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"They ain’t white. Not any more. They’re Comanch’":
Race, Racism and the Fear of [1] in The Searchers
Brenton Priestley


 

About halfway through John Ford’s The Searchers, there’s a scene in which Ethan Edwards, in his quest to find his kidnapped niece Debbie, is taken to a white woman and two girls who have been recovered from Indian captivity. The screenplay describes these women variously as ‘mad’, ‘frightened’, wild-eyed’ and as making ‘animal noises’ (Nugent 74-5) and the scene, as filmed, plays the horror of their insanity for all its worth. A bystander comments, ‘It’s hard to believe they’re white,’ and Ethan replies ‘They ain’t white. Not any more. They’re Comanch’.’ The scene ends with a dolly shot of Ethan glowering menacingly at one of the women.

When examining how race is constructed within the context of The Searchers, it’s hard to ignore this particular scene, and many critics have analysed it in detail (Prats 59-61, Pye 232-3). The scene is significant because, firstly, it suggests the fear of miscegenation that perhaps lies at the core of the film: these women, exposed to the contagion of the Indian - the Other - have been driven mad, animalised, infantilised. However, the scene is also significant because Ethan’s response lends it some ambiguity. Pye and Dagle argue that the final shot of Ethan undercuts the racist fear previously established:

Ethan’s appalling belief is intended to distance us even further from him... the shots of Ethan’s face make graphically clear that Ethan himself is on the verge of madness caused by his obsessive hatred. (Pye 233)

The shot ‘... clearly conveys not only the absolute opposition between Indian and white settler, but also the underlying fear and threat of sexual violation and attendant madness’ (Dagle 121).

Where then, does the film stand. Or, indeed, does it ever take a stand? Either way, the contradictions at the heart of this scene are representative of the film’s treatment of race, racism and the fear of miscegenation as a whole. This discussion will analyse how these issues are refracted through five significant characters: Ethan, Scar, Martin, Debbie and Look.

The Searchers has largely been seen from a critical standpoint as a ‘revisionist’ Western, especially in terms of its treatment of Native Americans. However, racism is so deeply embedded within the generic codes of the Western, dealing as it does with white encroachment and appropriation of Indian land, that, as Nolley puts it, ‘Ford could never quite rescue his own work from the racist social discourse in which it was enmeshed’ (88). Pye argues that the film’s

representation of a deeply racist and obsessive Western hero and of the vicious attitudes to miscegenation located at the heart of White civilisation is disturbing... [and] probably goes further than any other Western in implicating us in the neurosis of racism. But in wrestling as a Western with the ideological and psycho-sexual complex that underlies attitudes to race, it is working within almost intractable traditions of representation. (229)

Or, as Neale puts it, The Searchers ‘... seek[s] to interrogate... racism and... racist tropes of the Western itself from within the limits of its ethnocentric framework’ (21).

Ford, by all accounts, was true auteur, especially towards the end of his career. So, in considering how The Searchers constructs race, it may be worthwhile to briefly consider Ford’s personal views, for the film surely reflects them to some extent. In a 1964 profile in Cosmopolitan magazine, Ford discussed his interest in Native Americans and their portrayal in both his films and in Westerns generally. In it, he reveals the inherently patriarchal nature of his [2]. This suggests that although The Searchers may well be his ‘... first attempt to straighten out the distorted portrayal [of Native Americans] he had helped create,’ (Kilpatrick 60), in racial terms, it remains a profoundly problematic text.

The Indian is very close to my heart... [they are] wonderful people... they actually still live as they always have, simply and close to the land. They’re not greatly different than they were, particularly not at heart.

