House of Miscegenation
- Hollywood Westerns and American Myth by Robert Pippin
Yale, 198 pp, £25.00, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 14577 9
The hero of the Toy Story trilogy is a toy cowboy. In Toy Story 3 when the toys belonging to Andy, now about to leave for college, find themselves at a daycare centre, and a kindly bear welcomes them into a community of toys freed from their owners, the cowboy alone stays loyal to Andy; and when the toy bear turns out to be a dictator worse than any owner, the cowboy, who was never persuaded by the rhetoric of toy solidarity, is proved right. This Pixar animation seems to be a political fable. The daycare centre may be taken to represent the public realm, the polity, and Andy the private realm, the family; the cowboy is the hero because he stands for family values. But why make the hero a cowboy? Boys may still play with toy cowboys, but the Western has lost the popularity it enjoyed in the past. The idea must have been that family values are old-fashioned like the cowboy hero – though the cowboy riding off alone into the sunset was never exactly a paragon of family values.
A boy in the 1950s, the heyday of the genre, Robert Pippin grew up steeped in the Western. He watched them both on television (his favourite show was Have Gun, Will Travel) and ‘all day Saturdays at the movies (ten in the morning until six at night) … one Western after another’. Growing up in Havana around the same time, I saw no cowboys on television but plenty on the movie screen, from the Lone Ranger and Tonto to John Wayne, and I still have a picture of myself as a little boy in a cowboy outfit with a hat and chaps and toy pistols. It’s a small indication of how deeply influenced Cubans were by our mighty neighbour to the north, and the way the fiction of the frontier, which was not our fiction, held us in its sway.
What’s special about the Western? The cowboy hero, as Robert Warshow said in his essay on the genre, carries a gun but uses it only when he must: the Western doesn’t just tell violent stories, it tells stories about the meaning, the management of violence, the establishment of social order and political authority.[*] As Toy Story 3 recognises, the cowboy hero is a political figure. Pippin ponders the political dimension of a genre that portrays the move into new territory as the national story of the United States. ‘Being an American is essentially a political identification,’ he maintains: ‘Political ideals are all that hold us together as a nation … without a common long tradition on the same territory.’ A professor of philosophy at Chicago, Pippin looks at films from the perspective of his discipline but understands them in their own right, not merely as illustrations of ideas. He brings three movies under sustained scrutiny – Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers – and combines film criticism and political philosophy to the benefit of both.
Pippin first examines John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), which he considers – and I agree with him – the first great Western. I agree with him, too, that the central political issue in Stagecoach is equality and that, since the film begins in a frontier town already hardened into hierarchy and intolerance, equality here is not imagined as a given, or something simply achieved in a ‘Jeffersonian idealisation of frontier or yeoman democracy’. A prostitute, Dallas, thrown out of town by the Law and Order League, and an outlaw, Ringo, are the two main characters, the lowest in the social hierarchy and the highest in our esteem. The whore with a heart of gold usually endears herself to us but dies at the end to spare us the embarrassment of her irredeemability. It’s a different story with Dallas, a fallen woman but as good as anyone could ask for. On the other hand, Dallas and Ringo should not be seen as ‘natural aristocrats’: even if they are the best people in the film, the best hope for the future, they are still very much of the common people.
Stagecoach was the director’s own project. David Selznick wouldn’t take it on as producer because he saw it as ‘just another Western’ with no big stars, and Walter Wanger, the eventual producer, would have wanted Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in the leads. But Ford insisted on Claire Trevor and John Wayne (who wasn’t a star until this movie made him one). Dietrich and Cooper would have turned Dallas and Ringo into the natural aristocrats that Ford didn’t want; Trevor and the young Wayne assume no superiority. The aristocrat in the movie is Lucy, a woman from the South who disdains Dallas but whose baby, born at a way station, Dallas takes care of when Lucy is unwell. Lucy is grateful but still keeps her distance from Dallas, and some viewers are disappointed to find no class reconciliation, no personal acknowledgment on Lucy’s part of Dallas as her equal. But Stagecoach does enact a break in hierarchy, an opening towards equality on the frontier. It is not resigned to inequality but knows that equality is difficult to secure.
