We had an offer to donate to LGM in last night’s film club if I did more posts from 1956. Well….I can sure do that. Might as well do a mini-fundraiser, no pressure but if you all are offering, happy to serve your interests.
So here’s the greatest film released in 1956, John Ford’s The Searchers,
I continue to maintain that this is one of the most racist films in American history. It’s Birth of a Nation updated for a different era and engaging in a different form of American violence against a different minority. But the fundamentals here are not different–the white race, and white women especially, must be protected from those brute men of color with murderous violence. Ford was D.W. Griffith’s apostle in more ways than one, even bringing back the main actor from Birth of a Nation in a post-Civil War drama from the early sound period. Both considered themselves political liberals and both less of that as they aged. Both saw American history as a narrative of white male progress through violence. This was all common enough at the time.
Now, The Searchers is not Birth of a Nation. But the fundamental difference is not so much in the film or the filmmaker, but rather 1956 versus 1915. A lot of history had passed in those four decades and America was in a very different place. Moreover the defenses of the ambiguity of Ethan Edwards, especially at the end, are fair enough, but also represent more the ambiguities of telling this kind of story in 1956 instead of 1915. The nation is moving toward civil rights in 1956 in the context of the developing world throwing off their colonial chains in a Cold War context. So yeah, the murderous white supremacist has to be played with a little more subtlety!
Both are of course also astoundingly great movies from a plot and production standpoint. Ford had a lot of contempt for Wayne being too much of a coward to serve in World War II and never quite respected him again, but he got the best performances out of a not very good actor. It is true epic of white supremacy, one that many, many Americans desperately wanted to see. This is of course a mere decade after Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did not even mention Cherokee removal in The Age of Jackson. This hardly made him an outlier. It was simply that the tribes had no place in that vision of American history. The more you get into the archival papers of liberals from the 30s and 40s, the more this becomes clear–it wasn’t even just that these people believed in the kind of process-based white supremacy of Turner’s westward expansion, it’s that they believed in the violence-based white supremacy of Theodore Roosevelt’s westward expansion.
So enjoy The Searchers. It’s one of the 10 or so greatest films in American history. But let’s not pretend it is something that it is not.