"Is that you John wayne, is this me"
April 8, 2024 9:35 PM   Subscribe

'I’ve never seen ...The Searchers.' "I’ve always imagined John Wayne as the epitome of gun-toting American racism. And I didn’t expect this white-supremacy parable to change my mind …" "(John) Ford is likely the best American historian when it comes to narrative filmmaking 'Printing the Legend: 'The Searchers and a journey into the heart of America’s darkness.' " Scores of film students and enthusiasts have wondered and wrote about what does this last scene of the film mean." Cinemas Greatest Scenes: The Searchers Doorway Scene. { CW: racism in film.}
posted by clavdivs (26 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
interesting that two of the links find their conclusion with the same Martin Scorcese quote:

, “In its final moment, The Searchers suddenly becomes a ghost story. Ethan’s sense of purpose has been fulfilled, and like the man whose eyes he’s shot out, he’s destined to wander forever between the winds.”

I kinda wish I had a higher regard for The Searchers. I've only seen it once and that was after years of hearing how great it was. I was disappointed. Too staid, I guess. For me anyway.

I suppose my problem is timing. I hit my tweens just as Hollywood's late 60s, early 70s revisionist phase was gathering steam, so just the right age to see all the tired old tropes getting eviscerated. In particular, Little Big Man blew my then eleven year old mind. Contrary to all the western movies and such I'd grown up watching on TV, it immediately felt like a far more likely truth. The white men, the cavalry in particular, were the bad guys. General Custer was a lunatic. Everything I knew was wrong. And so on.

That link is to the complete movie by the way, currently free at Youtube.
posted by philip-random at 10:42 PM on April 8 [14 favorites]

gun-toting? data?
Revisionist History did a podcast last year Getting Out of Dodge [transcript] which counted up the number of homicides in TV's Gunsmoke and then compared them for IRL Dodge City at the appropriate time.
And for the 11 years that follow until the cattle trading period ends, Dodge City averages 1.6 homicides a year which is still a lot for a small town but not that bad for a place that's basically spring break on steroids. The real city is nothing like the mythical Dodge City. The real Dodge City is proof that law and order works. You bring in a lawman and the place goes back to normal which is 100% the opposite lesson of television's Dodge City, isn't it? Gunsmoke says that you can be blessed with a diligent wise, rangy, indefatigable, courageous US marshal, the legendary Matt Dillon. And he will invariably catch the bad guy and gun him down on the street. But at the very thing that police are supposed to do and in fact, do in the real world that is stop murders from happening, Matt Dillon is helpless. He's the US marshal for Dodge City for 20 seasons and the bodies just keep piling up. He's the head of law enforcement in a town with an implied homicide rate 80 times higher than St Louis Missouri, the murder capital of the western world.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:10 AM on April 9 [17 favorites]

gun-toting? data?

It’s a sound argument and a worthy one, but are you responding to something other than I’ve always imagined John Wayne as the epitome of gun-toting American racism.?
I don’t see how historical Dodge City data relates to what John Wayne does in movies.
posted by zamboni at 1:29 AM on April 9 [7 favorites]

I think the idea BTS is getting at is that the West was a lot less lawless than our popular culture makes us think. And much more Black. It’s a pernicious myth-system that empowers toxic masculinity. And John Wayne.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:18 AM on April 9 [17 favorites]

Scores of film students and enthusiasts have wondered and wrote about what does this last scene of the film mean.

I think this is probably just awkward writing but it has the feel of stealth SEO like “Across the country more and more people are asking the question of what time is the Super Bowl.”
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:58 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

When I sat down to watch "The Searchers" years ago, I came away with two conclusions:

1. The forced comedy of Jeffrey Hunter and his "Wife" was so out of place compared to the rest. Even for a movie from this time, it's so annoying and cringe to watch.

2. Before seeing this film, I had always wondered what "Star Trek" would have been like if Jeffrey Hunter had stayed on as Pike. After watching him in this, I'm glad we got Shatner.

