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The Searchers and Race


Last month, SEK brought up the racism of The Searchers, which I argued was as racist as Birth of a Nation. I decided to rewatch the film. It had been a couple of years after all. Both of my major contentions about the film were reconfirmed. First, it is a brilliant masterpiece. Second, it is deeply and disturbingly racist.

In many ways, The Searchers and Birth of a Nation tell the same story. Both revolve around the fundamental taboo of American history–sexual relationships between white women and men of color. The major theme of John Ford’s career is the creation of a white nation through violence, even if that violence is often jocularly portrayed, and through shared suffering in the service of creating modern America. Ford could often transcend this brilliantly when avoiding regeneration through violence. The Grapes of Wrath depicts people suffering from violence and dispossession while in Young Mr. Lincoln, Honest Abe’s manhood is proven through halting mob violence rather than participating in it.

In any case, the theme of violence for racial purity binds Ford and Griffith together. The Iron Horse witnesses the Irish and “whites” uniting on the railroad to create Americans only when attacked by Indians. Ford himself could make this clear. The casting of Henry Walthall as the ex-Confederate preacher in the awful Judge Priest is hardly a coincidence as Walthall was Colonel Ben Cameron in Birth of a Nation.

If The Searchers is more ambivalent about the racial project than Birth of a Nation, that’s the reflection of the times. The latter came out in 1915, at a height of racial fear in America (and 2 years after Traffic in Souls, which dealt with the purity of the white race in a very different way, though the fear of white slavery). The former came out in 1956, the same year that African-Americans won the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for filmmakers to tell stories of racial conquest in purely victorious terms given a changing nation.

Ethan Edwards is still the ultimate hero in creating a safe world for white women. Ford may have to show Ethan’s great personal suffering and sacrifice and provide a character (1/8 Cherokee but the rest Welsh!) as a foil to Ethan’s murderous racism. But Ethan is still a clear hero with who we sympathize, even if a touch uncomfortably.

The most obvious and famous scenes about racial purity is when Ethan goes into the building holding the women rescued from Comanche capture and when he tries to kill Debbie after seeing her defiled by Scar. But it goes much deeper than this. While Ethan’s Confederate past and unwillingness to surrender isn’t directly tied to defending slavery, that doesn’t have to be named. He is the last man willing to stop at nothing to protect pure white womanhood and the American race. Moreover, while Ethan is the enforcer of white purity, he’s hardly the only character to express these thoughts. Laurie supports Ethan over Martin in the idea of killing Debbie, telling him, “I tell you Martha would want him to”–Martha being Debbie’s mother. Before Brad rides off to his death, his primary concern is not whether the Comanches killed Lucy but that they raped her, which it is clear they did from Ethan’s response to his question. When Ethan won’t let anyone see Martha after the homestead is ravaged, the subtext is not that she is dead but that she was violated and therefore should not be seen.

We also need to examine the relationship, such as it is, between Martin Pawley and the Comanche woman who he inadvertently marries. There’s no evidence that Martin has sex with her. He seems more disgusted than interested. But the point is that he certainly could have. Interracial sex between Martin and a Comanche woman makes Ethan howl with laughter. Interracial sex between Scar and Debbie makes him murderous. This reflects the broader attitudes toward interracial sex in American culture, with its obsession to protect white women and its tolerance of sex with women of color.

A common defense of Ethan and thus the film is that he understands Comanche culture and speaks the language, thus showing a history of some understanding. I’m not convinced this means so much. Ethan is a middle-aged man in the late 1860s. That may well have put him in Texas in the 1840s or even 1830s. He may have dealt with trading for captives from the Comanches for years. The Comanches were still raiding in Mexico into the 1860s as well and who knows what kind of interactions he had there. But I can easily see a scenario where Ethan knows the Comanches well and wants to use that knowledge to destroy them.

