Friday, 15 September 2017

FILM REVIEW: THE SEARCHERS, John Ford's Look at Race Realism

The Searchers has been hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. The BFI's Sight and Sound have it at number seven in their poll of esteemed film critics - and this is in spite of it being a very politically incorrect film in an industry that has been by turns liberal and Judeo-bolshevik since its inception. Even the liberal bourgeois critic I love to hate, Roger Ebert, despite his affected bandying about of words like 'racism' and 'genocide', had to admit that the character of Ethan Edwards was 'one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created.' What Ebert does not like is the fact that Wayne's character is unashamedly racially aware and that the film does not seek to criticise this.




Indeed, the character of Ethan Edwards is a good place to start, because the film pretty much revolves around him. That the film starts without him, all be it briefly, is indeed to mark his absence. The opening is a beautiful piece of cinematography, the black screen being the dark interior of the Edwards house and a door unseen in the blackness opening up to reveal a woman silhouetted against the open plains. As the family run outside, Ethan is seen coming towards them on horseback. This scene is to be compared with the similarly filmed ending, and interiority versus exteriority and the doorway as liminal space are key themes in the film, which we shall return to later. For now, it is enough to note that Ethan is delineated as a man of the exterior, of the great outdoors.

The first ten minutes of the film are spent in revealing details about Ethan in ways that are a mixture of what is said and what is unsaid. When he comes 'home', we are initially led to believe that it is his family he is coming home to. The children greet his as they would a father and there are suggestive looks between Ethan and the woman we presume is his wife. Yet the family is that of his brother, Aaron, although it is obvious the wife and children wish Ethan were the father. Aaron is a bean counter, in contrast to Ethan the warrior, as seen when Ethan gives Aaron two bags of gold, Aaron's reaction betraying himself as a petty bourgeois money-grubber.


We know from conversation that Ethan fought in the American Civil War for the Confederate Army and also by his uniform; but as is exclaimed, the war finished three years earlier. Where has he been all this time? The clue is in the medal he gives his niece Lucy. Although never said, it is a medal given to the mercenaries fighting for Emperor Maximilian of Mexico against the native Mexican revolutionaries. Yet the medal and the gold he has received as payment he gives away freely, they being seen to mean nothing to him. It is the nature of the wars that are important, not the material rewards. The sides he has chosen are the ones that wish to maintain the supremacy of White European Man.




A word in particular ought to be mentioned here about this little-known period of American history. Maximilian, the son of Archduke Franz Karl and younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef I, all of the Habsburg monarchy, had been invited to invade by Napoleon III of France to invade Mexico with a French army and re-establish White European monarchical rule over Mexico, which had been governed by the liberal democracy under Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian. He succeeded for a time (although his own commitment to liberalism doomed him to failure, as he lost the support of conservatives) and also enlisted the help of mercenaries, of which the fictional Ethan is one. The United States of America supported Juarez and so the character of Ethan has implicitly chosen race above country.

His racialism is foregrounded at the first dinner upon his return, when Martin Pawley, whom Ethan saved after an Indian raid wiped out his family and has been adopted by Aaron, sits at table and Ethan remarks upon his appearance:

Ethan: Well I could mistake you for a half-breed.
Martin: Not quite, I'm eighth Cherokee. The rest's Welsh and English. At least that's what they tell me.
Ethan: Grown some.
Aaron: Ethan found you, squalling under a sage plant after your parents had been massacred.
Ethan: It just happened to be me. No need to make more of it.

Ethan sees the danger of miscegenation straight away, as part of his warrior leader instinct, as protector of the clan, of its physical integrity. It is for this reason that throughout the film he is antagonistic towards Martin. Its spiritual integrity is kept by the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, as religious leader, who is also a warrior leader. Both, one notes, are of the officer caste, as seen in the mention of sabres, an officer's weapon:

Clayton: Well, the prodigal brother. When d'you get back? I ain't seen you since the surrender. Come to think of it, I didn't see you at the surrender.
Ethan: Don't believe in surrenders. No, I still got my sabre, Reverend. Didn't turn it in to no ploughshare either.

Ethan later berates Clayton when he refuses to take an oath to the Texas Rangers, of which Clayton is now leader. Ethan reminds Clayton that they both took an oath to the Confederacy, which Clayton has broken, but which Ethan still upholds. It is this indomitable spirit and  that sets up the main narrative of the film: the pursuit of the Indians who raid and burn down the Edwards home, murdering Aaron and Ben and murdering and (it is inferred) raping Martha, and abducting Lucy and Debbie. Gratuitous violence was always inferred rather than shown on screen by John Ford, as he was against the 'progressive' move towards the torture porn ubiquitous in cinema today.




