April 27, 2005

That'll Be the Day

I really don't like Westerns, as a movie genre. I think they're hopelessly mired in cliché, all but a few are poorly made, and as for any semblance of historical accuracy . . . Don't get me started. From a purely artistic standpoint, an overwhelming percentage of Westerns are useless things.

Now, before any Western lover out there get all up in arms, I'll be the first to concede their immense cultural value. After the American frontier was declared to be effectively closed in the census of 1890, a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. This paper stated the famous "Frontier Thesis:" that the frontier was what had given the American people their unique individuality and vitality . . . their very identity, really. The frontier was effectively the source of American freedom.

There can be no doubt that our country was largely shaped in its formative years by westward expansion, or that our cultural identity is closely tied to this same movement. Westerns are so important to the American spirit that they own their own genres in American literature, and (much to my frequent annoyance) American film. Westerns were dominant box office contenders for decades. With the passage of time, subgenres have even been spawned . . . and I'm not sure which is worse sometimes, the "classic" or "revisionist/enlightened" Western.

Tonight I watched The Searchers (a classic Western), which I had not seen for many years. This is not a terrible movie by any means . . . and yet by Western standards it is considered to be one of the genuine greats. I found it to be a quality grab bag. It made me want to love it and hate it at the same time.

John Wayne stars, John Ford directs, and the supporting cast includes names like Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, and Ford-regular Ward Bond. The story begins in Texas in 1868. Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, the Confederate who never surrendered, returns suddenly to his brother's home with no real explanation of where he has been since the Civil War ended three years earlier. Some initial groundwork for the story is laid when Ethan produces a large quantity of Yankee money which may or may not have been stolen, and reveals a very strong prejudice against Indians when the adopted son of the house (Martin, a foundling rescued by Ethan many years earlier) enters and we discover that he is one-eighth Comanche.

The next day, a group of local men ride up and recruit Ethan and Martin to go out after cattle rustlers, but this proves to be a Comanche feint meant to draw the men away from their homesteads. The Indians attack the Edwards' home, killing everyone but the two daughters, Lucy (probably 16) and Debbie (9). Thus begins an epic search to recover the two girls which will last five years and cover not only Texas, but parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico as well. (Incidentally, none of the movie was actually filmed in any of those places.) Within weeks of the beginning of the search, Lucy is found dead, and only Debbie remains to be saved. Martin and Ethan form an uneasy alliance (although Ethan's authority is never really in question) in pursuit of their mutual goal.

I say mutual . . . Martin wants to rescue Debbie, but before many of the years have passed, Ethan's mission is to kill her. To him she has ceased to be his niece, and has become only the "leavings of a Comanche buck." Thus, even though the two men have the same destination, they have very contradictory ideas of what they will do when they finally get to it.

As the search drags from months into years, further random subplots wind their goofy ways into the main story. Martin has a sweetheart, Laurie, the sister of Brad, who was in love with Lucy and was killed in a mad, vengeful suicide charge at the Comanche camp after her body was discovered. Laurie is, incidentally, also the daughter of the man whose cattle were originally . . . errr, "rustled," thereby spawning this whole thing. Laurie loves Marty, but he isn't the only suitor. A triangle is formed when he just won't stay put and ultra-hayseed Charlie comes a-courtin'.

Meanwhile, random happenings on the trail try to provide comic relief and advance the plot. Martin accidentally gets himself an Indian wife when he doesn't understand what he's trading for. Her name is "Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky" (that's "Look" for short), and she runs away when she finds out that they are searching for Chief Scar, the Comanche who perpetrated the raid and stole Debbie. (I have very strong feelings about the consequences to the screenwriter who perpetrated that name . . . is he a Texas Comanche, a Chicago crime boss or a Pirate of the Caribbean?) Anyway, Look leaves an obvious trail behind her which eventually leads them to an abandoned camp where Scar was attacked by the US Cavalry. Talk about a Wild Goose chase.

Get it? I didn't until after the movie was over. Ow.

I'll summarize the climax for you briefly now . . . sorry if I leave a few characters in the dust. Martin and Ethan, having failed to either rescue or kill Debbie once they find her, arrive back at "base" just in time to interfere with Laurie and Charlie's wedding. The resulting brawl between Marty and Charlie is interfered with in turn by the arrival of a Yankee cavalryman who wants the local Texas Rangers and all other able-bodied men marshalled for an attack on the Comanche encampment where Debbie is being held. Ethan and Marty join the group as scouts . . . and, of course, with their own respective agendas.