It’s at least worth noting that Ford’s obsession with the Comanches as the great horror of racial mixing in the West had a background in specific Comanche traditions. As chronicled by Pekka Hamalainen’s Bancroft Prize winning book, The Comanche Empire, Comanche warriors engaged in widespread public rape of captive women on the Taos Plaza before exchanging them in the slave trade that dominated the border economy in the 18th and early 19th century. By the mid-19th century, I don’t know of much evidence that this was still going on. But at that point, you have a Comanche empire posing a serious threat to American expansion (Hamalainen makes a convincing argument that it was Comanche dominance of the Mexican frontier that undermined Mexico’s expansion plans and made it so easy for the U.S. to win the Mexican War) and a people for whom ethnicity was fluid. Acting like a Comanche meant more than the Anglo-Saxon obsession with blood and race. The most powerful Comanche when depleted resources (and not military conquest) led to their surrender was Quanah Parker, the half-Comanche, half-white son of a woman kidnapped from Texas and integrated into the tribe. Thus the very symbol of Comanchedom in the 1860s and 1870s was the product of the racial mixing that horrified white Texans.

This history was still popular lore in Texas a century later. Ethan’s need to kill the despoiler of white women thus serves much the same function in regional popular memory as did Ben Cameron and the KKK’s ritual murder of the black marauder in Griffith’s post-Civil War nightmare of miscegenation. Only when the landscape was ridden of uncontrolled men of color could white women be protected and American civilization advance.

Again, The Searchers is a great film. In fact, it’s a near perfect film. Ford does show the ambivalence of racism, which is much of what makes it so interesting. But at its heart, it is still a film about the heroic quest of cleansing the American landscape of those who would defile pure white womanhood. In that, and in Ford’s open love of Griffith, The Searchers is a direct descendant of Birth of a Nation, for better and for worse.

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  • Another Anonymous

    Reminds me I need to work up my Bakhtinian reading of the Disney Mary Poppins.

    • Mr Black

      Get a brain first, so you’re not handicapped like the guy who called 2001 fascists.

      • Another Anonymous

        2001 could conceivably be fascist, but not fascists. (Its criticism of the national-security state comes through loud & clear to me, but may be too subtle for some.)

  • T. Paine

    Thanks for this, Erik. Really interesting.

  • Leeds man

    it is still a film about the heroic quest of cleansing the American landscape of those who would defile pure white womanhood

    Yes, I get that. But Ford’s (and Captain York’s) sympathies seem to lean much more towards the cleansees in 1948’s Fort Apache. Corrupt Indian agent, incompetent colonel.

    • To be honest, I’ve never seen Fort Apache or Cheyenne Autumn, even though I have seen a wide swath of Ford’s films from through his career, including many obscure ones. So it’s possible I will change my tune a bit at a later date.

      • Hogan

        Do see Fort Apache soonest. One of the best Vietnam War movies ever.

        • rea

          Although it’s really about that idiot Custer.

      • Bill

        By coincidence, Fort Apache happens to be on TCM at 1:45 PM today, if you’re able to record it

        • Sadly, TCM is only available as part of the supreme cable package.

  • Very interesting. I just finished reading Empire of the Summer Moon about the Commanche empire.

  • LeeEsq

    How the West was One was a much worse film than the Searchers. It was hokey and very earnest in its message. At the same time, it was also a lot better at dealing with the negative part of Westward expansion and was a bit more sympathetic to how it effected Native Americans, especially in the part about the railroad and the coming of settlers. Its kind of a shame that the worse movie overall was better with the darker side of Western expansion than the artistically superior movie.

    • MD Rackham

      How the West was Won may show some of the darker side of expansion, but it justifies it all at the very end by showing America’s crowning achievement: the LA freeway system!

      So, yes, it is rather inferior compared to The Searchers.

      (But if you have a chance to see HtWwW in Cinerama, do so. The Cinerama Dome in LA shows it a couple of times a year.)

    • Leeds man

      I thought it was a Debbie Reynolds musical.

  • John Protevi

    The film’s is about racism, but is it racist? Ethan’s a racist, but is he a hero as opposed to a monster, an anti-hero? Who is he hunting? Is it Scar, or Debbie? I suppose it’s both. He collaborates with the men who slaughter the Comanches, but it is Martin who kills Scar, even if Ethan scalps the corpse. But then Ethan overcomes the racism that drove him to hunt Debbie with the intent to kill her.

