Ford, Wayne and the old West



Before we enter the Easter period, I want to spend one more post looking at the world created by John Ford and John Wayne. I will leave it to learned film historians (if they still looks at these films) to tell us the obvious in long words, but for many of us, these films are our mediated access to the myths of the old West. They could still write about ‘Red Indians’ and depict the coming of the White man as a good thing. But no one who has sat through The Searchers as many times as I have, or who has seen She wore a Yellow Ribbon could think Ford took a simplistic or triumphalist point of view. He sees the same manly virtues he admires in the ‘Indians’, and many of the white men who double deal with them are morally abhorrent and far lesser characters than those whom they fool; but nor does Ford fall for the ‘noble savage’ cliché, either. War is war, and in it men do awful things – it happens on both sides. Ethan Edwards, the character played by Wayne in The Searchers is morally ambiguous to say the least – and a challenge to those who claimed Wayne always played himself. As Ward Bond’s character, the Rev Captain Samuel Taylor, the captain of the Texas Rangers, says “Ethan fits a lot of descriptions.” In search of his niece, Debbie, he is quite as capable of cold-blooded savagery as any of the ‘savages’ he kills, and when, after five years of searching, he finds she is the wife of a Comanche chief, he’d rather kill her than save her, and is only prevented from doing so by his companion, Brad, who was engaged to Debbie’s sister, Lucy, who was kidnapped, raped and killed by the Comanche. In the end, he scalps the Comanche chief, and we’re left in doubt until the end whether he will still kill Debbie. He doesn’t, and the films ends with Wayne silhouetted in the door between one life and an uncertain future.

This is a world as morally ambiguous as any modern film maker could want – and it was produced in 1956, so much for the view that back then it was all black and white. The unspoken fear of the whites is portrayed brilliantly – miscegenation is to be avoided at all costs – hence Ethan wanting to kill Debbie. There is, in all of that, a real historical theme, and there are many documented cases of white women being taken – just as there are of white soldiers raping Indian women; as usual in war, women end up as trophies of one sort of another. Ethan’s most savage moments are inspired by his revulsion at the idea, and it is clear that for the whites, being the wife of a Comanche buck is the proverbial fate worse than death. We are dealing here with themes of genocide and racial purity – and only a decade after the Second World War ended. There are no ‘good guys’ here – even Scar, the Comanche chief, is motivated by the fact his sons have been killed by the whites.

This is the state of nature, the war of all against all, red in tooth and claw. We see how very thin the veneer of civilization is, and how easily it is scratched away – and we glimpse something of what lies beneath it. The film is the most complex of those Ford did with Wayne, and the latter gives one of his best performances – you have to wonder what the Academy were doing that year giving the statuette to Ernest Borgnine for Marty (what, you neither?) – at least Ford got a Golden Globe.

Wayne and Ford at their best offer us a world which is as ambiguous and as troubled as the one in which we live, but it is one in which values matter, and even when not doing it, as Ethan almost does not, the characters know what wrong is. These films have lasted, and will last, because they challenge us to live up to values which are eternal.


About JessicaHof
Anglican Christian, evangelist, survivor, grateful

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