Thursday, March 7, 2013

Getting Un-Surrounded: Glenn Frankel on The Searchers

Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne, in a scene from John Ford's The Searchers

Among the autuerist critics who re-evaluated the reputations of American studio directors in the 1960s, and the new generation of filmmakers who created a renaissance in American moviemaking in the 1970s, no Hollywood film casts a more intimidating shadow than John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers. Legend has it that the movie was overlooked in its time, only to be rediscovered by a discerning group of artists and movie lovers as, in the words of J. Hoberman, one of the “few Hollywood movies so thematically rich and so historically resonant they may be considered part of American literature.” As Glenn Frankel acknowledges in his fine new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, the mythology around the film’s rediscovery is a little overblown. No, it wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, if that’s your idea of the true credit due a work of film art. But it wasn’t a flop; it did pretty well at the box office, and the reviews were mostly good. If there’s anything scandalous about the response to the movie when it was new, it’s only that critics and audience seemed to regard it “merely” as another John Ford-John Wayne Western, albeit a good one with an epic scope. The general consensus among those who came along to acclaim the film ten or fifteen years after its initial release is that it is so much more.

Adopted by Frank S. Nugent – a former journalist and movie reviewer who worked on several famous John Ford movies, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, Wagon Master, and Mister Roberts – from a novel by Alan Le May, The Searchers stars Wayne as Ethan Edwards, an unrepentant Confederate veteran of the Civil War who, after a three-year absence, returns to the home of his brother, the brother’s wife (with whom Ethan has an unspoken, but obvious, mutual love), and their two daughters. Comanches have been in the area, stirring up trouble, and while Ethan and the family’s houseguest, a young man named Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who’s half-Indian, are out scouting the territory, the Indians attack the house, slaughtering the family and carrying off the youngest daughter, Debbie. Ethan and Martin give up years of their lives to the search for Debbie, though it isn’t until later in the story that Martin understands that, for Ethan, this isn’t a rescue mission. It was a genre convention of Westerns that for a woman to be taken alive by Indians was “a fate worse than death,” and Ethan, who knows that Debbie will have become the wife of the renegade Chief Scar (Henry Brandon), means to give Debbie the more merciful fate by killing her. It’s the only way he can spare her the shame of having been with the Indians, and restore the family honor. At the end of the picture, with Scar dead, Ethan, on horseback, chases his niece down, only to scoop her into his arms and say, with as much tenderness as John Wayne could bring himself to muster, “Let’s go home, Debbie.”

Frankel sketches in the fascinating backstory to Le May’s novel, which was inspired by a real-life Indian abduction case from 1836. A nine-year-old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker had been taken by Comanches and lived among them for 24 years, until, after a long and costly search funded by her uncle, she was rescued by Texas Rangers. The actual story of Cynthia Ann Parker turns The Searchers on its head: she had borne three children to her Comanche husband and was so happily acclimated to her new life by the time the Rangers found her that she never re-adjusted to white civilization. In fact, she was alienated and emotionally devastated, and tried to return to her tribe; she was recaptured and forcibly returned. She died in 1827, an unwilling celebrity and iconic symbol of the triumph of the white man over Indians’ attempts to steal his women and reduce them to their own savage level.

In the movie. Debbie (played as a child by Lana Wood, and, at the end, by her sister Natalie) is a cipher; the movie’s beating, extra-male-chromosome heart and soul is John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. (The hero was named “Amos” in the novel, but according to Frankel, this was changed out of deference to the popularity of the TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy.) Charting the rise of the movie’s reputation in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Frankel – who remembers seeing the movie when auteurist and Jedi master Andrew Sarris showed it “in the inaugural year of his introductory film course on Thursday evenings in the basement of Butler Library at Columbia University in 1970” – cites such authorities as Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese in showing how, out of all the other genre classics Hollywood turned out in the ‘50s, this movie seemed like strong meat. There’s a discombobulating moment in Scorsese’s breakthrough film Mean Streets (1973) when the action cuts from the Little Italy street mooks who are its protagonists to a couple of cowboys rough-housing; it’s a clip from The Searchers, which Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro have decided to take in at a local movie house, while on the lam. There are also allusions to Ford’s picture in Taxi Driver (1976), which was written by Paul Schrader, and in Scharder’s own Hardcore (1976), both of which are about men on obsessive quests to save little girls from being mired in the sex trade. 

