Thursday, November 19, 2009

Roger Ebert on "a man who hates Indians"

Further to our discussion, here's Roger Ebert on The Searchers:
"In ''The Searchers'' I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide; the comic relief may be an unconscious attempt to soften the message. Many members of the original audience probably missed his purpose; Ethan's racism was invisible to them, because they bought into his view of Indians. Eight years later, in ''Cheyenne Autumn,'' his last film, Ford was more clear. But in the flawed vision of ''The Searchers'' we can see Ford, Wayne and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero."
Ebert points out something I never thought of, which is that The Searchers is one of the first movies to make the racial subtext of the Western part of the text. It's an interesting review.


The Pagan Temple said...

Okay, I get it now. I'd never seen the film, so it wasn't clear to me until I read Ebert's review that Ethan actually intended not to rescue his niece, but kill her, rather than leave her alive as "the leavin's of a Comanche buck". Yep, I would say that's a not too subtle dig a racism. I would say that would probably have been an all-too common attitude back in those days, and on top of that, a real-life Ethan would have thought he'd be doing his niece a favor by killing her, rather than "forcing" her to live with the "shame".

I know this is going to sound awful, but I wonder how many southern blacks were lynched in the days after the first release of that film? Seriously, I think by this time, Indians were at worse viewed with grudging admiration. Black-white relations and mixing was the burning hang-up of the day then, and I am going to guess that a large segment of the film's audience probably didn't take Ford's film in the spirit he intended.

Rufus said...

I don't know if audiences picked up on the digs at racism, but I'd have a hard time imagining it inspiring racism. Part of the complexity of the movie is that he really is getting revenge on a tribe that killed his family. So, it's possible that audiences just focused on the vengeance issue and paid little attention to the miscegenation issue.

The Pagan Temple said...

I don't know, you might be right, and I would have to see the film before I could say for sure, but I would guess it would depend to a large degree on how he expressed his feelings about killing his niece when he found her. What kind of emotion did he put into whatever statement he made to that effect. Like you say, Wayne could portray a lot just with a gesture, or a look, or tone of voice.

I can just imagine some white racists seeing the film and thinking, yeah by God that's what I would do if my niece was raped by a coon. God only knows what they would think about a niece or daughter willingly having sex with a black man.

And while I seriously doubt that the film caused the Emmett Till murder or anything like that, film can be a powerful thing at bringing raw emotion to the surface. At one time John Wayne was such a beloved an influential figure with such a large swath of the American people he could probably induce people to eat four raw eggs for breakfast every day just by doing it in a movie.

Rufus said...

Well, I don't want to give away the ending, but let's just say it's different than that. It could have had a positive effect.