    But that overcoming of the racism directed at Debbie isn’t enough to win him admittance to the home life that overcoming allows. Is it because he’s tainted by his murders? Or is it that the racist murders that clear the land is hidden from the consciousness of the folks who now live on the land? Insofar as those folks include the mixed-race Martin engaged to the white Laurie and the spared Debbie, and excludes the racist Ethan, I’m not sure what to say as to my first question. But I completely agree that it’s a masterpiece.

    • Well, I think that Ethan is clearly intended to be seen as a hero, even if he is a hero with some flaws, one that can’t fit into society. He has done the dirty work to create a white America that he can never truly be part of, perhaps in part because of unexpected societal tolerance for those defiled by miscegenation, which of course complicates the matter. But it may well be that the elimination of the threat from the land, which by the early 1870s had been achieved, was enough to bring the defiled back into society. After all, a central question of early American history was how to deal with women and children who had been captives. Captivity narratives were the 2nd biggest literary theme in Puritan society, after religious tracts. And the Puritans would do anything to get their captives back, as John Demos so wonderfully shows in The Unredeemed Captive. The difference between Ethan and 17th century Puritans though, well possibly anyway, was a more finely honed racial hierarchy, one that had great experience in fighting race-based wars in Texas and the South and Mexico.

      • John Protevi

        Excellent points. Ethan’s exclusion comes only after the slaughter of the Comanches, so that exclusion is a commentary on an ungrateful society made possible by, yet denying the true cost of, genocide.

      • rea

        It’s decades since I saw the movie, but my take on it back in the 70s was that the Wayne character was an antihero, and that Martin is the hero. That’s why the Wayne character doesn’t get a happy ending. Maybe that’s too superficial a take on it though, and at this distance, I remember what I thought about the movie better than the actual movie.

  • Informant

    The problem I tend to have with characterizing The Searchers as an unqualifiedly racist film is that there are several scenes where white characters are shown reacting negatively towards Ethan Edwards in contexts where I’m quite sure that we’re supposed to identify with those characters’ reactions to Edwards’ atrocities. (E.g., Edwards shooting retreating natives in the back, desecrating the corpse, etc.) It seems hard to characterize a film as being seriously racist when the most racist character in the film is clearly depicted as being a sociopath.

    • But are they reacting negatively because they’re shocked at the horrible things done, or because they don’t want to face the ‘necessary’ tasks to ensure a white America? The former would suggest a critique, the latter is obviously more racist.

  • I dunno — when I watched it, I saw Ethan as the primary villain of the movie. Martin’s the hero, at least that was what I got out of it.

    If Ethan seems heroic, I see that as partly the viewer’s expectation that John Wayne is gonna play a hero, like in every other movie he was in, and partly because Wayne was just a charismatic presence on the screen. And if Ethan had a redemption at the end, that was mostly because Wayne was a giant star, and no studio would tolerate having a downer of a film where the biggest star in Hollywood guns down Natalie Wood.

    But a lot of my interpretation may just be because I saw it for the first time when I was in college in the ’90s, and my own opinions on race and Westerns may have influenced how I saw the characters…

  • MD Rackham

    When Ethan won’t let anyone see Martha after the homestead is ravaged, the subtext is not that she is dead but that she was violated and therefore should not be seen.

    I always got ravaged and dead out of that scene. But maybe I’ve watched too much Law & Order.

    • Well, she’s definitely dead, but it’s not a shot to the heart that stops Ethan from letting anyone see her.

      • wjts

        I always saw that scene as implying excessive mutilation, but it’s been a long time since I saw it last.

        • kgus

          Yours is a perfectly acceptable interpretation; but might not rape — in context — be the ultimate mutilation?

