Finding The Searchers in Twenty-first Century America

Of the three arms of psychological warfare — radio, news and movies — the latter, from my point of view, has by far the greatest potentialities as it combines the impact of sight and sound. […] [Film] is an industry that stands ready to produce the most potent instrument of war possessed by any nation in the world.

— Nelson A. Rockefeller to John Hay Whitney, May 1, 1942

Beauty. Beguiling, mercurial, mesmerizing. Skin-deep or in the eye of the beholder, it is a force to be reckoned with. Shaping human life, creating and destroying it, beauty is not unlike an element of nature itself. Like the wind, one can be swept away by it; like water, one can be drowned; like fire, burned; like earth, buried in it. Having inspired human beings to the highest achievements, it has also brought low the greatest of minds. Displacing the will with its great, magnifying eyes, beauty’s enchantment resides at the center of all poetry, all propaganda.

Certainly, for any propaganda to be effective, it must necessarily cloak itself in beauty’s hall of mirrors. The absolute meaning and message partially obscured beneath layers of pleasing and persuasive images. Uncanny in its familiarity and distance. Such is the case in film director John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers.

Universally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, Ford’s 1956 tour de force reveals the inscription of white supremacy at America’s heart. A virtuoso of cinematic storytelling, Ford — by then a Hollywood veteran — could enfold his deeply racist messages into the technological elegance of VistaVision. Indeed, the panoramic wide-screen images of the natural world in The Searchers, or rather man against said world, are among the most canonical in the history of cinema. Serving to highlight the struggle against nature — an idea perhaps more central to the theology of Manifest Destiny than any other — the images truly are, in a word, beautiful. Breathtakingly so.

But to be sure, these images are the background to a story far more personal to America and far more treacherous than any other: the genocide of the indigenous people of this land, their enslavement, and the subsequent enslavement of Africans in turn. To safely put these simultaneously at both the center and the margins of the story, Ford enlists one of the primary symbols of the un-remembering of this catastrophic historical violence: John Wayne.

The fertility of the collaborations between Ford and Wayne is legendary, and perhaps only comparable to the remarkable series of films made together by John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, or later, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. In any case, Wayne, as a vivid illustration of white male dominance and authority over all things holy and profane, was never on such extraordinary display as within the character Ethan Edwards.

A veteran of the Civil War who fought on the side of the Confederacy, Ethan returns to his brother’s homestead in Texas after many years of self-imposed exile. It is hinted at that he was involved in a massive bank robbery, as he shows up with several bags full of newly minted Yankee dollars. Like so many highly skilled film actors of the era, Wayne can turn on the charm with enough wattage to light the darkest corner of the mind, and he does so in greeting his brother’s children and wife. He then goes even further, presenting the young son with his war saber and the youngest girl, Debbie Edwards, with a medal of his military honors. It is all as warm and homespun as one might witness in the greatest films of Frank Capra or Douglas Sirk. That is, until the presence of an Indian.

Martin Pawley, the character played by actor Jeffery Hunter, is not white but what Ethan calls a half-breed. Ethan’s sneering countenance spills over the dinner table like a rank effluvium when Pawley takes a seat. The Edwards clan try to lighten the mood by reminding Ethan that he once saved Martin’s life when he was abandoned as a baby. Ethan spits out it just happened to be him that walked by, that it could have been anybody. We see at the table that Martin Pawley clearly seeks Ethan’s good graces. No one there is going to challenge Ethan’s racist virulence, at least not yet.

Ford’s pattern of editing, the careful blocking of movement in each scene, quickly establish the pace and rhythm of the story about to unfold. In the scenes immediately to come, Ford’s even keel and clockwork precision hide the malevolence and irony that is clawing beneath the surface of the lush cinematography. (That’s Winton C. Hoch, A.S.C., behind the camera, a master of light on the scale of James Wong Howe, and one of the original creators of Technicolor.)

To be clear, these are homesteaders on what was technically still legal frontier. This is not their land, per se, so much as it is a grant. A promissory note that, should they keep it clear of Indians and other undesirables, indicates they can stay awhile. This theme, familiar to other classic Westerns such as the superior George Steven’s work Shane, is made much of here. As if to remind the audience of the great risks taken by these presumably noble early American settlers who, after all, just want the best for their family and us, the citizen-inheritors of their good works.

To this extent (and like Shane as well), we hear the women merely as expressions of the male will. They are there to help manifest and increase the desired outcome of the male authority in their lives. When they speak, they speak as mouthpieces of what the men would have them say. Just the opposite of John Huston’s work with Arthur Miller, The Misfits, wherein Marilyn Monroe always seems to either say what the men don’t want to hear or what their inchoate speech will not allow them to say. In doing so, Miller and Huston created something, along with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, of a kind of Anti-Western.

