Searching for Meaning in a ’50s Western

When I went to high school, there were two teachers who used to argue about a John Wayne movie called The Searchers. One teacher showed it in a class that he taught on Westerns. The other thought it was racist garbage. A basic version of the summary is as follows: John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a cantankerous Confederate veteran who returns home to Texas, only to have most of his relatives massacred by Comanche warriors and his niece kidnapped. Not surprisingly, Ethan character does not objectively evaluate the situation and conclude that the Comanches attacked because the whites were trespassing. Instead, he sets off with his part-Cherokee adoptive nephew named Marty to find his niece. Throughout the movie, it becomes clear that Ethan has a pathological hatred for Native Americans. We aren’t told what he thinks about blacks, but probably nothing good. Last night, I was looking for a movie to watch and decided to watch The Searchers, then write a blog post analyzing whether or not it was racist or, as some people claim, actually a subtle attempt at criticizing racism. The movie is told more or less entirely from the white point of view. Can a sympathetic account of the Native American experience be told from the point of view of frontiersman? It’s difficult. A good analogy is the novel Frankenstein. The real victim of the story is the monster. After being created by Victor, he is abandoned by the scientist and left alone and unloved. Filled with grief and rage, he begins a killing spree. At one point, he offers to stop the violence if Victor will build him a mate. Victor refuses, and the monster kills his remaining family members. Unfortunately, because the bulk of the story is narrated by the incessantly whining Victor, we end up feeling the most sympathy for him, even though he brought all of the pain and suffering on himself. In order to build up some degree of sympathy for the monster, Mary Shelley at least lets him narrate a portion of the book, retold by Victor. The Searchers doesn’t even do that. So we end up with a situation in which white settlements are slaughtered, and the loved ones of the dead are left to carry on. What don’t we see? We don’t see precisely why the Comanches might object to the influx of settlers. We don’t see, for example, Comanche children going to bed hungry, because the arrival of the whites has caused the tribe’s food supply to dwindle. We don’t see Comanche warriors unable to find buffalo to hunt, because whites have killed them for sport or skin. Time that could have been spent showing events like these and giving an added layer of complexity to the film is instead spent focusing on a romantic subplot involving Marty and including scenes that really contribute almost nothing to the overall plot. To be fair, there is some dexterity in the film. Scar, the Comanche antagonist, mentions that he has killed many whites in retaliation for the death of his sons. Of course, Scar is also played by a German actor, and while you can talk all you want about colorblind casting, I seriously doubt that they would have cast Paul Robeson as Ethan if he had auditioned. Ethan’s virulent racism towards Native Americans is portrayed in a negative light, while the biracial Marty is the real hero. And Ethan’s niece actually develops a sense of attachment to the tribe that has kidnapped her, causing her to initially refuse to go back with her white family members. Her reaction, by the way, is based on fact. Benjamin Franklin, one of our more far-sighted though still warty founders, once wrote that, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. And that this is not natural [only to Indians], but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet within a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.” This is not multiculturalist revisionism. This is evidence from a primary source, a man who would have had no reason to make the Native Americans seem more favorable than whites. There is strong evidence that the old Native American cultures had much to be admired. It is unfortunate that these cultures were destroyed when whites ravaged Native Americans with disease and warfare and converted them into wards of the State. So is The Searchers racist or sympathetic toward Native Americans? I believe that it represents a clumsy attempt at attacking racism. In 1956, incumbent president Dwight Eisenhower won his bid for reelection. We know that Eisenhower sent federal troops to allow integration in Arkansas. It is also true, however, that he used the n-word and opposed a federal commission to monitor against workplace discrimination. And in 1956, black Congressman Adam Clayton, Jr. endorsed Eisenhower, because Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson was too racist. In short, the 1950s was a prehistoric time period in many ways. I think it likely that Searchers director John Ford believed that an obviously pro-Native American film would have been a box office failure. And in all probability, it wasn’t about white or red to Ford, it was just about green. So, he made a film that was seemingly racist but actually tried to get the audience to sympathize with the Native Americans. For evidence, we should look at John Ford’s background. Having grown up in Portland, Maine, Ford recalled that African Americans “lived with us. They didn’t live in barrios. Our next-door neighbors were black. There was no difference, no racial feeling, no prejudice. My sister Maimie’s closest friend was a Mrs. Johnson who was black. A wonderful woman.” In a 1960 film, Ford cast his close friend, black actor Woody Strode, as the protagonist of a film about the first black sergeant in the United States cavalry. And in an interview, Ford astutely commented that, “We’ve treated them [Native Americans] badly, it’s a blot on our shield; we’ve robbed, cheated, murdered and massacred them, but they kill one white man and God, out come the troops.” So I believe that Ford was attempting to make a movie that would do Native Americans justice and make lots of money, two somewhat conflicting goals in the 1950s. Unfortunately, one thing that might have hampered the Mainer’s efforts was John Wayne. While Ford was ahead of his time in some ways, John Wayne was much less so. According to the book John Wayne: American, Wayne opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a violation of private property. His 1971 interview with Playboy Magazine gave us the following quotes.

            “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. 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.”

            “Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in Midnight Cowboy, a story about two fags, qualifies [as a perverted movie]? But don’t get me wrong. As far as a man and a woman is concerned, I’m awfully happy there’s a thing called sex. It’s an extra something God gave us. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be in pictures. Healthy, lusty sex is wonderful.”

            “With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

            You begin to see how the urban legend about the coroner finding forty pounds of fecal matter in John Wayne’s body got started, because the man was full of crap sometimes. Oh well. He was pretty good in True Grit. (The remake is better.) Still, I have to imagine that trying to make an anti-racism movie with John Wayne would be like trying to make a pro-abstinence movie with Angelina Jolie. And compared to Gone with the Wind, The Searchers ends up looking like Roots. You have to remember that even in the 1980s, we had books like North and South that came across as perhaps a bit racist. (The T.V. miniseries tried to tone this down, but it can still make you cringe at times.) The Searchers is best watched either purely for cinematic quality/entertainment, although that comes up short at times, or to analyze the evolution of Native Americans in film. 

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