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    I agree with the last few commentators that the film’s attitude toward Ethan is ambivalent enough that it makes the question of the film’s racism (as opposed to Ethan’s) complicated. At the very least, the film’s racism is different from Ethan’s. To my mind the biggest indictment of the film is not that it endorses Ethan’s views (it doesn’t) but rather that it suggests that Ethan is a kind of necessary evil. He’s, in effect, not allowed in the house at the end, but there’s a sense in which the house can only survive insofar as the Ethan Edwardses of the world are outside protecting it. And that reluctant endorsement is also, in effect, a reluctant endorsement of racism. (In this reading, the film becomes a kind of Cold War allegory, among other things).

    • Let me offer 2 pushbacks, of various to nonextistent strength.

      First, are many commentators reading back on this picture values about westerns, antiheroes, and race from a later time? In other words, it would be useful if a Ford expert were around who could tell us whether Wayne was really meant to be seen as a necessary evil or as the savior of the white race, or at least the whiteness of one family.

      Second, while it’s possible that Ford himself is changing over time, his earlier films are chalk full of similar incidents of racism and racially-charged scenes. I don’t think we can look at The Searchers properly without considering Ford’s other work.

      • I think it plays a different tune than some of the other Fords I have seen- this is why I think he’s starting to do something a little bit different. John Wayne’s persona has only been tweaked so much in his films, so I would ask where does this John Wayne sit among the other John Waynes? That is an additional variable to where this sits among the Fords.

      • kgus

        The strong rogue male paving the way (yada yada)… is also a theme in Libery Valence.

        Not knowing the Wayne character in Fort Apache is a drawback for you, though. He is a kind of anti-Ethan: both knowledgeable and respectful of his Indian neighbors.

        I always coupled Ethan with Dunson in Red River: as Ford’s response to Hawks’ sophisticated use of Wayne as antihero.

        • Leeds man

          “I always coupled Ethan with Dunson in Red River”

          Yes! Dunno why I never made that link. Horrible brutes, both of them. I never could figure out if John Ireland’s character was killed by Dunson near the end.

          And Wayne’s Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is just an older Captain York (more so than Colonel Yorke in Rio Grande). My favourite scene is Brittles talking to Chief Pony That Walks.

        • Hogan

          After seeing Red River Ford reportedly said, “I never knew the big lug could act.”

      • That’s usually spelled “chock full”, but I can see how “chalk” (as in, Caucasian circles, etc.) could have gotten into your mind and out of your fingers unnoticed.

      • witless chum

        First, are many commentators reading back on this picture values about westerns, antiheroes, and race from a later time? In other words, it would be useful if a Ford expert were around who could tell us whether Wayne was really meant to be seen as a necessary evil or as the savior of the white race, or at least the whiteness of one family.

        I’m not particularly big on the intentions of the author, of what the author says their intentions were. But even if I were, Ford’s choice to emphasize Ethan Edwards’ racism in 1956 has got to mean something. The sort of Cold War liberal choice of the time was more like deemphasizing race in America’s past, without really embracing the idea of racial equality. In the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford adds a black servant type for Wayne’s character, a choice that seems to want to suggest that black people were now welcome to part of the world of John Ford movies, so long as they were happy and stayed to their place.

        It seems like it’s grappling with the idea that enthusiastic racism is bad or at least has outlived its usefulness. Ford’s vision seems more like it’s asking Ethan to calm down and just go with some deed restrictions rather than scalping. I think Ford’s trying to at least grapple with racism as an evil, but not really getting all the way there. If he’d had Martin shoot Ethan, like someone said the book does, that’d have been a much more thematically consistent ending.

        The idea that it’s as racist as Birth of a Nation is presumably nothing but hyperbole. I’d say The Searchers is a movie about racism that’s kinda ambivalent, but trending negative, while still being very in love with John Wayne and the classic Western idea of civilizing the savage wilderness. I guess I think it’s racist in that it doesn’t really take the idea that the Comanches had a right to exist seriously, but it’s worried about the effects that race war had on whites. That’s a step up from race war, it’s awesome!

        Second, while it’s possible that Ford himself is changing over time, his earlier films are chalk full of similar incidents of racism and racially-charged scenes. I don’t think we can look at The Searchers properly without considering Ford’s other work.

