Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is John Ford's 'The Searchers' Racist?

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in John Ford's 'The Searchers' (1956).
In one of our These Amazing Shadows segments we take John Ford's masterpiece, The Searchers, to task for what we perceive is its racism. On occasion we have been taken to task for our take on what is often called the best western ever made. While we believe at its heart it is racist there is no doubt that John Wayne's performance is fantastic, the photography by Winton C. Hoch is nothing less than astonishing and John Ford's direction masterful. In a huge oversight it did not receive any Oscar nominations.

One person who has a different view than ours on The Searchers is Corey Atad. After watching These Amazing Shadows he tweeted that we were unfair to The Searchers. We tweeted back asking if he would expand on his thoughts. So, he did. The following is his email unedited and in its entirety. We love exchanging ideas and talking about the movies. Thanks, Corey!

Corey is a film lover and blogger, and writer for Dork Shelf and Sound on Sight.
Corey's twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/CoreyAtad

Hi,

Just thought I'd respond to/expand on my tweet. I don't think that the point of view presented about The Searchers is invalid, I just think it's more complicated. The documentary follows Birth of a Nation with The Searchers and then only seriously takes into consideration the critique of the film's racist elements. This makes it seem like the film is of a piece with something like Birth of a Nation which is unquestionably a racist and historically nasty film.


I find that what makes The Searchers interesting as a film inducted into the National Registry is not that it's racist, but that it's complex with regards to its approach to race. No doubt the film is very flawed, and it does rely on nasty stereotypes and the ending has some seriously racist undertones (especially considering the true case that inspired the story had the girl refusing to give up the Comanche way of life completely.)

It's also important to consider the film in the context of its time and in John Ford's career. It came quite late in the Western craze, with earlier films being much more clearly racist and destructive over a long period of time. John Ford directed many of these films. Stagecoach, another Ford western in the Registry, could easily be criticized for the way it depicts Native Americans as little more than a faceless enemy to the white Americans.

Rather than simply fall into standard racist portrayals, The Searchers attempts to confront the racism of its main character. He's not the hero of the film by any stretch. He's a dark character and the film doesn't really promote his racist point of view. Also, the Comanche's are presented in an interesting way. They story requires them to be the villains, which is unfortunate, and their visual depiction isn't quite kosher, nor is the way they are used for comic fodder, but the brutality of their violence upon immigrant settlers is fairly true to life. Furthermore, the film actually gives the leader of the Comanches, Scar, motivation beyond being the savage Indian.

The Searchers isn't a perfect film, and it does fall into the racist trappings of the genre at the time, but it also takes them on in a manner more serious and more complex than almost any other western at the time. In this sense, the documentary making it seem of a piece with Birth of a Nation is unfortunate. Where that film is quite binary, important more for its social and technical qualities, The Searchers is an important marker in the way race was approached within its genre and American film in general. That is to say, not perfectly, but with complexity. I kind of wish These Amazing Shadows touched on this rather than just using The Searchers as a stand-in for racism in westerns.

Honestly though, that was a tiny quibble. I loved the rest of the doc. Fantastic work. Made me want to go through the National Film Registry and check out all the films I've likely missed. Particularly the shorts.

Thanks,
Corey Atad

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