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The Searchers and Race

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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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