The driven, deranged obsessiveness of Ethan’s quest struck a chord with artists like Scorsese and Schrader, as well as Steven Spielberg (who dropped visual homages to The Searchers into films as different as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saving Private Ryan) and self-styled anarchist-libertarian fruitcake John Milius, who, recalling his first reaction to seeing the movie, said, “I wanted to be Scar.” Greil Marcus, the rock critic who (in such books as his mighty Mystery Train) has specialized in charting patterns of American myth and literature running through popular culture, has (perhaps inevitably) likened Ethan to Ahab, despite the fact that Moby Dick does not end with Ahab coming to the brink of killing the whale, then reflecting that it’s stupid to blame an animal he was trying to destroy for the loss of his leg and ordering the crew to turn the ship around and go home. 

Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards
But there are a lot obsessed heroes in genre movies. When J. Hoberman quotes Frankel as calling Ford’s movie “the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen,” and writes that “Perhaps that should be ‘have really seen,’” he’s referring to the trigger and driving force of Ethan’s obsession: his seething, psychotic racism. Ethan really despises Indians, despises them for being Indians, to the point that killing them is too good for them if he can’t also show the depths of his contempt for them by profaning their dead bodies. (He scalps Scar after the villain has been killed by Martin, and at one point shoots out a dead Indian’s eyes so that he will be unable to enter his “happy hunting ground.”) There’s a political-generational element to the “film generation”’s adoration of this movie that may be lost to history by now. Both Ford and Wayne were big public supporters of the Vietnam War, and The Searchers can be seen as a reflection and exploration of the mindset that got America into that war – of the mindset that viewed Asians as not having the same respect for human life that white Caucasians have, of Lyndon Johnson telling his men not to return home “without that coonskin on the wall.” (In an infamous article published in Paul Krassner’s The Realist, LBJ was depicted as literally raping John Kennedy’s corpse in the neck wound aboard Air Force One during the flight back from Dallas. Ethan Edwards might have regretted not having thought of that one himself.) At the time that young directors started dropping Searchers references into their movies, many young Americans were trying to use film to address the racist-imperialist attitudes of their elders, and flailing. Ford had done it back when Eisenhower was in the White House, in a rousing pop genre entertainment, and with the future director-star of The Green Berets in the lead. This must have seemed very subversive, and made the people connecting the dots feel very smart. 

The big question worth asking, and which Frankel, like most critics who admire The Searchers and see it in these terms, kind of skirts, is: is the movie really an exploration, an explosion, of imperialist racism, or merely a reflection of it? This is not a small matter, and it doesn't have bupkis to do with “political correctness” or judging the art of the past by the standards of today. After all, the distinction between a racist movie and a movie that’s about racism has kept The Birth of a Nation – a far more technically innovative movie – on the far side of respectability for the better part of a century now, and while many regard The Triumph of the Will as some kind of major work of film art, nobody hails it as a peerless critical study in propagandistic political opportunism. Frankel hails the critic and Ford expert Joseph McBride as accounting for the film’s reception in 1956 – as a “normal” Western – by saying that, at the time, “racism was so endemic in our culture that people didn’t even notice it. They treated Wayne as a conventional western hero.” Truthfully, when the movie turns up now on TCM, there are probably a lot of people, especially people of a certain age, who still see Ethan Edwards that way, just as there are people who don’t see anything racist in demands that Barack Obama prove that he was really born in this country or charges that he couldn’t possibly have written his own books. But did Ford and Wayne see Ethan Edwards as anything different from “a conventional western hero”? To speculate that they didn’t is to assume that these men were more progressive-minded on race than the average moviegoer of 1956, when all the evidence suggests that they were considerably farther back in the pack than most. 