        Cheyenne Autumn is interesting in this regard, but probably isn’t worth watching because it’s a bad, bad movie. And the problem is that Ford makes a movie where the Cheyenne are portrayed positively and sympathetically (though by Ricardo Montalban and Sal Mineo) but the movie still focuses mostly on the white people reacting to the Cheyenne’s understandable desire to not live in Oklahoma.

        The best scenes are a long comedic sequence where Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp let’s the rubes of Dodge City organize to fight the Cheyennes who they are convinced mean to descend upon Dodge City and kill them all. An extremely disorganized militia is formed under “Field Marshall” (as Doc Holliday calls him) Earp. He knows that the Cheyennes aren’t trying to do anything to Kansas other than get through it ASAP, but he figures he’d better command the mob to try to limit the damage, but clearly doesn’t take it seriously as him and Doc ride to battle in a buggy.

        They go out after the Cheyennes, but Ricardo Montalban appears, fires off three rounds from his Winchester and that’s enough to scatter the field marshall’s forces.

    • Now I’m going to have to re-read the book. Luckily its under $5.00 on Kindle.

      However, my memory of the ending is that Ethan is killed by a Comanche he thinks is Debbie.

      Oh well, that is a 40 year memory. I’ll have to see.

      • Nuts that was supposed to go after nekidy’s post.

  • nekidy

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned that The Searchers was originally a book, and not John Ford’s invention at all. The major difference in the book ending is that Ethan is really going to kill Debbie, and Martin has to kill him to save her. So, given that the film entirely changes this–and in some ways does make Ethan the hero, is it Ford’s outlook or the simple fact that John Wayne could not be killed in a film? I have always felt that this change resulted in the ambiguity about the character–because there is nothing in the story beforehand that justifies Ethan not killing Debbie. It is one of John Wayne’s strongest performances I think. And its impossible to evaluate Ford’s body of work re: an assessment of racial themes without having seen Fort Apache or Cheyenne Autumn. In fact, its pretty amazing that one would do so.

    • I too am shocked by my shallowness.

    • kgus

      There’s a lot to recommend your “they can’t kill Wayne!” thesis: in Red River’s original story Dunson dies after being shot by Cherry (John Ireland), even up in the 1970s the ending of The Shootist was changed to keep Wayne alive.

      (Now you’ve got me fuming over radically altered plots in adaptations. I’ll never get to sleep with all this agitation.)

      • Anonymous

        Not sure what you mean re: “keep Wayne alive” as he definitely dies in “The Shootist”, shot in the back. and ROn Howard kills the bartender who did it, and then renounces guns and violence. He did actually die several times in his films–most notably “The Cowboys” in which he is shot to death by Bruce Dern. But he also died in “The Wake of the Red Witch”, although this romantically reunited him with his lost love so wasn’t quite a bad thing, and also was before he became the indestructible icon.

        • kgus

          Sorry, forgot Wayne gets it in Shootist — the change was that he gets it from the Ron Howard character in the book. Cowboys is notable for being (at the time) the first film in which Wayne was killed since goodness knows when (aside from Shepherd of the Hills I haven’t seen any).

          In Wake he sort of sacrifices himself — that doesn’t count!

    • gmack

      My father always told me a story about the ending of “The Searchers”–I don’t know where he got the anecdote from–in which Ford talked about his ending where Ethan has a change of heart. According to the story I was told (and again, I have no source for it, other than my father’s comment), Ford said that he made movies that depicted how it should have happened, not how it did happen. In any case, I agree wholeheartedly that there is little to nothing in the story that would lead one to conclude that Ethan would treat Debbie with the tenderness he displays in the end.

  • Doug M.

    Couple of notes on the RW Comanche. For those of you who aren’t Native American history buffs, the Comanche were more or less Nature’s attempt to recreate the Mongols. Even by the high standards of Plains Indians, they were badass. By the 1830s they ruled a loose empire encompassing most of the southern Great Plains — about 3/4 of Texas and a slice of Oklahoma — and they regularly raided for hundreds of miles in various directions, most notably into northern Mexico.

