Tuesday, July 14, 2009


(excerpt from chapter 3 of The Secret Life of Movies, on John Ford's The Searchers)

It’s not easy to like something you know nothing about.

—The Man with No Name, on “peace,” A Fistful of Dollars

The Western movie hero has generally been the American male’s idealized view of himself, and even to some extent the female’s idealized view of maleness. John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) was a rude reminder for terminally adolescent males of the implications of this fantasy ideal. Commonly viewed as the most influential—if not the greatest—Western ever made, the film exposes the Western hero as at best deeply troubled, at worst plain psychotic. Forty years before Unforgiven, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards revealed the gunslinger as a lonely, embittered man, driven to do “what a man’s got to do” not by duty but by compulsion—by private the demons of rage, jealousy, and regret. Ethan Edwards is your classic split personality (even his name suggests this: the two Es implying twin egos). He is a man of the plains, a hunter, a warrior, a wanderer, a loner isolated by his chosen lifestyle and by his predilection for violence, who nonetheless yearns (against his better judgment) to belong.

Ethan has rejected the solace and companionship of family, while his brother Aaron has married and reared several children. At the start of the movie, Ethan arrives at Aaron’s ranch after three years of wandering. Ethan, we soon realize, is in love with Aaron’s wife, Martha, and we are given to understand (through Ford’s delicate and assured directorial touches) that Martha loves and desires Ethan. We can only presume that it is Ethan’s commitment to solitude, his refusal to be “reigned in,” that made Ethan and Martha (or Ethan and any woman) an impossible match, and that consequently drove Martha into the arms of Aaron, the family man. As a result of this, perhaps, Ethan secretly smolders with jealousy and resentment for his brother Aaron, possibly even harboring an unconscious desire to see him dead so that he might claim Martha for his own. If so, Aaron (Abel to Ethan’s Cain) is the first suggestion of Ethan’s dual-personality, the split in his psyche.

Aaron embodies (both symbolically and literally) the conflict between Ethan’s desire and (what he presumably sees as) his duty, a duty not only to his brother, but also to his true nature, that of solitary man. His jealousy reveals that Ethan is divided against himself, having denied his sexual (procreative) instincts. Perhaps he believes he does this out of loyalty to his brother, from a desire not to come between Aaron and Martha, but it seems doubtful if family duty alone would be enough to repress Ethan’s powerful desire for Martha. Aaron represents all that Ethan has denied in himself, and as such is a threat to his peace of mind as much as a comfort for his soul (by being with him he can experience Martha vicariously, as her brother-in-law). At the same time, by refusing to admit his jealousy and hostility for Aaron, even to himself, and by doing the decent thing and repressing his desire for Martha (remaining passive), his soul is oppressed by longing. Just being around the happy family is a source of anguish to him, as evidenced by what follows.

If Wayne himself claimed the role of Ethan to be his personal favorite, presumably this was above all because it afforded him with a rare opportunity to act. But, besides being a fair bit more brooding, moody, and obsessive than his other roles, Ethan is to all intents and appearances the same Wayne persona that audiences had come to know so well. For years, The Searchersis possible (or at least once was) to watch the film with only a cursory, peripheral awareness of the lead character’s psychotic tendencies, and to see Ethan as merely a more ruthless and unsympathetic version of the standard John Wayne figure. For this what he is. But The Searchers reveals the isolation, fragmentation, and self-loathing at the heart of the Western hero as created (primarily) by Wayne and Ford (though also Wayne and Hawks, Stewart and Mann, and so forth). In short, it reveals the schizophrenic nature of the whole American experience, of the national character. “How the West was won” might be rephrased “How the Other was kept at bay”—both being achieved by the same means, the systematic destruction of the Native American peoples. was taken by the majority of viewers as little more than a particularly dark entry in the ever-growing Wayne-Ford Western canon. It

As Ethan’s shadow, his doppelganger, Scar acts out his repressed nature. This is overtly suggested in the movie by details such as both men speaking the other’s language, and by matching shots of Ethan and Scar (at different times) standing over a submissive Debbie. Both men wish to “take her in,” both wish to possess her physically, even though Scar acts where Ethan forbears. It is significant that, unlike what the standard revenge format would normally demand, it is not Ethan himself who kills Scar, but Debbie’s half brother (and half-Indian at that), Marty. In fact, Ethan is not even present to witness it. There is no suggestion that Ethan is denied the pleasure of revenge, either. He seems primarily preoccupied with Debbie, and apparently it is enough that Scar die. Ethan does not need the satisfaction of killing him.