The frontier has been made to stand for different things socially and politically, from a Jeffersonian natural democracy to a Darwinian struggle for survival and power. Ford’s Westerns are in line with Frederick Jackson Turner’s historical account of the frontier, or rather the successive frontiers in the national movement westward, not as a natural affair but as an encounter between culture and nature, a transaction between civilised order and the loosening, levelling wilderness, a continual new beginning for American society, a continually renewed tendency towards liberty and equality. Pippin seems uneasy with Turner’s thesis and objects to the opposition between civilisation and savagery. But it is enough for Turner’s argument that the encounter with so-called savagery disturbs the order of so-called civilisation and opens it to the prospect of greater liberty and equality.
Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) is not about equality but authority. It is a tale of two leaders: Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). Dunson is the organiser of a massive cattle drive, starting out in south-west Texas and heading for a railroad in the Midwest. But the kinder and gentler Matt takes over when the cowhands grow unhappy with Dunson’s increasingly tyrannical rule. Dunson vows to kill his disloyal son. He catches up with him in Kansas, pushing through a sea of cattle to confront him. A young gunfighter from the trail pulls out his pistol, but nothing can break Dunson’s stride, his irresistible forward progress, and the camera moves with him as if it, too, is powerless to stop him. But when father and son come face to face Matt refuses to draw his gun. The ensuing fist fight is interrupted by a young woman, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who has fallen in love with Matt and who reminds Dunson of his own lost love. ‘Anybody with half a mind would know you two love each other,’ she tells the two men we had thought would fight to the death. Hawks is adept at mixing genres, and here he switches from epic to comedy. Love conquers the conquerors in the comedy happy ending.
This final break with the expectations of epic has met with much criticism. Borden Chase, the scriptwriter, said that the original intention was to have Dunson killed by the young gunfighter, who would in turn be killed by Matt, but that Hawks got angry and dropped the idea when John Ireland, who played the gunfighter, started fooling around with Hawks’s girlfriend. Whether or not this bit of gossip is true, that ending would have fitted the epic sweep of the movie. But James Harvey found the happy ending a relief: ‘Sensible people don’t kill or maim each other for revenge or honour or empty matters of pride.’[†] And for Pippin the happy ending fits because the film was not really an epic to begin with: Dunson’s cattle drive, despite the title’s allusion to the Red Sea, is not at all comparable to the biblical exodus but a mere commercial undertaking, a bringing of cattle to market. This seems to mean that there can be no bourgeois epic, that epic belongs to a warrior class – never to a merchant class. But isn’t the cowboy hero a warrior of the merchant or middle or peasant class? I’m not convinced by Pippin’s argument that Red River qualifies its epic mode by imputing it to Dunson’s – or to Texan, or to American – self-aggrandisement. The ending aside, the film achieves an epic grandeur unsurpassed among Westerns.
Red River is a capitalist epic. The railroad, which in populist Westerns is usually the enemy, the corporation dispossessing the farmers, is in Red River a business partner. Hawks draws a parallel between the cattle crossing the river – a scene that memorably conveys the epic sense of vast natural energies harnessed to human enterprise – and the cattle arriving in Kansas and crossing the railroad track. Why, then, after depicting the enterprise of frontier capitalism so grandly, does the film resolve the issue of authority comedically? It seems to be of great moment, the transition from ‘an autocratic, charismatic, largely premodern or feudal form of authority to a much more humanistic, consensus-oriented, prudent, more recognisably modern mode of rule and civil order’, as Pippin describes it. But, as he points out, ‘this transition of power from Dunson to Matt is not inherently revolutionary. It does not require an eruption of violence and death.’ Matt’s consensual democracy is not the antithesis but the continuation of Dunson’s feudal autocracy. Father and son stand for the same thing – the rule of capitalism – and the son manages to hold on democratically to the power that the people were going to take away from the autocratic father. That’s why it all comes down to comedy in the end.
The shift into comedy does not diminish the epic magnitude of the cattle drive, but it does cut the heroes down to size. More precisely, a woman cuts them down to size, which bears out Pippin’s claim that the Western identifies civilised order with femininity and bourgeois domesticity. Comedy brings civilisation in Red River, sensible comedy taming heroic epic. By contrast, in Ford’s last major work, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a wintry remembrance of springtime, civilisation brings tragedy. It is the tragedy of the West that was won, the West that, after all the new beginnings on the frontier, ends up conquered by the East, defeated, dead. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a work of self-questioning, a mythmaker’s late reflection on the myth of the frontier he had long propounded.
