75 YOF: John Wayne, North Dakota, and Casual Racism (The Searchers-1956)

Sometimes, I feel like I’m living in a western movie. White men in North Dakota are trying to spread west, but run into Indian opposition. Terrified of the “red man,” they paint him as the enemy, the great obstacle of progress.

But at least westerns had the decency to make the Indians murderous villains, not quiet protesters seeking clean water.

If you’re new to this blog, my wife and I are going through film history, one film per year from 1941 to 2016. We heard great things about The Searchers starring John Wayne, and I’m sorry to see that 1956 knew more about racism than 2016.

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John Wayne plays Ethan, a cowboy and ex-soldier. When his brother’s family is slaughtered by Indians (and a chief seeking comeuppance for the death of his sons), Ethan goes after the two daughters who were kidnapped. However, we quickly discover that Ethan doesn’t really care whether he gets his nieces back as long as he’s able to kill the Indians who did him wrong.

Not many westerns would draw that line. Usually, this plot would be “good white man vs bad red man.” After all, the Native Americans were a real threat to the white man’s way of life in those days.

But then again…we all know why. Just the tiniest glimpse into history shows Europeans marching into North America and singing “Mine, Mine, Mine” like the bad guy in Pocahontas.

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“Look at all this stuff I own now!”

However, The Searchers makes Ethan out to be more of a villain than a hero. He scowls at a young man who’s 1/8th Cherokee, shoots a dead Indian in the eyes, and even draws a gun on his surviving niece when he finds out she’s been “made one of them” to put it nicely.

Even the other settlers, in just as much danger from Indian raids as Ethan, do not share his hatred. They want to rescue captives and stop wrongdoers. Ethan just wants to kill people he doesn’t like.

Naturally, Ethan comes around, but not perfectly. In an awesome final shot, when everyone else goes into the house, Ethan hesitates, then turns and walks out into the dusty desert, knowing he has a lot of soul searching to do before he can join the party.

But that’s just a movie. This is real life.

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These aren’t Indian raiders kidnapping, raping, and killing. They’re peaceful protesters who want clean water and respect.

And these aren’t sour-faced gunslingers fearing for their scalps. They’re businessmen armed with guard dogs, mace, and government indifference.

But the hatred is still there. Sixty years since Ethan walked off into the sunset and hundreds of years since setting foot on North America, we’ve still learned nothing.

We still see these people as intruders on our land. We still see them as obstacles to overcome and not partners. We see them as funny people with backwards ways instead of a culture with wisdom to share.

We don’t care about their water. We don’t care about their customs. We don’t care that they’ve been pushed to the fringes of society; they are still in our way.

Just like those black people trying to change how we do police business around here. Just like those Mexicans who want to make a living. Just like those Syrians who want shelter from the storm.

How dare they demand that we share? Don’t they know who we are? Don’t they know how many races and cultures we’ve bullied and belittled to get this far? Don’t they know how many saints and prophets we’ve squashed in the name of God?

If you ask me, they should all just go home…oh, wait..

 

PREVIOUS: 1955–“Rebel Without a Cause” and Becoming a Man

NEXT: 1957–An Affair to Remember

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