    The Comanche were one of two great Native American powers on the Great Plains. The other one was the Sioux, who ruled the northern Plains as the Comanche did the south. But compared to the Comanche, the Sioux were mellow and gentle. The Sioux empire was a hegemony, with the Sioux dominating a bunch of lesser tribes but allowing them to coexist. The Comanche were much more aggressive; with a handful of exceptions (most notably the Kiowa, who they accepted as junior partners), the Comanche attitude towards all other tribes — indeed, towards all other human life on Earth — was “kill and enslave”.

    The “enslave” part is particularly relevant here. All Indian tribes took captives, and many used them as slaves. But the Comanche took and kept more slaves than any other large Native American tribe. By some estimates, there may have been as many slaves in present in the camps as Comanche. Part of this may have been because they could: living in serene isolation far out on the Plains, the Comanche could fill their camps with slaves, confident that there was no possibility of rescue or escape. But part of it also seems to have been a deliberate strategy of using slaves to do as much work as possible so that the men of the tribe could focus on their most important job: war. (This of course is similar to a number of warlike cultures across history.)

    So while all Indian tribes carried off captives, and almost all raped the female ones, the Comanche were unusual in that they regularly conducted large-scale raids purely for the purpose of capturing slaves. Most of these raids were against Mexico, of course — the Comanche had been a plague and a terror to northern Mexico for nearly a century before Americans started showing up in force. But the scale, violence and purposefulness of Comanche raids lent a lurid horror to interactions with them that was almost unique on the frontier. (Almost. The Apache matched the Comanche, at least for a while. Note that the two tribes — basically the greatest cavalry warriors and the greatest guerrilla fighters — hated each other like poison.) The fact that the Comanche enjoyed torturing captives to death didn’t help matters, of course.

    But anyway: abduction and rape by Indians was a real threat to women on the frontier from the early days of settlement onwards. But on the Texas frontier in the mid-19th century, it was probably more of a threat than at any other place or time, because the Comanche were unusually aggressive and organized slave raiders.

    You can well imagine how this interacted with 19th century southern American ideas about womanhood and racial purity. So, whatever else you can say about the movie, the historical context is every bit as alarming as depicted.

    Doug M.

    • I got that impression after reading a history of the Comanche.

      “These guys are pretty much the Mongols! Eeeeeek!”

    • witless chum

      Eastern native cultures in the colonial period supposedly had very strong taboos against raping captives, as they were supposed to become full members of the tribe pretty quickly. They weren’t above torturing people, indeed that was sort of part of the kind of ritual way of war they’d developed, but rape wasn’t supposed to be on the table.

      • witless chum

        By which I mean as an addendum, not arguing with Doug. Most historians seem to agree that the Plains Indians did rape captives with at least as much enthusiasm as white people at the time raped Indian women.

    • Leeds man

      Thanks for that Doug.

      basically the greatest cavalry warriors

      I thought the Cheyenne had that distinction (I think one of the Flashman books might be my authority on that, so grains of salt, etc.).

      • witless chum

        Well, every Plains tribe would tell you it was their ancestors that were the baddest. The Comanche certainly ruled the greatest domain for the longest time.

        • Hogan

          They were the New York Yankees of the plains.

        • Being as my voter registration card is still for Arivaca Arizona I am going to say the Apaches were the “baddest” of the indigenous American nations.

          • witless chum

            The Apaches were originally somewhat peaceable river bottom farmers on the plains who were driven up into the mountains to avoid becoming Comanche slaves or corpses. They responded by becoming as bad as their oppressors. They’re basically the Outlaw Josey Wales as a people.

    • Halloween Jack

      But part of it also seems to have been a deliberate strategy of using slaves to do as much work as possible so that the men of the tribe could focus on their most important job: war. (This of course is similar to a number of warlike cultures across history.)

      I immediately thought of SPARTAAAAAAAAAAA!, of course.

    • I took at course in trial law in law school (while attempting to avoid any real work) and I do remember the claim in the chapter on the Comanche that many or most of their stories would start: A bunch of Comanches were riding around looking for trouble.”

