Saturday, August 12, 2017

John Wayne in The Searchers: Some Personal Reflections

This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film.  I am grateful to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate.  Today's Star is John Wayne.

This is not a review for The Searchers.  Instead, it is an exploration of John Wayne's performance in The Searchers.

I bristle whenever someone says he or she doesn't think John Wayne could act.  My first instinct is to think what they object to is Wayne's image as the cowboy, or a reaction against his right-wing politics.  Whenever someone says to me 'John Wayne can't act', I offer to show them The Searchers, which is to my mind, not just Wayne's seminal role, but among the greatest performances by any screen actor. 

In The Searchers, Wayne goes against his usual role as the noble, heroic figure, that symbol of strength.  Wayne's character is the 'hero', but he's anything but noble or strong.  He's vile, full of rage and fury, and yet a tragic figure who, despite his almost grotesque nature, makes you feel great sadness and sorrow for him.

A quick plot overview of The Searchers before we go on is necessary.  Ethan Edwards (Wayne), a Confederate veteran, goes to his brother Aaron's (Walter Coy) homestead in Texas.  There, he's reunited with his brother, his nieces and nephew, his brother's wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a boy Ethan had saved.  Martin is 1/8th Cherokee, which Ethan finds is enough to make him unworthy of being among the family.  Cattle rustlers appear to have raided a neighbor, but it was really just a diversion to drive the men away.  Instead, Ethan realizes that it was the Comanche who stole the cattle and were going on a murder raid.  Out of two possibilities, it is Ethan's family that is slaughtered, though they find only three bodies: Aaron, Martha, and his nephew Ben.  That means the two girls, Lucie and Debbie, they youngest, were taken.

The rest of the film is about Ethan and Martin searching for the girls, or rather Debbie (Natalie Wood), for Lucie has met a horrifying end, or at least that's suggested.  Ethan does not like Martin for being an eighth Native American, and as time goes on he is filled with fire and fury at the thought that Debbie will become 'one of them'.  So great is Ethan's wrath that he is perfectly willing to kill Debbie rather than have her blood mixed with 'Indians', let alone join their culture.  As their five-year search comes to a climatic end, Ethan Edwards will stop at nothing to destroy Debbie in order to 'save' her, nothing that is, except perhaps what sliver of humanity still resides within his dark heart.

Wayne's performance in The Searchers undermines whatever image one has of 'John Wayne'.  Unlike in other John Wayne films, particularly Westerns where Wayne's moral certitude and noble cause elevate him, here, his moral compass for lack of a better term drives him on into genocidal fury.  His act of nobleness in having save Martin when he was a baby is undercut by his basic declaration that Martin was essentially not worth it because he's 1/8th Cherokee.  Interestingly, I believe 1/8th is the minimum requirement for one to be considered Native American, but it's such a miniscule amount as to be almost insignificant.  That would be your great-grandparents, and yet Ethan will not see Martin, brought up to think of the Edwards as part of the family, as any kin of his.

Ethan cannot abide the mixing of the races no matter what the circumstances.  For him, the idea that Debbie will be 'tainted' with Comanche blood, sleep with Comanche men (even if it is against her will) and perhaps bear part-Comanche children is the true evil.  He believes he is saving Debbie, but it's a monstrous act of murder and genocide that drives him.

In one of the most famous moments in The Searchers, the original search party finds the body of a dead Comanche.  One of them wants to smash the body's head in, but the Reverend/Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) orders him not to.  Ethan, dismissive of all this moralizing, taunts them.  "Why don't you finish the job?" he calls, before shooting out the eyes of the dead man.  When asked what good that did, Ethan replies, "By what you preach, none.  But by what that Comanch believes: ain't got no eyes he can't enter the Spirit Land, has to wander forever between the winds.  You get it, Reverend," ending with a racial slur at Martin, "Come on, blanket head". 

We learn two things from this powerful moment. One: that Ethan Edwards was highly versed in Comanche custom and culture.  Two: that his genocidal rage goes beyond death itself.  As Martin Scorsese observed, he condemned a man's soul.  Ethan was no practitioner of Comanche theology and doubtful he believed in the Christian God, but that isn't what was important to him.  It was the fact that the Comanche believed what he did, and now, without his eyes, he was doomed in the afterlife.  Ethan's vile hatred went to the very soul of a person.

Ethan's dark soul knew no bounds, yet it is his tragedy that it would destroy him too.  Before he and Martin hear the Cavalry come with a group of 'rescued' white women, Ethan is shooting down buffalo like mad.  Why?  Not to feed him or Martin, but to stop them from feeding Native Americans.  In Wayne's performance, we see just how far, how demonic Ethan has become, but yet we find that within him there is still a semblance of humanity.  He shows this in quick moments, such as when he covers Martin in a blanket one night (albeit as part of a trap to lure men following them for money) or when he writes out his will giving Martin all his possessions.

That however is undercut when he states in the will he has 'no kin'.  Martin angrily states Debbie is his kin, and Ethan replies she is no longer kin.  She's Comanche, and no Comanche will be related to him.  The fact that Ethan and Martha clearly were in love and that perhaps Debbie, far from being his niece might have been his daughter, (something the film neither confirms or denies) makes his denial of Debbie all the more shocking.