The leftist modernist director Jean-Marie Straub called Ford ‘the most Brechtian of all filmmakers’, pointing to the ending of Fort Apache (1948), when the good soldier knowingly assumes the mantle of the falsely glorified bad soldier he had opposed. The bad soldier, a character inspired by Custer, is Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda), an ambitious martinet who seeks glory by defeating the Apaches he disdains but hardly knows; the good soldier is Captain York (John Wayne), a friend of the Apaches who recognises the justice of their cause and negotiates a truce with them. Thursday breaks the truce and marches against the Apaches; sure of victory, he succumbs to an enemy he has badly misjudged and dies, along with his whole regiment. The action is construed as heroic by politicians and the press, and enshrined in a painting to be displayed in Washington which York, talking to reporters as the fort’s new commanding officer, pronounces ‘correct in every detail’.
Thursday’s ill-advised last stand ironically gains him the glory he was after. ‘He’s become almost a legend already,’ one of the reporters says. ‘He’s the hero of every schoolboy in America.’ We are astonished that the bad soldier has become a legend, a national hero, with the blessing of the good soldier who has been our hero and who, better than anyone else, knows the legend is a lie.
‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ The line is often associated with Ford, but he didn’t say it: the editor of the Shinbone Star says it after hearing Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) tell the true story of the man who shot Liberty Valance. A false legend and its political consequences are again the issue here. Did Ford agree with the newspaper editor’s line? ‘Yes,’ he replied when asked in an interview, ‘because I think it’s good for the country.’ Why, then, did he show on screen the facts that contradicted the legend?
Senator Stoddard has come with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to the small Western town of their youth for the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The local newspaper wants to know who this little-known man was. The senator begins telling the story of his early days in the West, and we flash back to a past which, as the film critic William Pechter observed, ‘to strange effect, is recognisably a set’. Monument Valley as an icon of the frontier was Ford’s creation; no maker of Westerns has done more with the landscape of the West, yet Liberty Valance has very little natural scenery, and the studio landscape is surely intended to remind us that this picture of the old West is a fabrication. The effect is compounded by the fact that the lead actors – Stewart as a young lawyer gone West to seek his fortune, Wayne as a rugged young Westerner, Andy Devine as the fat, frightened marshal – are visibly too old for the parts they play, figures from the movie past no longer credible as incarnations of the frontier past (‘the sight of a barrel-bellied, 55-year-old John Wayne heaving himself onto a horse’ was for Pechter ‘hopelessly destructive … of any suspension of disbelief’). We don’t go to Hollywood movies for realism; their business hasn’t been to give us the illusion of reality, but the conviction of fantasy. We know that the West depicted in Westerns never actually existed, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance doesn’t let us forget it.
Not that Ranse Stoddard is an unreliable narrator, as Pippin thinks. The story Ranse tells is enacted in images only loosely attributed to his recollection. Consider two images of Hallie, the illiterate frontierswoman courted by Tom yet drawn to Ranse (this isn’t just a personal but also a socially motivated preference, and a symbol of the winning of the West). In one image Hallie stands at the door, lit from behind as Tom goes out into the night; she watches him go as if they were parting for good. In another image she stands pensively in the empty classroom where Ranse has been giving civics lessons and teaching her and others how to read and write (the schoolteacher from the East, a generic female character in Westerns since Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian, is here turned into a man). Each of these images shows us something that Ranse couldn’t have seen and tells us something crucial to the story: that Hallie is switching her affections from Tom to Ranse, from West to East.
Ranse is neither exactly the narrator nor unreliable. Although his political career was built on a false legend, he now tells the truth. The vicious bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) personifies savage violence, which the Western characteristically counters with the hero’s measured, civilised violence. Such is the legend of Ransom Stoddard as the man who shot Liberty Valance. But the senator reveals that, when he bravely faced the bandit on Main Street – which is where the Western most often situates the showdown between hero and villain: not a personal fight but an affair of the community – he would have been killed had Tom not intervened and shot Liberty Valance in cold blood under cover of darkness. The heroic violence was actually Tom’s rather than Ranse’s, and savage rather than civilised. Tom, a hero with something of the villain in him, has a kinship not only with the gentler Ranse but also with the rougher and wilder Liberty Valance: he is the shadow of savagery that lurks behind law and order.