Frankel, whose admiration for Ford clearly knows no bounds, is honest (and smart) enough not to try to blur the edges when describing what a thoroughly unpleasant human being the great man was. A drunk and a mean bastard who seems to have enjoyed having the bully Wayne around just so he could bully him, Ford’s attitudes toward Indians seems to have been similar to that of the pro-segregationist Southern whites who prided themselves on taking good care of their darkies, and who complained that outside agitators were making these simple, childlike folk unhappy by putting strange ideas about voting rights and shared access to water fountains in their heads, thus messing with the natural order of things. Ford complained about the people who said that his depiction of Indians was racist, saying that their high-minded talk didn’t give the Indians they cared so much about any money, the way he did when he came to Monument Valley and paid them to pretend to get shot and fall off horses. He once said that the times he came to town with a film crew were the only time these poor sons of bitches could “get enough to eat,” which, propitiously enough, guaranteed that their were lean and rugged-looking on camera. (This is farther than John Wayne ever felt the need to go toward rationalizing his onscreen behavior or his off-screen feelings. In a 1971 Playboy Interview, he declined the chance to say anything even-handed about the treatment of the Indians in his movies, saying that they were the bad guys, just as the Indians were the bad guys in the actual, historical West: the white settlers needed land, “and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”)

Henry Brandon as Chief Scar
Some of Ford’s Westerns are less hostile to Indians than others, and his final Western, the ghastly 1964 Cheyenne Autumn, is meant to be a tear-stained epic about the plight of the displaced Native Americans. (It’s a maudlin shambles.) But there’s no clear arc of increased understanding in Ford’s work, and as Frankel points out, he could go from Fort Apache, a movie that’s fairly sympathetic to the Indians, to Rio Grande, in which they’re a race of monsters. If there’s a consistency related to the sympathetic portrayal of Indians in Ford’s work, it’s Frank Nugent, who tended to have a hand in the Westerns in which the Indians come off best. This is not a pattern that hardcore auteurists are likely to pick up on, since Ford went out of his megalomaniacal way to play up the idea that a director pulls an entire movie out of his ass and that, as he told Peter Bogdanovich, “There’s no such thing as a good script, really.”

He contemptuously referred to Nugent as his “favorite paint and body man” and complained about all the “cute” little bits of business he had to scissor from his script for The Quiet Man – a movie that, in its finished form is, like all of Ford’s movies that have a heavy dose of Irishness to them, nothing but cute little bits of business. (Ford knew how to give audiences what they wanted, and I don’t just mean the audiences for his movies. He ate out for years on variations on the line, “My name is John Ford. I am a director of Westerns.” This line is transparently a boast – a way for an insecure man to say, “Feel free to tell me I’m a great artist, but know that I am also manly as hell, have nothing to do with frou-frou stuff, and please notice that I am above putting on airs.” – but Frankel is the latest fan to take it, on face value, as a plainspoken man revealing himself to be immune to pretentiousness.)

What’s ugly about Ford’s character is also a factor in making sense of the ugliest and most uncomfortable scenes in The Searchers, the scenes that a modern audience is likely to just stare at in confusion and disbelief. These aren’t the scenes of Ethan venting his solemn biliousness at his enemies, his poor whipping boy Martin, and the world at large, but the comic relief scenes, which are like cute little bits of business from the Bizarro World. The worst of them, which is saying something, involved an Indian woman named Look who Martin inadvertently adopts during a bartering session at a trading post. Look tags along with Ethan and Martin for a while – to Martin’s great discomfort, and Ethan’s outsized hilarity – until she discovers that they’re on the trail of the monstrous Scar, runs away in fright, and ends up collateral damage in a massacre. Jonathan Lethem, who loves the movie, has called this sequence, in which Ethan is supposed to keep the audience in stitches by calling her “Mrs. Pawley” and kicking her in the ass, seemingly “indefensible by design,” and maybe if you see The Searchers as a whole as a probing examination of the destructive power of racism, it’s no great leap to imagine that the failed comedy touches are experimental, semi-Brechtian attempts to create a kind of “comedy relief” that makes the audience yearn to get back to the massacres and scalpings. But as Frankel readily concedes, all the grotesquely unfunny comedy is probably there because the sadistic bully Ford thought it was funny; he himself was prone to delighting himself and the crew by kicking the actor Harry Carey, Jr. in the ass. (Harry Carey, Sr. was the star of Ford’s first feature, and was revered as the very image of the true cowboy star by both Ford and Wayne, but Ford appears to have kept the great man’s son around just so he could abuse him whenever abusing John Wayne got old.

