- The Searchers and Navajos:John Ford’s Retake on the Hollywood Indian
Critical opinion about John Ford's canonical 1956 Western, The Searchers, has focused on a wide variety of topics, ranging from what Richard Schickel in the New York Times recently called "a potent theme—the violent racism endemic to America's westering saga"1 to Ford's film techniques and ideological themes or moral outrage over Ford's (mis)understood treatment of women and Indians, or, in Pauline Kael's well-known pan when the film opened, of tampering with a hero's image.
Ford's representation of Indians in The Searchers for the most part has remained an enigma; however almost no one has read the film through a Navajo lens for Ford's take on Indians, even though Navajo culture maintains a strong, recurring, if sometimes distracting, presence in the narrative. When we interrogate Navajo imagery as sites of meaning, we are provided access to a cultural and historical framework that may enable us to understand Ford's representation of Native Americans in a more precise way.
In the Hollywood Western prior to Ford's landmark film—which is a story set in 1868 about Ethan Edwards (played by the fifties monumental icon John Wayne), a Texan who embarks on a seven-year search2 for a niece captured by Comanches when she was nine—Indians-and-the-land had become the linked, visual cliché of an untamed wilderness that goes civilized under the guns of cowboys and cavalry and the heroic, albeit questionable, efforts of White settlers. The Searchers ostensibly evokes these conventions through loaded remarks by the settlers about [End Page 73] "this land" in oblique reference to the Indians. In one visually stunning shot, Comanche warriors seem to emerge out of the land, menacingly, behind a posse of Texas Rangers who are out hunting for them. An early critique of Hollywood's typing of the Indian as either savage, noble, or Hiawatha-esque came in 1936 from Stanley Vestal, the nom de plume of a professor of English at Oklahoma who complained that everybody gets typed in Hollywood and that of Indians in Westerns there was "not a human being in a carload."3 Referring to the Indian Arts and Crafts law passed in 1935, making it a crime to sell fake Indian goods as genuine, Vestal said: "It seems time for similar legislation designed to prevent the sale of fake Indian drama."4 Early scenes in The Searchers contribute to Ford's apparent adherence to conventional typing, which include the smoking evidence of a Comanche attack, a homestead of slaughtered or captured inhabitants, who happen to be Ethan's kin, even though Ford complicates the savage stereotype, such as later in the film when we learn that settlers had killed two of the Comanche leader's sons. William Luhr, who analyzes how John Wayne's character "deviate[s] substantially" from his public image, comments on the way Ford problematizes this image of the Indians:
The film's opening initially seems to present Whites as agents of civilization in the wilderness and Indians as murderous, raping savages. But then things get strange. We learn that the presumably savage chief committed the massacre in retaliation for the killing of his own family by Whites.
Unlike many classical westerns, this is not a film that glorifies the westward expansion of White culture or the traditional western hero. Instead, it critiques it all in disturbing ways.5
Ford undermines the Indian stereotype musically as well, as Kathryn Kalinak observes. The frontier is marked musically as Indian even though Ford retains "recognizable musical clichés for Indian savagery,"6 such as the tom-tom. Thus, Kalinak argues, the excessive use of leitmotifs associated with Indians indicates, in contrast to Ford's other Westerns, that "the frontier belongs to the Indians, musically speaking—a reminder that this harsh land is theirs and White settlers are the encroachers."7 Despite these suggestions, Arthur M. Eckstein, in his Introduction to a recent book of essays on The Searchers, says that part of its complexity is owing to the contradiction that "while the film is a powerful attack...