At the time Ranse, like everybody else, thought he had shot Liberty Valance, and at the statehood convention – a comedy of political rhetoric – he is nominated to represent the territory as ‘a lawyer, teacher, but more important … a champion of law and order’, the man who shot Liberty Valance. He is displeased and walks out of the hall: it goes against his principles to use an act of violence as a political slogan. Enter Tom, who looks as if he has a hangover, a Western hero uncharacteristically worn down, bitter, troubled. He takes Ranse aside and tells him what really happened – in a flashback within the flashback we return to the showdown from Tom’s point of view – and Ranse goes back into the hall and accepts the nomination that gets his political career underway. If he wouldn’t run when he believed he had done the deed, why is he now willing to run under false pretences? His running as the man who shot Liberty Valance is a matter of rhetoric, and Ford – even as he pokes fun both at those who call Ranse a champion of law and order and at his opponents who say he has blood on his hands – makes clear that in politics rhetoric is indispensable. Ranse objects to violence on principle, but he must avail himself of rhetoric if he is to succeed politically and do something for the country (‘Hallie is your girl now,’ Tom barks at him. ‘You taught her how to read and write, now give her something to read and write about’). The best rhetorical card he can play is the act of violence that has won him fame. When he finds out that it is Tom who has blood on his hands, he realises that he, too, must get his hands dirty, if only in rhetoric.
Rhetoric and force, like diplomacy and war, work hand in hand. Rhetoric can prevent the use of force – no need for aggression when persuasion serves – but as the legend of Thursday’s last stand shows, rhetoric can also provoke the use of force. The legend of the man who shot Liberty Valance turns force into forceful rhetoric. Ranse the lawyer, the man of rhetoric, and Tom the Westerner, the man of force, together embody the duality. They also bring out the flaws and dangers of both: Tom’s force amounts to murder, Ranse’s rhetoric to a lie. Perhaps Ford would say that the murder and the lie are good for the country, but he makes us see that even a good man’s violence, like a good man’s deceit, carries a risk. The partnership works out well for Ranse but not for Tom, whose force Ranse steals for his rhetoric on behalf of the East.
The double is as much a fixture of Westerns as of Gothic stories: Tom and Ranse in Liberty Valance, Dunson and Matt in Red River, York and Thursday in Fort Apache, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine. The last of these may be Ford’s sunniest Western, made in 1946, right after the war that led the United States out of the Depression and into world ascendancy. Wyatt Earp is the West dancing with Clementine, the civilising East, while Doc Holliday, the Easterner drunk on Western wildness, is a tragic hero. In Liberty Valance the tragic hero is the Westerner. If Clementine is the East facing West, Hallie is the West facing East and forsaking the West. If Wyatt Earp and Clementine look forward to the marriage of East and West, Ranse and Hallie are the marriage of East and West looking back in sorrow.
Pippin’s concern with what he calls ‘political psychology’ – the ‘assessment and understanding of human motives and reasons in political situations’ – sometimes leads him into reading Westerns too psychologically. He surmises that Ranse and Hallie have a bad marriage and that she grieves for Tom not just as a dear friend but as the love of her life. He supposes that her marriage is childless – which we have no way of knowing – and conjectures that Hallie may be ‘thinking about what a life with Tom on the ranch, perhaps with children, would have been’. He finds ‘no sign that she knows that the Valance myth is a lie’. But when the newspaper editor presses the senator to talk about the friend he and his wife have come to bury, Hallie looks at her husband and indicates her approval: Ford is a subtle filmmaker, and that look is a subtle but unmistakable sign that Hallie knows the truth and wants Ranse to let it be known. At the end of the movie, on the train leaving Shinbone, Hallie tells Ranse that her heart is there. She doesn’t mean that she has always loved Tom rather than the husband she rejected him for: she means that she enduringly loves the West, the West of her youth, the dead West. Liberty Valance is not the story of a love triangle: it is a national allegory.
The twinned heroes of this Western are a murderer and a liar. Pippin absolves the murderer (‘He does what needs to be done silently and selflessly, disappearing into history, not honoured in any legend, not mythologised, not even remembered’) but cannot forgive the liar, the man ‘willing, without much visible struggling with his conscience, to build his life on a lie. In a simple word, this is dishonourable, and there is no question that Ford wants us to see that it is dishonourable.’ I don’t see it – and don’t think Ford wants us to see it – that way. He does expose the hypocrisy of a civilisation that dissembles its violence in the guise of law and order. But Tom sacrifices himself for that civilisation, and Ranse would have been priggish and foolish to disown the act of violence that saved his life and served to uphold his values. What should trouble his conscience is not the lie he has lived with, not that he wasn’t but that in effect he was the man who shot Liberty Valance, that the law and order he eloquently advocated entailed the violence that killed the West.
