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January 09, 2013

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jbryant

Servants are paid, and I'm guessing Ford didn't have the guy picking cotton. So there's that.

In the context of his time, Ford was fairly progressive. Some of his attitudes wouldn't be considered overly enlightened today, but the Civil Rights movement was in its infancy when THE SEARCHERS came out. I have no problem grading some of the folks back then on a curve. 20/20 hindsight, and all that. As I said before, he was one of the few filmmakers dealing with racial issues AT ALL in the 50s, just not in the earnest, preachy manner of a Stanley Kramer.

Michael Sooriyakumaran

In regards to "The Searchers," the scenes involving Look are pretty cringe-inducing. On the one hand, it's obviously a movie about a racist character and the movie in no way endorses either Ethan's desire to kill Debby or the cavalry attack on the Comanche village in which Look is killed. But, apart from Martin (the half-breed who was raised by whites), its only significant Native American characters both lack humanity: Look is an one-dimensional stereotype and Scar is a speechless, quasi-mythical figure. It's not an unambiguously racist movie like "The Birth of a Nation," but it does contain some racist elements. In other words, the movie a product of its time, and to me that makes it more interesting, not less.

Jeff McMahon

Just to bounce off Don's comment, the worst thing Mr. Ehrenstein has done to this thread is to half-raise a couple of serious ideas, then demolish the potential for actual discussion of them acting like an especially unlikeable bull in a china shop.

Michael Webster

If Ford the actor played a Klansman and Ford the director demonstrated less racialist sensitivity in the 50's than is common today then of course he is a racist and must be denounced. All actors are what they play. If they put on a Nazi uniform in a WWII film, then they are obviously Nazis in real life. If in the 50's -- be they 1950's, 1750's, or 1350's -- someone acted in a way that we now recognize as wrong, then we must condemn them now and for all time. Are those truth's not self-evident? If you don't believe me, ask Morgan Freeman or Alanis Morissette or any of the actors who have played God.

Petey

"I think Ford's relationship to and interaction with race through his films is fairly complex, with marks on both sides."

No reasonable comments such as this are permissible in this thread, Jason.

As penance, say three thousand hail mary's and denounce Tarantino to the HUAC.

David Ehrenstein

If you knew anything about African-American history, jbrynat, then you'd know that the civil rights movement was NOT "in its infancy" when "The Searchers" was made.

"I definitely didn't mean to imply that The Searchers and Ford aren't racist, just that they aren't just racist..."

IOW,"It's a floor wax AND a dessert topping!"

Ted Kroll

Two points about 'The Searchers', both of which require fuller discussion than I can do here in a blog:

1) Nobody has mentioned Mose Harper who is actually the only black man in the film. The emphasis of this character is his being 'mentally challenged', but in general he is treated with respect and as a member of the community.

2) More than pure racism, I believe sexual frustration/jealousy is a driving factor in Ethan's behavior. For him, Scar is a sexual rival and a sexually active man compared to the monastic existence of Ethan. I have come to see the scalping of Scar as a castration. Once he has neutered Scar, than it makes sense that he can take Debbie home. To repeat, there is more to this than I can say here: the sexual undercurrent plays a large part of the motivation of the Wayne character which is mixed up with the racism. This mixture of sexual jealousy and racism remains part of the American psyche to this day.

Tom Block

Mose is supposed to be black? I thought Ford just left Hank Worden out in the sun too long.

Ted Kroll

Tom,

Could be - that is just the way I have always seen that character.

Goes to show that we all see these films from our own point of view.

jbryant

David E: This is all I meant by "infancy": "The African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the social movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against black Americans and restoring voting rights to them."

It's from Wikipedia, so it must be true!

If you knew anything about typing, you'd know it's "jbryant." :)

Wilder

The film clearly presents Ethan as a psychotic bigot - the judge is even disgusted at Ethan for shooting out the dead Native American's eyes. And the final shot so signifies that Ethan's era is coming to an end that anybody thinking he's being celebrated....

And what should Ford have said? If somebody asks if you're a racist, is there any answer that wouldn't be deemed ridiculous? It's a bullshit question without serious evidence.

David Ehrenstein

"The film clearly presents Ethan as a psychotic bigot" A psychotic bigot we're encouraged to admire.

"The African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) refers to the social movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against black Americans and restoring voting rights to them."

Thereby writing off everything that came before.

Cozy.

ZS

"The film clearly presents Ethan as a psychotic bigot" A psychotic bigot we're encouraged to admire.

Eh, now you are just trolling. I've never once felt an once of admiration for him and I don't think, formally, the film forces the viewer to identify with him. At best it doesn’t outright condemn him. Compared to most of John Wayne films of the time, he isn’t exactly a triumphant character.

jbryant

Even if we're encouraged to admire (or at least understand) Ethan at first because he's trying to avenge a great loss, the film complicates our reaction to him in the ways others have noted.

DE: Seems to me one can narrowly define a particular historical movement without "writing off everything that came before." Obviously, major strides were made prior to the 50s (including Dred Scott, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, formation of the NAACP, etc.), but it still seems to me that what is popularly known as the Civil Rights Movement was ignited by such mid-50s events as Brown vs. Board of Education, the Emmitt Till murder and the Rosa Parks incident. Ford made THE SEARCHERS in the thick of all this, and THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT even predates it.