      I don’t know if its true, but I hope so.

  • I won’t repeat my comments from the other thread, but thanks for an interesting piece that expanded on your points in it.

  • Data Tutashkhia

    This ‘racism’ you speak of here is a completely trivial phenomenon in the wider context; a minor symptom of settler-colonialism. As Orwell wrote “a sahib has got to act like a sahib”, and that’s all there is to it. What did you expect: colonialists and the natives sitting, neighborly, for dinner together, and marrying each other?

  • To be honest, the sexism is worse than the racism, though they reinforce each other. A white man can have sex or marriage with a non-white woman and it’s at worst a joke, a white woman needs to be destroyed utterly if she’s raped.

    • Just Dropping By

      How much of that is the film’s sexism versus a realistic portrayal of attitudes during the period that the film was set in? (Since Wood’s character is not killed in the end, but taken back by her family, that suggests to me that the sexism in the film comes more from the latter than the former.)

    • Halloween Jack

      My impression of white-Asian marriages in America in the second half of the twentieth century was that white male/Asian female marriages were mostly unremarked-upon, while Asian male/white female marriages were almost unheard of; this was understood to be an artifact of an almost-all-male military force being stationed at various bases in Asia.

      • This might be true post-1975 or so, but I don’t think you are seeing a lot of marriages between white men and Asian women in the 50s. However, there’s no question that marriage between Filipino men and white women was looked upon as outrageous and in fact played a large role in leading to the U.S. granting the Philippines gradual independence through the Tydings-McDuffie Act.

        • There were a lot Asian war brides already resulting from the defeat of Japan and the occupation of various Asian nations. The first War Brides Act in effect from the end of 1945 to the end of 1948 resulted in 100,000 Asians entering the US as spouses or dependents (children) of US military servicemen. So even before the 1950s there were tens of thousands of White military men from the US marrying Asian women.

          • Oops I got the dates wrong. The dates would have been after the Korean war in 1952. But, I am pretty sure from 1953-1975 there were quite a few such marriages.

            • Actually the Korean War ended in 1953. But, all restrictions on Asians spouses were removed in 1952. There had been partial removal in 1947 and 1950. The original 1945 act did not cover Asians apparently and the 100,000 figure I cited above would be all Europeans. But, I am still thinking 1953-1975 a lot of Japanese and Korean women married US military men.

              • Mr Black

                There were still restrictions on Chinese wives of American citizens, even after the time-frame you mention

                My grandmother and her sister had to have a special Act of Congress passed in the early 50s’ in order to become American citizens.

                This was necessary despite my grandmother having children with an American husband of over 15 years and both sisters being British subjects, because of their Chinese ancestry.

                • I was talking about being allowed to come to the US as a spouse of a US serviceman not getting citizenship. Supposedly the laws regarding admission to the US were equalized for Asian spouses in 1952. I can’t say how it was in practice. But, naturalization is a step removed from admission.

                • Mr Black

                  There were special restrictions on Chinese immigrants who wanted to live here (let alone become citizens) that didn’t change until the early 1960s. FYI.

                • Chinese immigrants married to US military officers had special restrictions after 1952? I had not heard that. What were the specific laws?

                • Mr Black

                  There was no exception for military spouses in the Magnuson Act, which replaced the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882:

                  The Magnuson Act was passed on Dec. 17, 1943, the year China became an official allied nation to the United States in World War II. Although considered a positive development by many, it was particularly restrictive against Chinese immigrants, limiting them to an annual quota of 105 new entry visas. The quota was supposedly determined by the Immigration Act of 1924, which set immigration from qualifying countries at 2% of the number of people who were already living in the United States in 1890 of that nationality. However, the arrived-at number of 105 per annum granted to the Chinese was disproportionately low. (The quota should have been 2,150 per annum, as official census figures place the population of ethnic Chinese living in the USA in 1890 at 107,488 persons.[2]) Regardless of method of calculation, the number of Chinese immigrants allowed into the USA was disproportionately low in ratio to the sanctioned immigration of other nationalities and ethnicities.[3] Chinese immigration later increased with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965.[4]

                  Any military spouse who was Chinese would’ve had to go through the same process as my grandmother and her sister did to be allowed to live here.