As for the doorway, I think they have it nailed: The warrior looks on at a world and a domestication he can never be a part of even though he fought to preserve it. In it's way, it's kind of the same ending as "Seven Samurai".
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:24 AM on April 9 [6 favorites]

I’ve never seen any of John Ford’s movies, in fact.
Right, ok. Listen, quick suggestion: go watch them.

I fucking love John Ford's movies. They aren't as powerful as they were, sure, context has changed, but when I saw The Searchers a couple years ago it was still a bracingly frank portrayal of an old, racist shit-head. Not soft-pedaled at all. Guy is a fucking ex-Confederate soldier piece-of-shit that everyone tries to tip-toe around (! this is an important part of the film! Everyone around him trying to placate and negotiate with his racist shit! It's brilliant and necessary and somehow... seems to have been lost on a big swath of viewers. But it's a really, really important example of being a morally responsible artist (on Ford's part.) In this the article is right on, I think: So you could argue The Searchers is more a study of racism than a racist movie. And from the other: Ford is telling us that macho-driven men who wrap themselves in the flags of white supremacy and racial purity are unfit for America. They aren’t necessary evils, just evil. This is kind of a radical message for 1950's America, which was pretty devoutly racist and sexist (in all fairness, not just America, obvs.). )
posted by From Bklyn at 5:30 AM on April 9 [37 favorites]

Zamboni: I don’t see how historical Dodge City data relates to what John Wayne does in movies.
Fair enough; but in Plurality Gallery, some people come for the picture and some come for the frame.
posted by BobTheScientist at 5:37 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

From Bklyn, after being momentarily uncomfortable thinking you'd forgotten to close your parenthesis, I experienced a momentary relief at the end of your post, followed by another moment where I had to go back and check, followed by a final confirmation that yes, they were all closed.

What a roller coaster of emotions, and that's without even reading the words!
posted by Ickster at 6:07 AM on April 9 [14 favorites]

So what was the author's reason for changing their mind re: John Wayne? That he was in a film which was "more a study of racism than a racist movie"? That he agreed to play a character who's possibly intended to be racist shithead? That his character is maybe a little less of a racist shithead at the end of the movie? That John Wayne once did a nice thing and stopped production so someone could attend a wedding?

All the same, I have to admire Wayne for agreeing to play such an unappealing character. He commands the screen effortlessly, never overselling Ethan’s torment and obsession. Is my dislike of him driven by my own prejudices? If so, I’m no better than him.

I kind of get what's being asked here: Is the character loathsome because of Wayne's ability to portray a racist shithead or because of the author's preexisting knowledge that Wayne was a racist shithead who was pretty loathsome. But letting the actor's personal life cloud your interpretation of the portrayal of the character doesn't mean you're "no better than him" when it comes to prejudices. That's a pretty big false equivalency to apologize for.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:16 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]

> I’ve never seen any of John Ford’s movies, in fact.

Right, ok. Listen, quick suggestion: go watch them.
If you don't fancy a western, may I suggest The Informer as an emotionally powerful film that gives a good idea what Ford could bring to a picture?
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:39 AM on April 9 [7 favorites]

In the discussions of racism, I am surprised that no one has mentioned the John Ford film, "Sargent Rutledge."

It is about the trial of a black cavalry officer who is accused of the rape and murder of a white woman and her father, the commanding officer of the fort.

" . . . the film continues to attract attention because it was one of the first mainstream films in the U.S. to treat racism frankly and to give a starring role to an African-American actor." (Wikipedia)
posted by ITravelMontana at 7:45 AM on April 9 [8 favorites]

For those wanting more (a lot more) on Ford and John Wayne, I highly recommend Garry Wills' John Wayne's America. IIRC Wills makes the argument that Ford basically uses Wayne's image against itself - now whether this was on purpose as a deconstruction of the myth of the Western that he had created, or as part of the psychodrama through which Ford must destroy the person he had created... But that's what, for me, makes The Searchers so fascinating - so horrible, so contradictory, so concerned with abuse and fear and hate, and which makes it impossible to say where the movie stands on it all.
posted by Stilling Still Dreaming at 8:05 AM on April 9 [7 favorites]

On the one hand: I remember in the early aughts when Charlton Heston had a couple of different bit parts in movies that traded ironically on his NRA shit (Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, wherein he gives a monologue warning about guns, and the forgotten and much-despised Town & Country, in which he plays an old trigger-happy lunatic.) These were roles in which he was cast specifically because the audience would be aware of his public persona and activism, something Heston presumably understood as well as anyone. But they don't even a little bit make up for the fact that he was, in real life, a devoted shill for the NRA.

