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Where Does Ethan Edwards Go?

In 2008, Robert Pippin, professor of Social Thought and Philosophy at the University of Chicago, delivered the Castle Lectures at Yale. They now form the basis of a book with a forbidding picture of John Wayne as Ethan Edwards (from The Searchers) on the cover. So this is a university press book on “Political Philosophy,” but it is a movie book, too. That at least is the hope; Yale University Press is asking $35 for it. 

Let me say straightaway that it is a very thoughtful, observant book, well worth the time for any reader who takes Hawks, Ford, and the Western seriously. How far it truly explores political philosophy I can’t say. But I take seriously the attempt to look at these films carefully and to interpret them in a much larger national spirit. The films are Red River (1948), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Searchers (1956), and I think it’s worth saying—or urging Professor Pippin to consider—that “we” don’t make films like that any more. Indeed, we hardly make Westerns, “our” American genre, let alone pictures with the resonance and lasting power of these three. Is that because Hawks and Ford had their roots in the nineteenth century, when the West was still the “old” West, or is it because everyone now has given up thoughts of mainstream movies bearing upon our contemporary philosophy? For instance, I would love to hear Professor Pippin’s reading of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

There’s no question about the thematic richness of these films, though I would argue that while Red River and The Searchers are made with cinematic passion, Liberty Valance has a disconcerting, rather cursory black-and-white look, plus the flagrant problem of James Stewart (fifty-four at the time) trying to play a much younger man. Never mind. Liberty Valance is an intriguing exploration of one of Ford’s favorite issues—the confusion of truth and legend. Red River is a story about a mutiny (or a revolution) in which, actually, the old order is renewed. And The Searchers is a model story of vengeance, deeply scarred by racism, sexual guilt and something that one might call the intractability of the rebel figure in American legend.

Of these three films, it is the one Pippin values the most. He calls it “one of the greatest and most ambitious films ever made,” and he argues very well for Ethan Edwards as an Ahab-like figure, a searcher blind to many of his own problems, a man who has secretly loved his brother’s wife and who then goes in pursuit of a niece kidnapped by a Comanche chief named Scar. That search lasts five or seven years (commentators disagree on the exact period, because the film feels eternal), long enough for the girl, Debbie, to become both Scar’s bride and Natalie Wood (an uneasy combination). Moreover, it becomes clear over the years that Ethan is searching because he means to kill his own niece to erase the damage done to her, their family, and the white race.

There is great daring in the film (made on the eve of civil rights anger) and no one would deny its power or mystery. Indeed, it is a movie that exerted enormous influence on many filmmakers who would follow John Ford. At its conclusion, instead of carrying out the execution that obsesses him, there is a scene of extraordinary tenderness (or sentiment) where Ethan reclaims Debbie as his kin and takes her home. But then, with the young woman restored to a community she hardly knows any longer, Ethan himself cannot enter the house. We see him on the threshold in an iconic, hesitant pose. Then he turns away and the door closes, shutting him out. Ethan is unfit for civilization. And that harsh verdict seldom concludes an American film, least of all one with John Wayne as its star.

But here we come to a limitation in this book. Professor Pippin is an academic. As such, he is inclined to assume that the films he discusses have been made for his discussion. But did Hawks and Ford really have him in mind? Did they exercise the lonely rigor with their own stories that one might have expected from Melville or Faulkner? Were they that concentrated or single-minded, or were they presiding over an untidy collective enterprise?

Already in this book, Pippin has noted that at the end of Stagecoach (1939), which he treats reasonably as a parable on whether the American community can hold, the John Wayne character escapes with his girl to this statement from another character: “There’s two more saved from the blessings of civilization.” And I have to ask whether that amounts to a statement in political philosophy or just a wry way of ending the movie—with the movie as an entertainment aimed at a mass audience?  The political equivalent would be a president tormented by indecision over a “right answer” who ends up saying something that “plays.” The media guide the message.

Equally, Red River—where the prospect of lethal revenge is set up as Matt Garth takes Tom Dunson’s herd of cattle away from his tyrannical control—ends happily. The two men supposedly headed for fatal confrontation are told to grow up and recognize that they really love each other. Even those who cherish Red River have had some trouble being reconciled to that sudden switch. In the same way, an editor—the editor of a novel—might ask, doesn’t Ethan need to kill Debbie? Don’t the arc of the book and the pitch of the writing demand it?

But that is more than Warner Bros., Wayne, or Ford could tolerate. In both Red River and The Searchers Wayne found himself as an actor in malice and an intimidating attitude to weakness. But the ending of The Searchers—while beautifully done—is a compromise. It ignores many things—like the possibility that Debbie loved Scar (Natalie Wood does not look as if she has been suffering with him). Nor does it take account of the difficulties she will have restored to whiteness. In the real West, white women once taken by Indians were seldom accepted by white society.

So this possibility exists: that Ethan goes back to the wilderness because it makes a “magnificent” gestural ending and because it reaffirms the old and very romantic notion of an essential solitariness in the American hero, an attitude that is fundamentally opposed to politics, but which has been like a lever on manhood in the years since the events of The Searchers. Movies are not novels. They are great public shows. And all these films are more touched by commerce than Pippin ever allows. The legend that Ford preferred, and the dream in which Hawks was immersed are reflections of a story-telling forever diverted or warped by the business of pictures.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.