The good, the bad, and the oblivious

Watching John Ford’s acclaimed Western The Searchers gave me occasion to note how incomplete my education in cinema is, and how hard it can be to bridge the cultural distance between the third decade of the twenty-first century and the Golden Age of Hollywood. Put simply, although I could appreciate the wonderful cinematography, the epic themes, and Ford’s visual imagination, it was hard for me to see the greatness or the brilliance which has been attributed to this film. It’s a product of its time, and I’m a product of mine—my time being one in which the racism, sexism and toxic masculinity of this movie’s protagonist makes it pretty hard for him to secure the viewer’s sympathy.

The Searchers was, by all accounts, a sincere attempt to address the racism that shaped the relationship between European colonists or their descendants, and the indigenous peoples of North America. Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne, is looking for his niece, who was kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party. He’s a veteran of the Confederate forces in the Civil War, obsessed with the possibility of miscegenation, and ready to murder his niece when he realises she’s been living as the wife of the Comanche leader that captured her. He is, in other words, a white supremacist, like Wayne. He is resisted by other characters in the film, and an attempt is made to portray Native Americans with dignity—although they are also shown as ruthless and implacable enemies of the white characters. The view of race that comes across for me is a fatalist one, one that regards racial conflict as inevitable, but which recoils from the more extremist forms of ethnic essentialism, like that espoused by Wayne’s character.

For me, the picture’s racial politics were too intensely front-and-centre for me to notice a great deal about other aspects of the story: the character dynamics, the acting, the editing, and so forth, tended to pass me by as I sat, open-jawed, reflecting on what used to seem like normal cinema. As is frequently seen in Westerns, especially in Ford’s, the landscape is a character in itself, its visual extremity functioning as a token of the extreme experiences and actions that take place within it. The tale is an epic, in which Wayne and a companion spend several years searching for the missing girl, taking a few opportunities to exact revenge along the way. As such, you might see the vicious racial conflict at its heart as analogous to that between, say, the Greeks and the Trojans in the Iliad, a mythic conflict between fundamental forces decreed by fate. But that sort of a mythic interpretation is impossible for me to grab hold of when those bold forms are painted onto the historical actors in one of the greatest injustices in the infamous chronicle of European colonialism.

Put simply, watching the portrayal of a murderous race-warrior by a right-wing racist like Wayne, a man who was not a particularly adept actor, for all his indisputable star quality, has limited appeal for me. I’m far from immune to the charms of the Western, or blind to the stylish mythologies of Hollywood, but when men like Ford and Wayne, who had by no means understood the injustice of their own positions, attempt to redress the racial animus that is unquestioned in the majority of Westerns, the results are predictably shaky. This film has been repeatedly valorised as not just one of the greatest Westerns, but as one of the greatest films ever made. For all Ford’s pioneering expertise as a director, I can’t buy into that. This is a work fundamentally lacking in self-awareness, or in the capacity to accommodate any real cultural difference, and although it has some entertainment value, it’s not for me.

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