On the other hand, The Searchers is so much a better movie than either of those piles of garbage that they basically don't exist in the same universe, and maybe it's just because I saw The Searchers when I was in film school, where it first came up as an example of a movie that doesn't just have an unsympathetic protagonist, but one whose goal in the story is reprehensible and which we, as the audience, are not supposed to be cheering him on. So I've always had that read on it.

I like what From Bklyn has to say about how everyone tiptoes around Ethan's racism and general toxicity, but what really gets me in his characterization is that Ethan has never stopped fighting the war. We start off several years after the Civil War (in which Ethan fought on the losing side) but he's spent the intervening years fighting in the second Franco-Mexican war.

Now, given everything we know about Ethan's character, it makes sense that he'd have ideological cause with the Confederacy, but it's hard to make the case for that with the Franco-Mexican war, except insomuch as Mexican Conservatives saw it as a continuation of their own civil war that they had just recently lost to a liberal government. Ethan refuses to become a Texas Ranger because of his oath as an officer in the Confederacy - an entity which no longer exists by that point - but I think you can read that both as Ethan buying hard into the "South will Rise Again" narrative as well as him preferring to dole out his idea of justice outside of the bounds of lawkeeping.

My point being that, even though this mission is clearly "personal" for Ethan, his whole backstory is set up to make it clear that this isn't a noble cause pulling him out of retirement for one last job or whatever (cf: Unforgiven) it's just the excuse he needed to keep doing the only thing he feels comfortable doing. And this is to say nothing of the fact that it is completely plausible that Ethan is going to kill Debbie when he finds her. It's been long enough since I've seen it that I can't recall how explicitly that idea is brought up, but Martin certainly thinks that's what's going to happen. Even in 1956, it's hard to imagine that general audiences could see that signposting and be on board with Ethan's quest here. He's a true anti-hero, unsympathetic and pursuing a reprehensible goal, and he's written and portrayed as such.

Which isn't to say that the movie doesn't have racist elements - the Comanche are portrayed as kidnappers and rapists, and while I have no idea the extent to which their actions in this movie are based on anything real, perpetuating such tropes is harmful in itself, especially in a film as much about racism as this one is. But thinking back on it this morning, what really strikes me is that, while this is a Western through-and-through, it's really a Western because those are the movies John Ford made. This story could take place in basically any time and any place where a toxic man has never stopped fighting a war that his side already lost, and finds a new "other" to exact his demons upon.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:44 AM on April 9 [10 favorites]

I hit my tweens just as Hollywood's late 60s, early 70s revisionist phase was gathering steam, so just the right age to see all the tired old tropes getting eviscerated.

Same here; when I saw it I realized that I had an impression of both "John Wayne" and of "Westerns" in my head already, but those impressions had come from the 70s revisionist Westerns, and from Rich Little impersonations.

I fucking love John Ford's movies. They aren't as powerful as they were, sure, context has changed, but when I saw The Searchers a couple years ago it was still a bracingly frank portrayal of an old, racist shit-head. Not soft-pedaled at all.

Every so often I watch something for my blog that my roommate - who took some film courses - has already seen. When I saw The Searchers he walked through the room at one point and noted it; I paused the film and pointed at Wayne and said, "so, just checking - he's a douche, right?"

> > I’ve never seen any of John Ford’s movies, in fact.

> Right, ok. Listen, quick suggestion: go watch them.

If you don't fancy a western, may I suggest The Informer as an emotionally powerful film that gives a good idea what Ford could bring to a picture?

There's also The Grapes of Wrath (a migrant family during the Great Depression) and How Green Was My Valley (a family in Wales in the early 1900's). And (sigh), there is also The Quiet Man (a dippy-as-heck comedy with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara set in Auld Ireland and depicted rather twee).