They find the Indian camp at night, and decide to charge at dawn. Marty goes in alone to attempt a daring rescue (I should note that I was quite shocked to discover that this sequence was ripped off wholesale, visuals and all, by George Lucas for Episode II . . . just add lightsabers). The cavalry charges in, but Marty has already killed Scar. The American troops are victorious, Ethan spots Marty and Debbie running for it and chases them down on his horse. Marty tries unsuccessfully to stop him and he chases a panicked Debbie over a hill and down the other side where she collapses, cowering before him. He leaps from his horse to stand in front of her . . . then reaches down, scoops her up in his arms, and utters those touching and immortal words (which I've heard in at least 378 other movies) "Let's go home."

The Searchers, like all John Ford movies, makes fantastic use of Western scenery. The locations are gorgeous and shown to their full advantage. Ford does some really great things with cinematography. I love the way the movie is bookended by almost identical opening and closing shots. After the credits finish at the beginning, we see a view of the rugged frontier through the doorway of a humble homestead, and Ethan's silhouette approaches from the distance before the woman of the house spots him as she appears in front of the open door. In the final shot of the movie, the various characters re-enter the house, again with the camera aimed out through the darkened doorway onto the bright Western terrain, before Ethan (left alone outside) moves slowly away.

But I hated some things, too. The addle-brained Mose Harper baffled me (which is probably why I haven't really discussed him). Is he a half-wit because he is a half-breed? How can he be so shrewd and so scattered at the same time? Is he in the movie purely for comic relief, and if so, why? The scene that disturbed and annoyed me most, however, was when Ethan and Marty inspect a number of women captives that the cavalry has rescued from the Indians. All of them have been driven completely out of their minds . . . one begins to scream uncontrollably when the men enter before subsiding and returning to her crooning and rocking back and forth. Two fourteen-year old girls with red paint smeared across their foreheads simply stand and stare at the men with empty eyes opened unnaturally wide and immense, frozen smiles.

I have read quite a number of Indian captive stories, both fictional and nonfictional, and I know of no historical precedent for this madness produced by living with "savage" Indians. Yet the movie implies that every woman who was captured was either raped and killed or has gone totally insane. Whether from blacks or Indians, perceived threats to the "womenfolk" have always been the fastest way to get a red-blooded Southern white male up in arms . . . The movie plays off of this to manipulate its audience far more than I would like.

The main plot is tense and full of pathos . . . You are drawn into the struggles of the characters on the frontier, and you wonder how the tension between racial prejudice and familial love will finally play out.

Herein, however, lies the movie's greatest problem: Ethan is totally unapologetic in his attitude about Indians, and the Indians themselves are stereotyped brutally in the movie. Strange, ultra-subtle half-hints are dropped here and there throughout the production to indicate that perhaps the movie does not hold the same beliefs as its characters, but when that final moment comes and Ethan takes Debbie in his arms instead of coldly plugging her between the eyes, can it hope to counterbalance nearly two hours of violent slanting? Can anyone really cite a John Wayne movie where he disappears into a character? I can't think of one. For the viewer, this is not Ethan Edwards, a fictional character, who believes that all Indians are brutal savages, this is John Wayne himself.

The Searchers is a movie which captures fragments of the frontier spirit, culture, and strife, but its perspective is so completely one-sided that it cannot convey a historically-balanced view of the West. Nor, for that matter, should it be required to do so. I certainly wouldn't plop, say, a Russian citizen down in front of this movie if I wanted him to know what life in the United States was like 150 years ago. But I would use it in an upper-level course about the history of the West in showing how the stories of our life on the frontier came to be told, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s.

Roger Ebert's review of the movie, which I found to be very insightful, suggests that The Searchers was made at a time when Ford was struggling to pull his Westerns out of the "classical" mode and into a more holistic view of the various historical factors that made relations between settlers and Native Americans what they were. That his product is ultimately deeply-flawed does not mean it is not a valuable, influential piece of American culture and cinema, but I don't necessarily have to like it.

Posted by Jared at April 27, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack