pro-Indian," but aghast that two years later, with Rio Grande, Ford was back to making "a racist hate movie about Indians." And Frankel asserts, offering no proof, that scriptwriter Frank Nugent "tempered some of Ford's patriotic bombast and latent racism." (More below on the implied link between patriotism and racism.)
One wonders why Frankel doesn't join Quentin Tarantino—who said of Ford in an interview last year: "To say the least, I hate him"—and simply wash his hands of Ford. Perhaps, since Ford is so widely recognized as the greatest American filmmaker, it is for art's sake that Frankel and others feel they must bend over backwards to defend him from critics like John Tuska, for whom The Searchers is "one of the most viciously anti-Indian films ever made," comprising nothing less than an "argument in favor of killing Indians." In any case, the critical consensus today, adopted by Frankel, is that Ethan Edwards embodies America's racist heritage; thus The Searchers forces moviegoers—who identify with Wayne—to confront their own racism.
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Oddly, Ford himself seems to have bent over backwards to make it clear that The Searchers was not about race. The practical effect of how he altered Ethan's character, for instance, is to draw obvious parallels between Ethan and the Comanche chief Scar. Scar kills Debbie's family, and Ethan for much of the film intends to kill rather than rescue Debbie herself; Ethan shows disrespect for the settlers' Christianity when he interrupts a funeral, but respect for Indian beliefs when he shoots out the eyes of a corpse to deny him rest; when Ethan meets Scar, their faces appear as mirror images, and their exchange reveals that they act from identical motives. Ethan takes Scar's scalp, even though he didn't kill Scar—something not even an Indian would do; and in the famous final scene, Ethan is excluded from the community to go on wandering like Scar's band, the Nawyecka—a Comanche word Ethan translates as "goes about."
And what of Martin Pawley, the adopted son of Ethan's murdered brother and Ethan's companion on the search? As the years go by he grows into manhood; he stands ready to defend Debbie from Ethan; he is ultimately responsible for Debbie's rescue; he kills Scar; and he is readopted into the community. Ethan dominates the film and is the character we most remember; but from the point of view of the settler community within the film, Martin Pawley is the hero. And whereas in LeMay's novel Martin was white, Ford makes him part Indian. How could he have made it clearer that race is not the point?
So what is the film about? Frankel cites Jean-Luc Godard as comparing its finale to "Ulysses being reunited with Telemachus," but doesn't follow up. He could have profited by reading a couple of splendid essays in Print the Legend: Politics, Culture, and Civic Virtue in the Films of John Ford edited by Sidney A. Pearson, Jr. (2009). Paul Cantor's "The Western and Western Drama: John Ford's The Searchers and the Oresteia," discusses the film as a classic revenge story in which the "revenge ethic is characteristic of pre-political situations" at a moment of transition to civilization. "Cowboys versus Indians in Ford," Cantor writes, "turns out to be a reprise of Greeks versus barbarians in ancient epic and tragedy and involves a similar degree of complexity." He cautions critics to "pause and reflect before condemning either Homer or Ford as racist," pointing out that neither constructs a simple opposition between Greek/cowboy and barbarian/Indian. Indeed, both Homer and Ford suggest that something grand is lost in the transition to civilization, represented in the savage heroes—Achilles and Ethan Edwards—who alone possess the virtues to make the transition possible but who are left behind. "The critics who insist on referring to Ethan as a villain," Cantor writes, "have evidently forgotten what a tragic hero is."
John Marini's "Defending the West: John Ford and the Creation of the Epic Western," expands on Jorge Luis Borges's claim that the epic tradition, neglected by modern "literary men" of Europe and the Americas, was saved in the 20th century by the Hollywood western. That tradition, Marini argues, had been dealt a near deathblow by Progressivism, which in its focus on the future denied the existence of the eternal things—"whether God, the gods, the ideas, or nature"—on which the epic depends. Westerns, on the other hand, "understood the past...in an unhistorical way," probing "the antinomy between nature and convention, savagery and civilization, law and justice, the individual and the community." Films like The Searchers address human situations and problems that are always with us. It was only after the 1970s that western films "lost sight of the universal human problems," by trying "to understand the past in light of contemporary opinions and prevailing prejudices."
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It makes sense in this light that in misreading The Searchers as a critique of racism, Frankel characterizes it as "the forerunner of the postmodern wave of introspective westerns" that culminated in films like Unforgiven in 1992—films that "dissect the values and assumptions of the genre." On its face, however, this is an extraordinary claim, given that John Ford himself, by all accounts, created the classic American western and defined its so-called values and assumptions.
Frankel describes the pre-postmodern western as offering "a comforting pseudohistorical narrative of America as an exceptional and triumphant nation, built on a foundation of frontier values of rugged independence, rough justice, and moral certitude." And try as he and others might to identify Ford with such a view, there is not a jot or a tittle of anything pseudo about the virtues, about heroism, or about the exceptionalism of civilization in The Searchers or any other Ford film. This is why Quentin Tarantino hates Ford and not Clint Eastwood, and why Eastwood's Unforgiven is customarily praised as a reaction against the John Ford western. This reaction is commonly described as one of realism against myth, understanding myth as pseudo history. But is the postmodern view of a world with only anti-heroes, a world beyond good and evil, truly closer to reality than the older view reflected in the epic tradition drawn upon by Ford?
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The disturbing quality of The Searchers is felt most jarringly in a scene where the lovely and innocent Laurie Jorgensen, Martin Pawley's love interest who is played by Vera Miles, echoes Ethan's view that it would be best to kill Debbie, since she has been defiled by her captors and has "savage brats of her own." This uncharacteristic outburst is no more about racism than is Ethan's characteristic anger—Laurie is wild to marry Martin, part Indian or not—and even more than Ethan's anger it is meant to show the fragility of civilization, which is always under threat. In this regard, Marini has suggested that all of Ford's films following World War II—when Ford, reporting to Bill Donovan in the Office of Strategic Services, filmed not only the major battles but the German death camps—contain an element of pessimism about the endurance of the virtues required to defend civilization.
Frankel relates an apropos story that Ford, a keen student of history, likely knew and absorbed: Charles Goodnight, the legendary cattleman who had served in the Texas Rangers in his youth, came upon a man in 1860 whose daughter and son-in-law had just been slaughtered by a band of Comanche and Kiowa. The man was sitting before a fireplace, roasting an Indian scalp on a dogwood stick. "As I entered he looked back over his shoulder," Goodnight recalled, "and bid me good morning, and then turned to his work of roasting the scalp. I don't think I ever looked at so sad a face."
We miss the point of The Searchers at our peril.