There’s some merit to the charge that the Indian hasn’t been portrayed accurately or fairly in the Western, but again, this charge has been a broad generalisation and often unfair. The Indian didn’t welcome the white man... and he wasn’t diplomatic... If he has been treated unfairly by whites in films, that, unfortunately, was often the case in real life. There was much racial prejudice in the West. (My italics - John Ford, quoted in Libby 286)

Ford seems to be saying here that just because he depicts a racist character like Ethan doesn’t mean that the film itself is racist. As Pye argues, ‘Ethan’s obsessive hatred of Indians and the idea of mixed blood are presented in ways designed to distance us from him’ (229). However, things aren’t that simple. Ethan, like the film, is a bundle of contradictions:

[he] hates Indians for their savagery and takes their scalps for killing his relatives; he despises Martin Pawley’s Cherokee blood and makes him his heir; he wants to kill his niece for becoming a squaw and he embraces her and takes her safely home. Ethan is a monster and he is John Wayne. (Eyman 449, cited in Prats 278)

Ethan’s racism and fear of miscegenation manifest themselves so often that a couple of examples of him at his most vindictive should suffice: Firstly, when he shoots the eyes out of the dead Indian, eternally damning him to ‘wander forever between the winds’. Secondly, when he shoots at an enormous herd of buffalo, figuring that ‘Killin’ buffalo’s as good as killin’ Injuns in this country’ (Nugent 70).

What is usually cited as the key example of his extreme racism is his desire to kill Debbie when he finds her. However, it’s important to remember that Ethan isn’t alone in expressing such an obsessive fear of miscegenation. Brad, for instance, seems far more disturbed by the fact that Lucy may have been raped by an Indian than the fact she was killed by one. And Laurie, seemingly one of the most sympathetic characters in the film (Pye 229), argues with Martin when he suggests Debbie doesn’t deserve to die: ‘ [Ethan will] put a bullet in her brain. I tell you Martha would want him to.’ As Pye puts it, ‘Laurie’s hideous outburst locates the disgust and loathing of miscegenation not simply in Ethan but at the heart of the White community. Ethan is, in this respect at least, not an aberrant figure’ (230). And, Dagle: ‘Laurie embodies the socially accepted racism of the white community, the legitimacy behind Ethan’s "insanity"’ (128).

As Eyman suggested, Ethan’s racism is complicated by his appropriation of Indian culture. He can apparently speak several different Native languages, he’s intimately acquainted with the traditions and religions of many different tribes, he’s a scalper. He’s more culturally miscegenated than any other [3], certainly far more than the ‘breed’, Martin, who he continually denigrates.

Dagle examines extensively the doubling between the characters of Ethan and Scar, and suggests that Ethan’s ‘Indianness’ is part of this mirroring (126-8). Gallagher states that

[Scar] is Ethan’s doppelg´┐Żnger, everything in himself that he despises. Specifically, Scar has raped Ethan’s brother’s wife... Thus Ethan must kill Scar in order to destroy the complex of violence within himself, and will spend the picture’s storytime... searching to do so. (70)

Dagle adds, ‘When Scar and Ethan do finally meet, two-thirds of the way through the film, the complex of racial and sexual fears that underlie the narrative comes to the surface’ (127).

In many ways Scar largely cleaves to the stereotypical image of the Hollywood Indian, a ‘stoic, stone-faced, bloodthirsty redskin’ (Kilpatrick 37). In a cast filled with real Native Americans, he’s played by a white actor. He first appears as a menacing, encroaching shadow, cast across a cowering child and a tombstone, no [4]. Young Debbie looks up and sees

Chief Scar, bare-chested, with war paint, jewelry, and feathers - an exotic and erotically charged body. In a gesture celebrating his obvious "phallic power," Scar raises an animal horn to his lips and blows as the shot fades. At the beginning, then, The Searchers foregrounds the question of white fears of sexual violation and miscegenation. (Dagle 124)