Richard Widmark and James Stewart in Two Rode Together
There’s an awful willful sloppiness at work,” Frankel writes of the worst scenes in The Searchers, “that in later pictures – Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn – becomes fatal to the films’ meaning and ambitions. But in The Searchers none of it matters.” Why it doesn’t matter, I’m not sure, except that Frankel believes that, in Two Rode Together – which is largely a slow, jokey reworking of the themes of The Searchers – “The racist sentiments of the main characters are endorsed rather than undermined, as they are in The Searchers.” I have a lurking suspicion that the only reason anyone would think those sentiments are “undermined” rather than “endorsed” in The Searchers is that The Searchers takes them so far that it would be a blessing to imagine that the people who put those sentiments onscreen didn’t mean them.

That, and Ethan’s ninth-inning decision not to kill his niece, which people have been either tearing up or scratching their heads over for decades. It comes totally out of the blue, but it isn’t really a surprise, unless you think there wouldn’t be anything kind of strange about seeing John Wayne murder Natalie Wood, in cold blood, at the end of an epic Western. Frank Nugent originally wrote an ending in which Ethan would advance on Debbie with his gun drawn. She knows what he’s about to do and closes her eyes, waiting for it; he says that she has her mother’s eyes, and melts. Nugent, approvingly, thinks that by removing this clear indication of Ethan’s motivation
which would have presented John Wayne with the tricky task of acting something besides self-righteous murderousnessFord deepened the movie by making it more “ambiguous.” He also think that the ending of Howard Hawks’ Red River, where Wayne, who has announced his intention to murder his adopted son, Montgomery Clift, and then decides not to after they’ve traded some blows and a woman has lectured them, is just silly. But maybe Howard Hawks could afford to settle for clearly motivated silliness instead of something more ambiguous, given that he was actually good at entertaining the audience. 

Frankel leans heavily on the idea that Ford wasn’t a “mere” entertainer but a mythmaker; the word “myth” pops up again, and maybe it’s only when one has accepted that we’ve gone past movies into a world of instant myth and “literature” that faults as myriad and glaring as the faults of The Searchers can be totted up and then grandly decreed to not matter. And woe to spoilsports like John Tuska, who writes, “Native Americans are not mythical and… the lies told about them in Ford’s Western films could scarcely be expected to engender any greater social and cultural understanding… What apologists really mean by a ‘mythical’ dimension to a Western film is that part of it which they know to be a lie but which, for whatever reason, they still want to embrace.” To really love The Searchers, you may need to feel that pull to embrace a lieand a lie with really shitty acting and serious pacing problems – or be the kind of academic critic who thinks that the true measure of a work of art isn’t what the artist has deliberately put into his work, but what has slipped through the cracks in his psyche, giving the critic the change to spot it and strut his interpretive skills. Jonathan Lethem, describing the experience of watching the movie with an audience not completely sold on its greatness, writes that for these barbarians, “It was easier to view it as a racist antique, a na├»ve and turgid artifact dredged out of our parents’ bankrupt fifties culture.” Despite the impression a person could get from reading a lot of critical literature, there are times when the “easier” response happens to be the correct response.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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