To Ethan, the 'saved' women were no longer white, they were Indian.  As he looks back at them, we can see nothing, but with him bathed in darkness, we can 'see' that he is now totally engulfed in hate. Yet even here, when we see Wayne, we see that maybe that hatred that he has for others has also turned into hatred for himself.

In a minor plot, Martin gets accidentally married to a sweet but large Native American who adopts the name 'Look' in an effort to please Martin who repeats the word over and over.  When asked about Scar, she is terrified and flees.  Later, Ethan finds Look dead in the village that had been raided by the Cavalry.  Martin asks why the Army would do that to Look since she couldn't harm anyone.  Seeing Wayne in this scene, we can see that Ethan has no answer, and see that the darkness that he has within him has carried on into America's own soul.  
I don't know if this was a turning point for Ethan, but given Ethan has no answer for Martin, and given he has briefly known Look's genuine innocence and sweetness, it might be here that Ethan for the first time has truly come to face just how he has dehumanized Native Americans.  He is forced to see what hate does, and while he still is engulfed in hate himself, it is now mixed with a terrible sense of loss.

John Wayne's performance in The Searchers gives us a frightening portrait of a dark soul, one who hates beyond death itself.  What makes it more interesting is that Ethan is far smarter than the others.  Martin rushes to the Edwards' homestead even after Ethan tells him that the horses need rest and grain.  As Ethan begins to pat down his horse, we see in Wayne's face a man who knows the terrible fate that will befall his family and the woman he loves, yet he can do nothing because logic gets in the way.  Once he gets there, passing the unfortunate Martin, he looks upon the burning stead, and in Wayne's performance that mixture of fear and fury come across, enraged at what his despised 'non-people' have done and his own inability to have saved them.

As The Searchers continues, Wayne becomes more frightening, more intense, the furious Wrath of God come visiting vengeance to all.  Yet he also shows the tragedy of Ethan Edwards, because he fails to see just how much like his enemies he has become.  In the end, he scalps the head of Scar, the Comanche antagonist.  The words that Ethan uses on Scar are thrown back at him by Scar, and here, we see that the old axiom is proved true: we do become the thing we hate.

Ethan in the end is destroyed by his hate, and there is no room for him in the new world of 'civilization'.  Though he has sworn to kill Debbie for her transgression of miscegenation, real/imagined/consensual or not, when he finally corners her, lifting her up like he did when she was a child, at that moment we see Ethan finally, despite himself, see that this girl is part of him.  She is human, the one thing Ethan has never admitted that she was.  He calls her 'Debbie' even in the chase, which shows that his love for this child, for Martha's child, perhaps their child, has broken through.

Yet he ends The Searchers a broken, defeated man.  When Ethan brings Debbie to the homestead of the Jorgensens, to whose daughter Martin has been romancing, all of them go into the house except Ethan.  Debbie goes in, still slightly in shock by her ordeal, but now integrated into American society (and by extension, Native American society having to find a place within it).  Martin and Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) go in to continue their love, the 'purity' of the Scandinavian blood to mix with Native.

John Wayne's Ethan however, stands outside, and starts walking towards the vast expanse of the American West.  As he does so, we see the wind sweeping up dust around him.

The curse Ethan Edwards has placed has come upon him.  It is Ethan Edwards who cannot enter the Spirit Land and has to wander forever between the winds. 

Here, John Wayne moves me enough to cry for men like Ethan Edwards, lost in a world that can never embrace him.  Ethan's murderous xenophobia cannot find a place in a world that once needed him to 'tame' the West, but now that it is 'tamed', he can never be.  Wayne says nothing as he sees the others go in, but then turns to us, grabs his arm, and has a sad, strange look. 

I think of it as a look of forlorn acceptance of Ethan's tragic fate: to never be at peace or ever find peace.  He knows the world will accept that which he cannot, and that his journey is over.

John Wayne's performance in The Searchers is one of the greatest performances in film history to my mind.  It gives lie to the idea he couldn't act, because this vile, angry, almost monstrous man moved me in the end, made me feel such sympathy, sorry and sadness for him.  Wayne, and director John Ford, showed us the dark side of 'how the West was won': the brutality inflicted on the Native Americans, the hatred one side had for the other.

It is a rich, complex performance, where whatever revulsion you have for the character is balance with the knowledge that he is also the 'hero'.  Wayne does not shy away from being unsympathetic, dark, almost evil, yet shows us the lost, doomed man, driven by rage, by hate, but also by a form of love.

You don't have to like Westerns or John Wayne's politics to see in The Searchers both the exploration of the dark side of American Western history or of the men who made it so.   He's a hateful man, in many ways a monster, yet he is also tragic.  To balance all that requires great skill, to have us feel sympathy and even a form of admiration for someone as horrible as Ethan takes a tremendous amount of acting prowess.

If you or anyone you know says 'John Wayne couldn't act', I suggest watching The Searchers to see how wrong such thinking is.

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