However, like his double, Ethan, Scar is also a difficult character to read in racial terms. He’s clearly intelligent and a capable leader. By the time Ethan and Martin find her, Debbie doesn’t want to leave Scar. The confrontation between Ethan and Scar is particularly revealing of Scar as being Ethan’s equal:

still face-to-face with Scar in the frame, [Ethan] issues his taunting challenge: "You speak good American for a Comanch’; someone teach ya?" The accusation is clear: Scar learned English from his white (female, sexual) captive, Debbie. A few moments later... Scar returns the taunt... "You speak good Comanche; someone teach you?" Given the logic of the text’s "rhyming patterns" and the "mirroring" of Scar and Ethan... the reciprocal nature of the insult is clear and stunning. Scar is accusing Ethan of having learned Comanche through intimacy with a Comanche woman. (Dagle 126)

Scar, nonetheless, is the villain, and must die according to the generic traditions of the Western. What is interesting is that it is not Ethan, the nominal hero, who kills him, but Martin. Henderson describes how Martin’s killing of Scar is consistent with what he perceives the film’s view of miscegenation to be:

Martin exhibits unwavering loyalty to the white community. He kills Indian men, spurns Indian wives, even defends his sister against other whites... On the opposite end of the spectrum from Martin, the good Indian... there is Scar, the bad Indian... he rapes, murders, dismembers, burns; he is punished in the most brutal way: death, scalping, destruction of his society. The annihilating punishment that Scar receives is a warning to adopted non-whites of what awaits their transgressions. (448)

Also, by usurping Ethan’s status, Martin potentially signifies a progressive shift in the Western, by making a Native American the hero.

Admittedly, Martin is only ‘one eighth Cherokee and the rest Welsh and [5]. In the original novel, Martin is white, in the screenplay, he’s a quarter [6]. The change is significant, because Martin, as a foil to Ethan, takes the full brunt of his racism, and illustrates how deeply ingrained it [7].

According to Henderson, the film’s engagement with the issue of miscegenation, via Martin, isn’t positive. As indicated by the quotation above, he reads the film as a ‘myth about the adoption and integration of Indians in white society’ (443). Martin is the ‘good’ Indian, because he rejects his Indian heritage. Scar is the ‘bad’ Indian, because he does not.

Conversely, Pye has argued that Martin provides a positive image of miscegenation, embodying ‘...the possibility of integration, of harmonious mixing of the races... [For] Debbie, too, cross-cultural assimilation, living contentedly with another race, is raised as a real possibility’ (Pye 230). For this reason, Debbie can be seen as Martin’s double:

the parallelism is evident. White woman is adopted and raised by red society, marries a red man; (part) red man is adopted and raised by white society, marries a white woman. This textual parallel poses an exchange between white and red tribes... both inter-tribal transfers take place in violence or as a result of violence; and each tribe subjects the outsider to a total reconditioning, designed to obliterate the effects of previous filiation, as part of its adoption process. This is an ‘exchange’ between warring tribes, between which there can be no lawful exchange and no lawful marriage. (Henderson 434)

Dagle, writes, along similar lines:

It is Marty’s "hybridity" that allows him to resist Ethan’s and Laurie’s characterization of Debbie and that prevents him from desiring revenge even when Ethan tells him that his mother’s scalp hangs from Scar’s spear ("That don’t change nothing," he replies). Debbie and Marty, then, stand opposed to the ideology of "racial purity" implied by the other symbolic bodies of the text. (127)

Debbie’s character perhaps raises the most racial quandaries in the film. Martin’s happy integration into white society is readily explicable on the film’s terms – ie, it’s for his own good. However, Debbie seems none the worse for her integration into the society of the Other. She certainly hasn’t been infantilised or driven insane like the rescued captives Ethan meets. Dagle argues that ‘Debbie is instead constructed as the "assimilated" body; she looks Indian, speaks Comanche, and tells Marty that "These are my people. Go"’ (127).

[H]er choice to stay with the Comanches and with Scar is overridden by Ethan and Martin. Only their methods differ: Ethan wants to shoot her, Martin wants to abduct her... Debbie is equated with her sexuality... so that, "contaminated" by Scar, she can only be disposed of. (Henderson 435)

If Debbie’s character is the strongest refutation of charges of racism against the film, then the character of Look, Martin’s inadvertently acquired Indian bride, is the most problematic.