Another film he did - and one which he apparently was not completely satisfied with - is something I am BEGGING YOU ALL to avoid: Judge Priest, a Will Rogers vehicle set in 1890s Kentucky. It's one of the most panderingly racist things I've ever seen. (DOT took on the challenge of seeing it and posting about it to FanFare here.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:56 AM on April 9 [9 favorites]

If the film’s satire of racism “seems to have been lost on a big swath of viewers” then is it satire or is it just perpetuating toxic masculinity and ugh “depiction[s] of indigenous peoples [that] may be problematic” (aka genocidal)?

If I bite on the Rorschach line of (re)contextualization, I’d ask if an effort to rehabilitate Ford or the film’s image (luckily Wayne’s never will be) might also be a desire to rehabilitate the image of a generation that grew up on these toxic ideologies? Birth of a Nation is extolled by some for its scope thus cementing its place in American film history, but I hope no one’s trying to look back at it and say it’s redeemed as more of study of racism than a racist movie. I watched Blazing Saddles for the first time recently, it’s a dying uncle’s favorite; with the exception of Wilder and Little’s scene, and the need to hang the horse, the satire was lost on me.

Could the doorway scene actually represent a generation, wandering into the wasteland to die? “We’re sorry to have left you with less,” they say. “Our ignominy as fertilizer will be our last, if only, noble act. But we promise we were in on the joke.”

One of the links asks, of the anti-hero, “is one good act enough to redeem a lifetime of toxicity?” Does anyone have context of Ford (links), or even film critique contemporaneous with its release to document Ford was “in on the joke”? Do these reviews say more about Ford or more about the writers?
posted by rubatan at 9:57 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

Even in 1956, it's hard to imagine that general audiences could see that signposting and be on board with Ethan's quest here

I was born in the late 1950s and first watched the film as a kid. My sense is that most audiences then watched movies like this as simple entertainment, with none of the deeper signposting you raise even occurring to them. It was the good guy (Wayne) shooting the bad guys (Comanche), which remained the way most people engaged with westerns until films like Soldier Blue came along. You're imagining the original audience's reaction through very modern eyes, and I think that's leading you astray.
posted by Paul Slade at 10:16 AM on April 9 [8 favorites]

One thing I notice as I get older - young people (including myself when young) tend to define "back then when racism was just unquestioned orthodoxy and all the pop culture was racist" as starting just before they were born, or just before they came to political consciousness. So "back then" rolls forward in the popular consciousness. But once you start looking at "back then", you realize that there was always anti-racist popular culture - sometimes a lot, sometimes only a little, sometimes what we'd recognize as fair-minded and sometimes pretty cringe, but always there.

Just as with the narrative of the white West, it's a way to make racism more "natural" - oh, all white people were always like that back then, there were no openings or complexities, no wonder everything was terrible - when in reality it's always been a political struggle. Meaning that the virtuous people of the present aren't bound to win just by being in the present, but also meaning that we don't just have a legacy of unremitting racism and shittiness. Things have been otherwise and they could be otherwise.

That's not to say, "hooray for John Ford, anti-racist hero", just that the racism of the past was achieved not by having all white people be committed, ideologized racists but by crushing every other impulse whenever possible.
posted by Frowner at 10:20 AM on April 9 [19 favorites]

You're imagining the original audience's reaction through very modern eyes, and I think that's leading you astray.

I always wonder about the character Scar, who is played by the noticeably blue-eyed Henry Brandon (born in Germany). He leads a group that within the fiction of the movie kidnaps white people and integrates them into the tribe. In a modern movie, casting a white guy in this role would almost certainly be a deliberate choice, likely intended to underline and undermine Ethan's racism in the eyes of the audience.

But at the time, casting white guys in the role of native Americans was seen as a perfectly normal and mainstream thing to do. And, per Wikipedia, Henry Brandon "specialized in playing a wide diversity of ethnic roles." But also, John Ford did cast native actor Buelah Arcoletta in a native role. Not great representation, but also he could easily have cast a white actress.