Ford does not spare Leftist sensibilities when it comes to the Indians and refuses to romanticise them, hence the current criticism of The Searchers. The film is based on the Alan Le May novel of the same name, which in turn is based on historically recorded cases of Indians abducting White girls and raising them as their own to take as wives after murdering their parents during raids. Yet the Indian chief Scar is three-dimensional and this is an early film in which we get the Indian perspective on the White Man's conquest of the West: 'Two sons killed by White Men; for each son I take many scalps.' Ford does not take the Indians side though - indeed, he takes no sides in the entire film and merely presents an engaging story where the only morality is that of a Darwinian survival of the fittest. As he himself said almost as a rebuke of Leftist criticisms:

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 scenes of the destruction of an Indian village, the death of sympathetic Indian comic relief 'Look' and the march of the Indians captured by the Union Army are tempered by the following scene of the madness of the White women and girls who have been forced to live among the Comanche and adopt their alien way of seeing the world, their reason and religiosity, their logos, prompting Ethan's exclamation that 'They ain't White anymore!' The sympathetic character of Mrs Jorgensen delivers an equally compelling speech:

It just so happens we be Texicans. Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next, maybe for a hundred more, but I don't think it'll be forever. Someday this country's gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.

This is the idea of blood and soil, the connection between the land and those whose ancestors are buried in it. Whatever tribe puts enough blood into the soil becomes one with the land. It is a timely reminder when not just the lands of conquest in the New World, but the native homelands of White European in the Old World are under threat. Wayne's character recalls the European warrior of old: strong and hardy in both mind and body and often necessarily ruthless in a frontier world where Nature demands it. Indeed, there is no greater truism than in the scene where Martin fights Charlie McCorry for the affections of Laurie Jorgensen as she watches them in ecstasy.

Both Ethan and Martin are problematic characters for critics of all political persuasions. The Left's complaints are obvious: the affront to their sensibilities by his racialism is compounded by the fact he is no mindless thug and throughout the film demonstrates an awareness of authentic Indian cultures the Leftist could only dream of in his overwillingness to idealise. When Scar and Ethan meet, it is as enemy equals and one notes Ford selected an actor of the same stature as Wayne to play Scar and filmed the two standing face to face before entering the teepee. Both speak the other's language and Scar has named Ethan 'Big Shoulders', which is not merely a physical description, but also symbolises the fact he bears the weight of his tribe.




Ethan is built up as the ideal warrior figure, but his un-Christian behaviour would have been shocking to the conservative American audience of the 1950s. He is very much a Pagan, as seen in his mocking tones to those who preach the Bible: Reverend Clayton and the Jorgensen women who ask him not to take revenge as they clutch their Bibles. He is a staunch racialist, yet bequeathes his worldly goods to the mixed Martin Pawley as a sign of acceptance. Indeed, his reason for doing so is that he has never married nor had a family of his own, which, from a Rightist perspective, deliberately reveals a flaw in the heroic narrative of many westerns, almost projecting ahead to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone: where are the families of these √úbermenschen?

The film stands almost as a critique of Leone's Ayn Rand cult of the lone individual. In Leone's films, the goal is reached either in the warrior hero gaining wealth or revenge, but then what? Ultimately, style triumphs over substance without this being addressed. Yet here it is addressed in the closing scene that mirrors the opening, where the camera inside the Jorgensen homestead frames Ethan standing outside with the doorway, a doorway he may not enter as outsider figure. Martin Pawley, on the other hand, is allowed in as part of the family. Partly Indian, he behaves however in an almost impeccably White European and Christian manner as overcompensation for his lack of genetic purity and gains the acceptance he has sought throughout the film. 




The Pawley character is interesting, because in the novel from which the film is adapted, he is White. Again, there is no didacticism on the part of Ford; he is throwing in added complexity and making it as difficult as real life. Historical evidence shows that Martin Pawleys existed. John Wayne himself (a man the Left love to hate) had married a Hispanic woman just two years before the film's release. From a Leftist perspective obsessed with the Other, Martin has lost contact with the Indian part of himself; whereas the Rightist will see the dangers miscegenation poses to the group, where we lose our European essence. The irony is that it is the Indian that has been all but bred out through miscegenation, and Chief Scar's complaint about the White Man seems hollow when he has taken a White Woman as a wife.

Perhaps then this is what we can draw from the film; the lesson is not one imposed by Ford, but one there to be divined. For Rightists, it is Martin Pawley who should have been left outside and Ethan Edwards who should have been brought in. But the progression towards bourgeois America, the land of the Yankee dollar, demanded the slow eradication of the noble warrior spirit and purity of the blood, for these are aristocratic principles at odds with those of the bourgeoisie. If the White European is to survive in the new frontier, these aristocratic principles must be re-embraced.



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See also Morgoth's review of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.

2 comments:

  1. I recall Ford claiming to be in Birth of A Nation (Klansman holding his eye). Makes me chuckle.

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  2. A good read. Interesting highlights on the signals and messages contained in this. It's so easy to have missed these in the sea of ignorance or propaganda we're steeped in from birth. I feel like I had an inheritance or language stolen from me, so I never understood what was being said. Also a great point at the end. The need to have these personal characteristics or at least to admire them in others needs to be recognized by the White European. Some can do and others who can't can at least follow or support. Without opposition from our own the "aristocrat" would be able to make great changes in little time.

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