Once it has been established that the Edwards homestead is a target for possible Indian attacks, we are introduced to an ensemble of soon-to-be sworn-in temporary Texas Rangers. The ensuing scene of the somewhat bumbling group entering the Edwards home displays Ford’s virtuosity for mixing comedy, almost slapstick at times, with high drama. A kind of directorial balance and finesse almost entirely absent from contemporary filmmaking. It is the morning after Ethan’s initial arrival and a breakfast of Americana, coffee and donuts, is being served. Enter the posse lead by Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton, played with panache and brilliance by the actor Ward Bond.

To grasp the propagandist import of this film, it is crucial here to note that Clayton is both an officer of the law and a holy man. Reverend Captain Clayton. This not-so-subtle symbolism of law enforcement divinity is essential to understanding the highly variegated and nuanced levels on which The Searchers is about to operate. Remember that in the development of the New World through colonization, slavery and the extermination of the indigenous were not exclusively economic propositions. They were deeply theological ones as well. Again, the skill of Ford as a craftsmen of story and his unique facility with the beauty of images and choreographed movement to affect a given mood make this secular/religious conflation both easy to overlook and impossible to miss.

After a few laughs the initial encounter between Ethan and Clayton is telling and poetic in a uniquely American vein. As Clayton is swearing-in the assembled posse in advance of their hunting down Indians, Ethan makes himself clear in a style of laconic speech which by the 1950s had become John Wayne’s cinematic signature. Speaking with the clarity of church bells on a cold Sunday morning, Wayne intones, “I figure a man is only good for one oath at a time. I took mine to the Confederate States of America. So did you Reverend.”

No mistaking that. The Civil War is long over, at least in the eyes of its victors, but for Ethan and all that he represents then and now, it will never end. Why? Because he gave his word, he made a vow. A Promise Keeper, you might say. He is going to keep and fulfill his promise to a sworn enemy of the United States, the Confederacy. The fact that this line of dialogue resonates so deeply, and without doubt why Ford placed it at the beginning of the narrative, is it establishes what can be called Ethan’s sense of character. It is one of loyalty and fealty to an ideal that is, like Clayton, both secular and religious. He is a man of the Word, the word he keeps.

Ethan joins the posse of newly appointed Rangers, as does Martin Pawley, whom Ethan calls “blanket-head.” Also added is the beau of the eldest Edwards daughter, Lucy. His name is Brad Jorgenson, played by the actor Harry Carey Jr., a John Ford regular. As they venture out into the desert in pursuit of Indians, it isn’t long before they stumble across the shallow grave of one presumed to be part of the tribe they are seeking. What happens next is one of the most memorable scenes in the The Searchers, and one that is pregnant with subtext.

While all parties agree it is highly suspicious that the grave is so atypically shallow, none can agree on just why such a tactic is being employed. Are they meant to take it as a warning? Are they being misled, drawn further out into danger? And just who is in charge here, Clayton or Ethan? In a fit of frustration, Brad lifts a heavy stone and thrusts it down, driving it into the half buried corpse. Taking this as his cue to escalate further the contemptuous emotions and level of violence, Ethan whirls out his pistol, trick-shot style, blasting both eyes out of the dead man’s skull.

Again, the dialogue that follows is telling, poetic, and propagandist almost by slight-of-hand. The Holy Lawman Clayton demands of Ethan, “What good does that do?” Ethan’s response more than says it all, it tells a story familiar throughout the Americas, North and South, from the first conquistador to the present day. “By what you preach, none! But by what the Comanche believe — now he can’t enter the spirit land, but has got to wander forever between the winds.”

In other words, Ethan, unlike his apparently less-sophisticated warrior brethren, understands that the war the white man is fighting is not just a secular war fought on the ground in Texas, but a profoundly religious war fought between factions on a spiritual plane. A war in Heaven to see who goes to Hell, or can’t leave the Earth.

The posse returns later to find the Edwards homestead ransacked and destroyed by fire, the bodies of the dead, raped and mutilated. It is assumed that the youngest, Debbie, played later in the film by Natalie Wood in one of her earliest roles, and her older sister Lucy have been taken alive. Kidnapped.

We can’t repair our world, our present or future, until we fix our past — pin it down in time and place; shine the brightest light on it, measure it and study it with an unflinching eye — then name it for what it was.

— Alfredo Véa, The Mexican Flyboy

In May of 1971, as cities throughout America convulsed in political, social, and economic turmoil, John Wayne had this to say in an interview with Playboy magazine, “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.”

To say that Wayne’s words are perfectly in tune with the values expressed in Ford’s pre-eminent film from decades earlier is to radically understate their significance. What is equally important to understand is how remarkably they articulate the current political crisis in the United States vis-à-vis Trump and the “law and order” rhetoric familiar to his campaign and its subsequent amplification through the media and by members of his cabinet.