Female Indians have been largely neglected by Hollywood, probably because they chafe against the traditional portrayal of the Indian as a savage male warrior. Nolley writes that

because Ford worked so thoroughly within the system rather than in opposition to it, one may be hard pressed to save his oeuvre from one of the most pervasive and damning charges made against the Hollywood tradition – that it was racist and sexist at the core. (73)

The character of Look provides a perfect example. Although the film features two strong, independent female characters in Debbie and Laurie, the portrayal of Look is not only misogynist, but also grotesquely racist. Ten minutes of screen time pass between Look’s first and last appearance, but, denied a voice, she barely has one line of dialogue. Essentially a comic buffoon, she is completely oblivious to Ethan’s and Martin’s perceptions of her, she follows the men faithfully and serves them coffee.

During the Look sequence, after Martin beds down for the night, Look lies down beside him. Martin, disgusted, kicks her out of the bed, and she rolls down the hill. At this sight, Ethan ‘busts a gut laughing’ (Nugent [8]. An earlier scene provides a telling contrast. While back at the Jorgensens' house, Martin is taking a bath when Laurie enters, similarly invading his privacy. Martin brays like an embarrassed child and Laurie scolds him like one. It seems unlikely that if Martin got out of the bath and socked Laurie in the jaw – the equivalent treatment that Look receives – that Ford could have played the scene for laughs in the same way. Look’s value as a person within the film is made amply clear by this comparison. Gallagher notes,

[w]hen Look is found dead, a victim in a cavalry massacre... we are jerked into consciousness of [Ethan’s] morality – and our own morality. Look’s story, scarcely perceived by the six whites from whose perspective is told, has been only a joke for them, a foil in the drama of their insensitivity toward each other. No one sees Look. (72)

Her death also raises the issue of the discrepancies in the value of white and Indian lives, which Nolley discusses

Viewers of Westerns are normally encouraged to grieve over white deaths and generally to rejoice in Indian [deaths]. White funerals are shown, Indian funerals almost never are. While Look’s death is treated with pathos and sympathy... it is a thinkable and viewable death because Look was at best a likably comic stereotype, and thus the camera can reveal Look’s body to the audience. (81)

If The Searchers is ‘Ford’s apology for racism’, as Keller has described it (27), the character of Look indicates that it is clearly not an unreserved [9]. However, it is clear that the film’s racism ‘... is not the instinctive, oblivious racism of Griffith's Birth of a Nation,’ as Ebert puts it. He continues: ‘Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it... in the flawed vision of 'The Searchers' we can see Ford, Wayne and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero.’ The traditional patterns were beginning to break down. Not only does Ethan commit the ne plus ultra of native savagery by scalping [10], but, more generally,

Ford begins to attribute violence to whites and begins to suggest reasons for Indian rage against whites, as well as the opposite... [t]he massacre of the Comanche camp is expressed particularly in the death of Look... In the final attack on Scar’s village, Ford shows Comanche men firing at the attacking rangers even as they attempt to shield and save their own children (Nolley 80)

Dagle perhaps puts it best: ‘The Searchers is a powerful text because it confronts the racism underlying the Western paradigm, but it is also a text that cannot completely resolve the issues it raises’ (128).

Were The Searchers to be remade [11], it is certain that the portrayal of the Native American characters would be more dignified and balanced, but probably no more historically accurate than the original. It is certainly unlikely that in our more politically correct times race and miscegenation could be examined with the same kind of ambiguity that lends The Searchers its continuing fascination and power. Massie writes,

‘In the best of [Ford’s westerns] there is always a moral ambiguity; he does not shrink from suggesting, rather than revealing the dark side of the great American myth... None of his great films allows us a comfortable moral response, however warm the closing mood may be’ (R11).