I *want* to read these choices like I would read a movie made today, but I think audiences at the time would have seen the choices differently. Ethan maybe isn't meant to be seen as such an odious person, and Scar isn't meant to be seen as having European ancestry.
posted by surlyben at 11:03 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

Ford returned to the big screen with The Searchers (Warner Bros, 1956), the only Western he made between 1950 and 1959, which is now widely regarded as not only one of his best films, but also by many as one of the greatest westerns, and one of the best performances of John Wayne's career. Shot on location in Monument Valley, it tells of the embittered Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards who spends years tracking down his niece, kidnapped by Comanches as a young girl. The supporting cast included Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles and rising star Natalie Wood. It was Hunter's first film for Ford. It was very successful upon its first release and became one of the top 20 films of the year, grossing $4.45 million, although it received no Academy Award nominations. However, its reputation has grown greatly over the intervening years—it was named the Greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008 and also placed 12th on the institute's 2007 list of the Top 100 greatest movies of all time.[75] The Searchers has exerted a wide influence on film and popular culture—it has inspired (and been directly quoted by) many filmmakers including David Lean and George Lucas, Wayne's character's catchphrase "That'll be the day" inspired Buddy Holly to pen his famous hit song of the same name, and the British pop group The Searchers also took their name from the film.
posted by Brian B. at 11:41 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

Read the goddam book.

Ethan was a flawed man. The rescue was a saga, a coming-of-age tale about Marty contrasted with Ethan's paradoxical sense of honor and abiding racism. Although I like the film very much, the movie removed essential parts of the book's narrative, I guess, in an attempt to rehabilitate Ethan. In the process, it trivializes Marty's story and destroys the balance between Ethan and Marty's roles in the story.

Racism was part of those times and that place. Comanches were intrepid raiders, and few settlers were on good terms with any of the bands. Marty was emerging into adulthood bearing all the racist trappings of his people--that is, his white relatives. The search for Becky is the story of his transformation and enlightenment. After he and Ethan rescued Becky, they made the long trip home, one camp at a time. All the while, Marty had to keep an eye on Ethan to keep him from killing Becky because she had been "contaminated" by the Comanches. At one camp, Marty notices that Becky smelled of campfire smoke and mules. "Like me...." he suddenly realizes.

For those who found the movie's treatment of "Luke" cringeworthy, watch the movie again and pay attention to the crest of the nearby hill on the right side of your screen. There, you'll see unicorns and dancing bunnies. Maybe that'll make you feel better.

I won't spoil the ending for those of you who want to read the book, but it was nothing like what happened in the movie.
posted by mule98J at 2:19 PM on April 9 [5 favorites]

There is history here, as well as myth/fiction. The Comanche wars were nasty and involved torture, mutilation of corpses, and kidnapping. Most famous kidnappee was Cynthia Parker, whose abduction when she was nine years old fueled a lot of the events of the day. Parker was returned to her family after living as a Comanche for more than twenty years. She was not a happy person and tried repeatedly to escape back to the Comanche. Meanwhile, her son, Quanah Parker, grew up to become a Comanche chief. There is a lot of material here for legend-making. Ford's focus on a particular character is where legend becomes Art. (Cynthia Ann Parker)

(May I recommend Comanche Moon by Jaxon.)
posted by CCBC at 2:23 PM on April 9 [5 favorites]

flagged two for fantastic. got damn nothing like making a post and being out thunk and out gunned. I do the Walter Brennan dance but he was kind of a dick.
"Orson Welles once said of Ford, “He’s a poet and a comedian. With Ford at his best, you get a sense of what the earth is made of.”
totally agree about Jeffrey Hunter have often wondered what Ford thought because we all know he knew better but every movie should have a sort of unbelievable pinprick moment to relieve pressure... perhaps. I believe this movie was shot in Technicolor and I forget the other mode but it was quite rare and I thought highlighted the doorway scene. light and dark. the last frame there is light and there is dark the dark would symbolize comfort relief and end where is the light remains the light and Ethan had four choices go through the door and into the dark but that's not really an option he could either stage left or right but it seems very conventional also hence that he's sticking around but no he walks out into the light besides, when he was on the porch and near the dark he was in Shadow perhaps it's a foreshadowing. I think the quick cut is a door quickly closed
giving the viewer no sudden chance to contemplate Ethan's future, also just before even at the end people defer and move around him as mentioned above and that brilliant comment about how people would hem and haw around Ethan, great observation. is the movie redemptive of Ethan,I don't think so. last time I watched this was 2021 april and rethought the redemptive angle, measures and attributes, still didn't quite match up. all that beautiful colored film. I finally took a screenshot that exemplifies Ethan at least in my head sorry to self link but here it is.