‘Print the legend’ is certainly not Ford’s position. He would not let men like the editor of the Shinbone Star decide for us what we are and are not to know. Ford publishes the myth and the truth side by side for everyone’s benefit: he takes the view that myths can be good for the people but that the people should decide. Yet how can the people, once apprised of the truth, decide in favour of the myth? Isn’t it impossible to go on believing in a legend that has been exposed as false? ‘You can’t make yourself believe something,’ as Pippin says, just because you believe that it’s good for the country to believe it. You can, however, find Tom guilty of murder and Ranse of mendacity and still think they did the right thing for the country – this is the real issue, the national rather than the individual story.
Some suppose that the Western fell into disfavour when audiences found out that the myths it propagated were not the historical truth. But did people ever take the myths for the truth? Surely they always knew that Westerns were a fiction, and loved them as a fiction. Plato knew that the hierarchy of gold, silver, bronze and iron souls recounted in the Republic was a fiction, and though he may not have wanted the people to know, surely they would have. They may still have accepted the myth, but as an allegorical rather than a literal truth, as a fiction that seemed to accord with and make sense of their reality. Thus the legend becomes fact. But in Plato’s Republic the people are to accept what has been decided for them. In Ford’s movie the people have decided by voting for the man who shot Liberty Valance, and now, after the fact, after the legend has become fact – and even printing the truth in the Shinbone Star wouldn’t change that fact – the people are again to decide whether that was the right decision.
Westerns wouldn’t be so American if they weren’t racist. When I played cowboys and Indians as a child, the cowboys were of course the good guys and the Indians the bad guys. Although Indians in Westerns are often good guys, and from Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo to Tonto and the Lone Ranger, have been paired with white frontiersmen as kindred spirits, the racial divide in the genre can’t be denied. The protagonist of Ford’s most complex Western, The Searchers (1956), is racist to an astonishing degree. Liberals who disapprove of Westerns without knowing them well take this protagonist as typical and his racism as endemic to the genre. But The Searchers is a critique, troubled and troubling, incisive yet constructive, of the racism endemic in American society.
John Wayne, the greatest cowboy hero, plays the film’s racist hero, Ethan, an unreconstructed Confederate in the wake of the Civil War and probably a mercenary and robber. He crazily slaughters buffalo so that Indians will have nothing to eat, shoots out a dead Indian’s eyes so that the man’s soul will ‘wander for ever between the winds’ in accordance with Indian belief, and goes on an extended search for Debbie (Natalie Wood), his niece in Indian captivity, fully intending to kill her because he considers her unworthy of rescue. As Pippin observes, having John Wayne in the role invites us into an identification with the character that is then stopped short and turned against us. Hateful though he is, Ethan is not a villain, and we don’t simply hate him as we would if he were played by a villainous actor: we have to come to terms with him, a terribly flawed hero but still a hero, still John Wayne, still a commanding figure with whom we identify as a paradigmatic American. When we identify with John Wayne as a good guy we feel good about ourselves; in The Searchers our identification with him makes us uneasy.
Though a singular case, Ethan is not an aberration. Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), part Indian and derided by Ethan for it, and Laurie (Vera Miles), a blonde of Nordic ancestry, are supposed to get married, but Martin joins Ethan in the search for Debbie, and Laurie, after years of waiting for Martin, finally blows up at him: ‘Fetch what home? The leavings of Comanche bucks, sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own? Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain!’ Pippin finds this the most shocking moment in the film. But Laurie is not a villain: even a nice young woman impatient for her own mixed-race marriage shares Ethan’s racism. It was for such ironic contradictions that Straub called Ford Brechtian.
The Searchers opens with a woman, Martha, opening the door of her frontier home, which frames a view of the desert. Martha is a figure of civilisation facing the wilderness, and the camera moves out with her onto the porch where she and her husband and three children welcome Ethan, her brother-in-law. Majestically choreographed, proceeding like a tribal ceremony, this inaugural homecoming establishes Ethan as a figure of legend. The first thing the prodigal uncle does in his brother’s house is to pick up little Debbie, the youngest of the family, and lift her high above his head. An amorous attraction is suggested between Martha and Ethan, and though this movie has been so much talked about that the unspoken love between wife and brother-in-law has come to seem obvious (Pippin speaks of their ‘somewhat reckless’ looks at each other), what the director chose not to spell out we shouldn’t feel free to embellish (some have even proposed that Debbie is Ethan’s daughter). Ford’s subtlety calls not for speculation about what we don’t know but for reflection on what we do know. That Ethan desires his brother’s wife tells us that he’s disruptive of the family, of the burgeoning social order, and at the same time that he’s drawn to the family, as his avuncular lifting up of Debbie also tells us.