The latter film is a truly transitional one: Judge Priest may be paternalistic toward blacks, but he single-handedly defuses a lynch mob and insists that a black man should have as fair a trial as a white man. The story is set in antebellum Kentucky, and the Judge is already an old man, but one bound equally by the traditions that shaped him and the duty to do the right thing. Even with Stepin Fetchit on board and no roles for blacks other than devoted servants and smiling banjo-pickers, there's much in the film to rile a racist heart, and Ford is to be commended for it, IMO.

Ford's efforts may amount only to baby steps in the film industry's attempts to handle racial issues with sensitivity, but they're forward steps. Few other filmmakers were taking them at the time, certainly not at Ford's age and career level.

David Ehrenstein

"I've never once felt an once of admiration for him and I don't think, formally, the film forces the viewer to identify with him. At best it doesn’t outright condemn him. Compared to most of John Wayne films of the time, he isn’t exactly a triumphant character."

HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THE LAST SHOT???!!!!!

Ethan is a Tragic Anti-Hero of posiively Wagnerian propotions.

skelly

"Ford's efforts may amount only to baby steps in the film industry's attempts to handle racial issues with sensitivity, but they're forward steps. Few other filmmakers were taking them at the time, certainly not at Ford's age and career level."

jbryant - agreed. But George Stevens' (only 10 years Ford's junior and certainly, in 1956 terms, at Ford's career level) GIANT deserves some mention for handling sensitive racial issues (although we are talking sub-plot territory). Though certainly with more of a Stanley Kramer styled approach - with far less complexity and contradictions as in the Ford(s).

ZS

“HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THE LAST SHOT???!!!!!

Ethan is a Tragic Anti-Hero of posiively Wagnerian propotions.”

I don’t see the tragedy in this. It expresses that Ethan is outmoded and a thing of the past. He’s shut out by history. That is why I wouldn’t call the film racist or anti-racist (And really I think it’s a problem to demand the film be either) Like the Mann/ Stewart Westerns before it, or some of the Walsh and De Toth Westerns before it, The Searchers is conflicted about the notion of the myth of the great white cowboy who has come to bring civilization.

David Ehrenstein

Not outmoded at all. He's "Th Gallant Knight" who serves the society but (sob!) can't truly be part of it because of his violence.

This is the way "polite society" works. It depends upon violence but is always in denial about that fact.

This is the reason so many otherwise intelligengt people were so put out by "Zero Dark Thirty." They didn't want to see the torture at all -- even though they knew it took place.

ZS

Wagner? Gallant Knight? How about treating it like a Western or even (sob) comparing the opening to the closing?

The thing is you are exactly like those in the “Zero” debate who have arrived at a moral position not clearly supported by the film. You know actual evidence on screen. Then you troll others who disagree so you can stake out your moral superiority. Eventually that makes for dull conversation.

David Ehrenstein

IOW, your moral superiority is better than my moral superiority.

Talk about "dull conversation."

What's at issue is racism -- which you're loathe to acknowledge much less deal with.

ZS

Oh get off your high horse. Most Westerns have racism baked in their myths. Point is "The Searchers" is conflicted about the myths and its ending isn't as simplistic as you suggest. But you prefer to troll and make trite declarations.

David Ehrenstein

I've written about "The Searchers" in the past. My observations aren't new. What's new is the notion that anything you see in an internet forum that you disagree with is "trolling."

ZS

No trolling is thinking someone is loathe to acknowledge racism. I have read your piece on "The Searchers." In any case I will blame it all in QT.

Phil P

What nobody has commented on is the absurdity of Tarantino's attacking Ford for having played a role as an extra in a film.

edo

The great irony, so far as I understand it, in "The Searchers" is that it is Wayne's Ethan, the most virulently bigoted character in the film, who understands the Comanche the best, and that ultimately it is he, and not Jeffrey Hunter's half-breed, who transcends the racism of his community by sparing rather than killing Natalie Wood's Debbie.

Most of the white characters in the film evidence casually, and callously, racist attitudes. None more so than Vera Miles's character when she tells Hunter that Debbie deserves to die in a selfish attempt to keep him from going away again. In this context, Ethan's own racism is viewed as more emotionally valid than the rest of the characters, because it emerges from actual firsthand experience of guerrilla atrocities - genuine personal trauma - rather than religious or imperialist condescension. Ethan and Martin's search for Debbie is presented against the backdrop of the US military's ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing against Indian tribes, which Ford condemns in no uncertain terms in the scene where Wayne and Hunter come upon a massacre of an Indian camp. I've always felt this sort of indifferent, reflexive racism was the true evil in "The Searchers", where Ethan's racism is something more troubling and harder for Ford to dismiss. It's a complex film. It really is. It's both racist and about racism. The closest analog I can think of is "Moby-Dick".

Pat Hobby

>>What nobody has commented on is the absurdity of Tarantino's attacking Ford for having played a role as an extra in a film.

It's so absurd and half-baked that there is nothing really to say except to point out that by Tarantino's logic Leonardo DiCaprio is a crypto-racist for playing a slave owner in his film.

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