It is perhaps appropriate, then, to close this discussion by considering the final shot of The Searchers. Astonishingly eloquent and emotionally satisfying, it almost redeems the unanswered questions and unfinished business that the film has raised. Prats suggests that the final shot – in which Ethan gradually becomes isolated and is finally shut out from the other surrounding him – in fact ultimately reflects what the film has to say about racism and the fear of miscegenation:

If America is to be composed of immigrants (Lars Jorgensen), people of mixed races (Martin, and, to some extent, now Debbie), half-wits and dimwits (Mose Harper, Charlie McCorry, Lieutenant Greenhill) and lapsed Confederates... if this is to be the case of the promised nation, could someone as empowered by the hatred of Otherness as Ethan is suddenly become a full-fledged member of such a community? (284)

ENDNOTES

In this discussion, I use the term miscegenation interchangeably as meaning both racial intermarriage and cross-cultural integration.

A viewpoint which sounds unpleasant to our liberal ears, but which was remarkably tolerant according to the standard of the times.

Save, perhaps, Debbie, although Ethan’s miscegenation was his own choice.

A rare use of expressionism for Ford, and strikingly similar – visually and contextually - to the first appearance of Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M.

This is, of course, almost too much for Ethan to bear.

The screenplay also disturbingly describes him as being ‘a lithe, perfectly coordinated male animal, with Indian-straight hair and a white man’s eyes’ (Nugent 7).

Ebert asks: ‘One of the mysteries of The Searchers involves the relationship between Ethan and Martin on the trail. Living alone with each other for months at a time, sleeping under the stars, what did they talk about? How could they share a mission and not find common cause as men?’

It is perhaps the happiest we see Ethan in the entire film.

And an apology that would find more eloquent articulation in one of his final films, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The significance of Ethan’s scalping in the context of the Western and in history in general is discussed in detail by Prats (66-70).

Not as unlikely a prospect as it seems, considering it has been remade directly, Greyeagle (1978), indirectly, Caravans (1978), The Missing (2003) and has influenced thematically a slew of other films, including Winterhawk (1976), Taxi Driver (1976), Hardcore (1979).

WORKS CITED

Dagle, Joan. ‘Linear Patterns and Ethnic Encounters in the Ford Western’. John Ford Made Westerns. Eds. Gaylyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2001. 102-31.

Ebert, Roger. ‘The Searchers’.
<http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/
ebert_reviews/2001/11/112501.html> October 2003.

Eyman, Scott. Print the Legend. New York: Simon, 1999.

The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Warner Bros, 1956.

Gallagher, Tag. ‘Angels Gambol Where They Will: John Ford’s Indians’.  Film Comment 29 (1993).

Henderson, Brian. ‘The Searchers: An American Dilemma’. Movies and Methods. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley: California UP, 1985. 429-50.

Keller, Alexandra. ‘Generic Subversion as Counterhistory’. Westerns: Films through History. Ed. Janet Walker. New York: AFT, 2001. 27-46.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1999.

Libby, Bill. ‘The Old Wrangler Rides Again’. John Ford Made Westerns. Eds. Gaylyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2001. 277-88.

Massie, Allan. ‘Man of the West.’ Review of Searching for John Ford, by Joseph McBride. The Weekend Australian August 16-17. 2003.

Neale, Steve. ‘Vanishing Americans: Racial and Ethnic Issues in the Interpretation and Context of Post-war ‘Pro-Indian’ Westerns’. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. Eds. Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson. London: BFI, 1998. 8-28.

Nolley, Ken. ‘The Representation of Conquest: John Ford and the Hollywood Indian, 1939-1964’. Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Eds Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor. Lexington: Kentucky UP, 1998. 73-90.

Nugent, Frank S. The Searchers. Berkshire: ScreenPress, 2002.

Prats, Armando Jos´┐Ż. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002.

Pye, Douglas. ‘Double Vision: Miscegenation and Point of View in The Searchers’. The Book of Westerns. Eds. Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye. New York: Continuum, 1996. 229-35.


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