As I have discussed elsewhere with historian Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Trump’s emulation of show business is not any more of a new wrinkle in American politics than the vision it espouses. In fact, it is a vision of America that might rightly be described as hyper-traditional. A vision that, however factually erroneous it may be, is shared by both Wayne and his creation with Ford, Ethan Edwards. It is equally useful to note that Wayne also named one of his sons Ethan.

Politics as performance and performance as political identity is not only integral to the happy marriage of psychology and advertising that is at the center of American popular culture, it is the axis around which historical whiteness revolves. Who gets to be white — or, in the case of immigration — who deserves to be delegated as such, is largely a matter of embodying the ideal of whiteness itself. Show business, with its Stanislavskian charismatics and Madison Avenue wiles has long provided the keys to this elusive kingdom of authority and commerce.

As the quest continues within The Searchers, we find that Ethan and Martin are now men alone, or man and half-man alone, depending on whose side you’re on. As the two close in on where they believe Debbie may be held, a trail they have followed for many years now, they visit a fortress run by the Cavalry.

Within the military command post in the far West, far away from Texas, the soldiers have collected a group of white women who were once kidnapped by Indians. Hoping that Debbie may be among them, Ethan and Martin are shown to their room. What one sees there is akin to Sam Fuller’s depiction of an insane asylum in Shock Corridor. Women of many ages in various states of psychological dismemberment, gibbering, drooling, screaming, or staring into space. Each of those who might be the now-older Debbie are seen without result. She is still missing.

Leaving the outpost, the commanding officer turns to Ethan, saying of the new liberated women, “It’s hard to believe they’re white.” To which Ethan replies in disgust, as if to emphasize their newly valueless status in the New World project, “They ain’t white. Not anymore.” This slight exchange of words and the sentiment it expresses, however brief, is of incalculable importance in clarifying what this classic of world cinema, a work of propaganda rivaled by Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, is really all about. A white woman is only white to the extent that she can perform the function of the white man’s will. Should she by fault of physical or psychic injury no longer be available to avail such increase, she is no longer deemed worthy of the honor. In American law, it is an idea not at all unfamiliar to the debates surrounding abortion access nor miscegenation.

Earlier in the film, Martin accidentally finds himself married by way of a trade in commodities with an Indian tribe along the trail. The woman, his new property, is at one point viciously kicked down a hill when she attempts to lay near him. It is a scene that is played for guffawing laughter by Ethan as he observes.

In the climatic ending to The Searchers, Debbie is indeed found by her Uncle Ethan and half-brother Martin, and not surprisingly has no desire to leave with them. In her new life she is bride to the tribe’s Chieftain, has mastered the language, and is in Ethan’s words, is no longer white. Nevertheless, she is recaptured by her previous family, rescued as it were, at which time Ethan contemplates murdering her in the manner of an honor killing. This impulse is subverted by her half-brother Martin, and as one might expect, having been reunited with her original homesteading kin in Texas, the film ends on a happy note.

[I]n the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. […] I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.

— Flannery O’Connor, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction

The Searchers has remained a touchstone within cinematic tradition for generations since its 1956 debut, and John Wayne, one of the biggest stars Hollywood has ever produced, remains as internationally popular as ever, counting admirers on the left and the right. Some of the most innovative and exciting filmmakers have paid homage to the masterpiece in one form or another. Scorsese places the film in the operatic love letter to his own youth, Mean Streets, as the film childhood friends Johnny Boy and Charlie see after burning a couple of easy marks for cash. Jean-Luc Godard, an ardent champion of the film, offers it as the code name used for the band of anti-bourgeois cannibal rock musicians terrorizing the French countryside in Weekend.

A film unlikely to ever be remade, the revival and resuscitation of its virulent mythology is still very much with us. Whether it is the spurious arguments about the virtues of embracing Confederate statuary, or the electoral brinkmanship ensnaring debates about race and immigration, The Searchers presents us with an urgent conundrum. How can a work of art be great, even beautiful, charting new aesthetic territories and laying fertile ground for artists of the future, while at the same time being informed by the most backward and criminal elements of the New World’s origins? A question for today.

Comments (1)

  • Wayne’s Ethan is portrayed as a psychopath. As with the end of Paul Schrader’s retelling in HARDCORE, that fate of Natalie Wood is hardly guaranteed as a smooth return to status quo. Ford further complicates relations by changing the book and making Jeff Chandler’s character, clearly sympathetic, have Native American blood. The movie is filled with uneasy ambiguities. Is it disturbing? Definitely! That is why it has endured. See Ford’s SGT. RUTLEDGE for further clarity into his own view of race relations. Is Ford without sin? Few directors were in contrast to our present understanding.. Yes, Ford perpetuated stereotypes and that should be pointed out, but THE SEARCHERS is not an endorsement of Ethan’s character or attitude.

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