Comanches attack the house while Ethan is elsewhere. He returns to find they have killed his brother, his nephew and Martha, whose raped and dead body is the sight that affects him the most. The older of her two daughters soon meets the same fate. Debbie, attempting to escape, meets the Comanche chief, Scar, in the family graveyard. His shadow falls on her, and when she looks at him we see that his eyes are blue. Not, as may be supposed, because Hollywood Indians are played by white actors – that wasn’t Ford’s practice. Scar’s eyes are blue for a good reason: they tell us that the Comanche chief is part white, as was the historical Quanah Parker, a famous Comanche chief of the period, the son of an abducted white woman. Ford does not explain, he just shows: he wants Scar’s blue eyes to give us pause. The Searchers is a movie about race, about miscegenation.
Ethan is the frontiersman who has more in common with the Indians than with white civilisation. Yet he hates the Indians – for Pippin this means that he hates himself – and Scar even more than Debbie is the object of his obsessive search. Ethan and Scar are doubles of each other, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook turned into mortal enemies. In the end, however, it isn’t Ethan but Martin who kills Scar, and Ethan not Martin who rescues Debbie: another ironic reversal, which suggests that Ethan and Martin are in it together, that the whole white community is in it together – together in the violence against the Indians and together in bringing the captive woman back into white society.
Critics have debated at length why Ethan ends up rescuing Debbie instead of killing her. After a brutal raid on the Indians by white soldiers, Ethan, on his horse and apparently with murderous intentions, chases Debbie as she runs away, and Martin can’t stop him; but then Ford cuts to a view looking out at the action from inside a cave, and when I first saw the film many years ago, I knew at that moment that Ethan was going to rescue Debbie. The view from inside looking out through a door – the ‘inside-outside’ shot, as Pippin calls it – opens and recurrently punctuates the movie. Initially it was a view associated with Martha, and you could perhaps say that her spirit, summoned in this shot, keeps Ethan from killing her daughter; but I didn’t think of Martha, I thought of the family, of civilisation, which Martha stands for. And now the uncle picks up his niece and lifts her above him, repeating the gesture he performed on arriving at his brother’s house: ‘Let’s go home, Debbie.’ Once more Ford declines to explain. He cut out the explanation in the script, which had Ethan changing his mind on the point of shooting Debbie, softening when they look at each other and saying to her: ‘You sure favour your mother.’
What difference does it make that Debbie’s connection with Martha, spelled out in the script, is left implied in the finished movie? The movie doesn’t suggest that Ethan changes, that he undergoes a conversion: avuncular at the end as he was at the beginning, he gives us no reason to think he has suddenly become any less racist than he has been all along. Skipping the transition from nasty to caring, truculent to affectionate, Ford sharpens the sense that such contraries dwell side by side in Ethan: the nice uncle rescues Debbie but the man full of racial hatred is not gone.
The Searchers ends as it began, with a homecoming, and closes as it opened, with the inside-outside shot. It is Debbie’s homecoming this time, and again it has a ceremonial quality. The house that welcomes her is not her mother’s – it belongs to Laurie’s parents – but it is again the house of white civilisation. Ethan brings Debbie to the porch but does not go inside the house; Laurie goes out to welcome Martin and the two come inside, past Ethan, whom we watch through the door until finally he turns and goes away. You could say that Ethan is excluded because his racism is inadmissible, but nobody tells him to go, and Laurie is not excluded; this is her house, and her racism isn’t exceptional – it is part of the house, part of the society. On the surface this is a generic ending, the cowboy hero riding off alone into the sunset. It is more significant that we watch Ethan leave from our vantage point inside the house, as it receives the niece he saved above all from himself, and even if he hasn’t changed, the house has. Debbie comes home with an experience of Indian life, an admixture of Indian culture, a tolerance of difference; and Laurie and Martin will marry and consummate their mixture of races. American society hasn’t overcome its racism, but it now lives in the house of miscegenation.
[*] ‘Movie Chronicle: The Westerner’, Partisan Review, March-April 1954.
[†] Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges (Knopf,1987).