  • Kurzleg

    I’ll just put this right here.

  • Origami Isopod

    Personally I’d like to read some Native commentary on The Searchers, but googling doesn’t bring up much except brief and dismissive mentions of the movie.

  • DrDick

    As a side note, I would point out that the Commanche were the first Plains tribe to acquire horses, right after the Pueblo Revolt expelled the Spanish from New Mexico. Also, Quannah Parker is generally credited as the founder of the Native American Church, to which many, if not most, Commanche belong today.

    • witless chum

      If I remember right, the Hamalainen book that Erik references has a lot about the Comanches made a lot of hay off their better access to horses after they took over the southern plains. The winters were bad enough up north that the mounted tribes there needed to trade for a fair number of horses to keep their herds numbers up. That was a major part of the empire, along with slavery and treating northern Mexico like a Comanche colony.

  • Reilly

    The most powerful Comanche when depleted resources (and not military conquest) led to their surrender was Quanah Parker, the half-Comanche, half-white son of a woman kidnapped from Texas and integrated into the tribe.

    You may already be aware of this but Cynthia Ann Parker, the mother of Quanah Parker, was kidnapped at the age of nine along with four other children. Her uncle James Parker’s eight year quest to find them and bring them back was the inspiration for the Alan Le May novel The Searchers on which the screenplay was based.

    • witless chum

      The sequel Michael Blake wrote to Dances With Wolves (he adapted his own novel for the movie) is basically The Searchers in reverse, with Dances With Wolves searching Texas for his wife who’s been “rescued” back to white society.

      It’s called The Holy Road and it’s not a bad read at all, understanding that it’s a novel about Comanches in the 1870s.

  • Ford fanboi

    This post completely misses Ford’s art. Yes, Ethan Edwards was all kinds of horrible. How do we know that? Because John Ford deliberately showed us Ethan’s vices.

    Ethan Edwards is presented as a former reb and mercenary for the Emperor in Mexico. He’s consumed by racism. He uses racist epithets, he shoots people in the back, he shoots out a dead Indian’s eyes to spoil his afterlife, scalps an adversary, shoots buffalo to deprive Indians of food, and so on. To sit back and say, “whoa, that Edwards is racist so I guess it’s a racist film” misses the point, I’d say. In both The Searchers and Cheyenne Autumn, and in Fort Apache as well, Ford lays out the racism for us to see. I suppose he could have had Edwards make explicit speeches about his racism and then have Edwards symbolically defeated at the end of the film for having those views. But pedantic, didactic, heavy-handed art wasn’t Ford’s style.

    • Tom Joad

      Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

  • grouchomarxist

    If you’re going to talk about Ford’s attitudes toward race, I think one of his less-well-known films — 1960’s Sergeant Rutledge — deserves consideration, too, along with the already-mentioned Fort Apache and Cheyenne Autumn. The plot for this one also revolves around race and sex, with a buffalo soldier — played by the great and criminally under-utilized actor Woody Strode — accused of the rape and murder of a young white girl.

    Jeff Hunter makes his second appearance in a Ford film, as Strode’s defense at his court-martial. He’s conflicted about defending Woody, since the black soldier was alone with Hunter’s white fiance for a night. The two were hiding from a war band of Apaches, but that doesn’t stop the gossip, and Hunter’s character has to struggle with his own jealousy and race prejudices. (But of course, being Jeffrey Hunter, he’ll triumph in the end, in his love life and in the courtroom.)

    I know some of you younger people won’t get what all the fuss was about, but in 1960 there wasn’t all that much difference between then and the latter half of the nineteenth century, when it came to a lot of white people’s totally fucked attitudes about a strapping black buck spending a night alone with one of de white wimmin, regardless of the actual circumstances.

    Speaking of Jeff, his performance the very next year in Nick Ray’s King of Kings inspired what I think is one of the best parody movie titles of all time: “I Was a Teenage Jesus”.

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