was originally going to do a post on tales of Wells Fargo and Dale Robertson but came across this piece from Time magazine in 1959. it's nothing really to do with this film but at the industry.
"They have more than that to look at, including some of the most exciting new faces—and figures—that U.S. show business has produced in many a year. James Arness (Gunsmoke), Ward Bond (Wagon Train), Richard Boone (Have Gun), Hugh O'Brian (Wyatt Earp), James Garner (Maverick), Chuck Connors (Rifleman), Dale Robertson (Wells Fargo), Clint Walker (Cheyenne)"
WESTERNS: The Six-Gun Galahad
Monday, Mar. 30, 1959
(CW warning: racism and use of pejorative in writing)
posted by clavdivs at 6:06 PM on April 9 [5 favorites]

imo, John Ford & John Wayne newcomers should really check out Ford's first Monument Valley film, and first film starting Wayne, Stagecoach, from 1939. Look at ALL the depictions and references to Native Americans in it -- a not at all simple picture is painted. And the photographic composition is simultaneously naturalistic, and breathtaking in its artistry. Also, since the 2016 presidency of Big Stoopid, what Stagecoach says about the Southern US border (and by extension, the long land-grab of the Euro invasion of the Americas) reads completely differently than it did before.
Finally, on what the Searchers was saying in its 1956 context, and why its plot deviates so much from the novel it was based on, Brian Henderson's article The Searchers: An American Dilemma is essential. (The title's allusion to Gunnar Myrdal's work is very much intended.) Arthur Eckstein's 1998 update ia excellent also.
posted by diodotos at 8:32 AM on April 10 [3 favorites]

On James Arness & TV Westerns:

Radio shows nourished me during my post-pubescence. Willian Comrad is Matt Dillon, not that frogbutt upstart Arness. Dennis Weaver did an excellent job as Chester, mimicking Parley Baer's Chester. TV's Doc was okay, but Radio Doc (Howard McNeer) was better. Amanda Blake was okay on TV, but Georgia Ellis was Miss Kitty at her best. So there.

TV Tropes that matured: Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) was a bounty hunter with a conscience. He carried a sawed-off lever action rifle with an oversized lever.

Sugarfoot (Will Hutchins) carried around a set of law books. He wanted to be a lawyer and wasn't much into shooting people.

Lawman. Dan Troop (John Russel and Deputy Peter Brown). John Russel wore severely tailored shirts. He had the best mustache in Hollywood until Tom Selleck came along a few decades later. Peter Brown had a haircut like Ricky Nelson. He was a member of one of the fast-draw clubs, hands down the fastest gun in Hollywood.

The hosters used in most westerns were the Tuscadero gunbelt--slung low and festooned with loops to hold extra ammo. Hollywood invented that style in the 1920s. Before that, those who toted pistols wore holsters that fitted on the belt of their trousers, placing the butt of the pistol above the beltline. Many wore "cross draw" holsters, usually modified military holsters with the flaps removed or modified to go around the belt of the trousers.

John Ford's movies were cinematic masterpieces. I guess when talent goes to film in one of the world's most scenic and awesome places, the cinematography can't help but to become a part of the story.
posted by mule98J at 9:05 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]

No one has mentioned the elbow-holding gesture Ethan Edwards is making when the door closes on him at the end of the Searchers. It was a signature move of long-time silent film star and Ford collaborator Harry Carey Sr, deployed by him to indicate unspeakable feelings. For much, much more, check out Tag Gallagher's revised and expanded Ford bio, which he placed online.
posted by diodotos at 10:42 AM on April 10 [3 favorites]

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