Ethan’s hatred of Scar is leavened by an awareness of their essential affinity, their sameness. Ethan does not hate Scar so much as what he stands for and, above all, what he has done. It is his acts that he reviles, above all because they reflect Ethan’s own secret desires. Ethan’s hatred of Scar for destroying what he held most sacred is mixed up with envy for not having done it himself, for not having had the freedom to do so. If Scar is wanton sexuality and unbridled savagery (absence of repression), Ethan is restrained desire. He is self-disciplined, but the fetters of civilization weigh heavy upon him. As such, neither man can exist without the other: without repression there can be no civilization, and without savagery (pure instinct), there is nothing to civilize, nothing to repress. As complementary forces, Ethan and Scar are equals on equal ground, and recognize one another as essentially complicit. They are both warriors, hunters, men of proud individuality. The key difference between them, besides the manner in which they treat dogs (Ethan is seen patting a dog and Scar throwing a stone at one), is that Scar (like Aaron) is a family man, ironically enough the one thing Ethan can never be. And what a bitter irony it is for Ethan to see that, for all the savagery of his soul, Scar has attained what he can only dream of: a sense of belonging.

There can be little doubt with all this in mind that Ethan feels a deep and tormenting (because inadmissible to his conscience) envy for Scar and his lifestyle, especially since he can never knuckle down to being a house-husband himself (like his brother Aaron). The polygamous arrangements of Scar, in which the husband has many (non-clinging) wives who raise his many kids while he gets to hunt and fight the white man, must be painfully appealing to Ethan. Such an arrangement could only seem like the perfect solution, if only he were not blinded by social conditioning and crippled by repression. This is the essence of the schizophrenic experience: the battle between reason and atavism, between repression and instinct, civilization and savagery. What is remarkable about The Searchers is that it parallels the external, dramatic conflict (that of cowboys and Indians) with an internal, psychological conflict at the heart of its protagonist: Ethan’s tormented psyche is seen to reflect, not just vaguely but precisely, the genocidal chaos taking place in the nation.

The final, famous shot of the film has Ethan framed in the doorway of the family home, seen from the inside, the open desert behind him. He pauses for a moment, as if deliberating, then turns and slopes off into the desert; the door closes and he is swallowed up in darkness. The image is one of the most poignant and eloquent in the history of movies, and sums up all the loneliness and longing of the Western hero. A man of violence cannot opt for peace, any more than a wild cat can live on daisies—without denying his very nature. He can respect it, admire it even, and fight to defend and uphold it. But he can never enjoy it.



Anonymous said...

Great podcast. This fixation on the criminal mind I think is quite natural coming from a generation of typically emasculated men. Often raised by mothers and without male role models. The ganster is the "hero" who takes what he wants when he wants it. These men become the role models to many young boys, who soon realize this role model is unaccpeted by the society. This creates something of an inner storm that once started on its course is very difficult to stop.

Jason Horsley said...

yep... it's also one of the only places where male-bonding/integration into a group happens, outside of sports teams and the military!

Anonymous said...

Interesting how what starts out as group bonding often seems to result in the lone gunslinger anti-hero archetype. Do you suppose this is due to the shadow nature of the gangster bonding experience?

Jason Horsley said...

never thought of that - in many westerns and anti-hero narratives, the male group is villainous, the hero a stand-alone individual.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't being very clear. I was thinking more about Chris and his story. I was making some pretty big assumptions along the way too. It sounds like you're wavering on keeping the podcast alive, I hope you are able to keep it going.

Jason Horsley said...

should be able to. yeah that's an interesting observation too, but funny how it led to another one through misunderstanding... ie, that the lone anti-hero (rebel) is the shadow of the integrated group/force.

zara nyx said...

Brave work Aeolus.

Chris must have reasons for his empathic response being non-existant (or blocked) toward other humans during vicious acts, but remaining strong for animals.

I can't help but perceive the actions of extreme personalities within the context of the quote; "Nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted."

In which, it becomes a form of enlightenment, for they have shed the "rules" that govern the rest of us so tightly.

A "higher" form of individuation can occur within the lifetimes of such entities. Can you imagine the raw experience, the insanely wild reality tunnel, he has 'crafted'?

"The border between the Real and the Unreal is not fixed,
but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans
fought each other to a standstill."
(Robert Anton-Wilson)

Chris seems to, indeed, embody a form of ancient sorcerer.
And, from what I've read and heard, you embody a form of intellectual neo-sorcerer.

The arc of past and future meet in the present...


P.S. Natural Born Killers is a good movie to study, if you haven't seen it for a while, in relation to this.

(Mickey): "Everybody thought I'd gone crazy. The cops, my mom, everybody. But you see, they all missed the point of the story. I wasn't crazy. When I was holding the shotgun, it all became clear. I realized for the first time my one true calling in life. I'm a natural born killer."

(Mickey being interviewed by the media personality Wayne): "You'll never understand, Wayne. You and me, we're not even the same species. I used to be you, then I evolved. From where you're standing, you're a man. From where I'm standing, you're an ape. You're not even an ape. You're a media person. Media's like the weather, only it's man-made weather. Murder? It's pure. You're the one made it impure. You're buying and selling fear. You say "why?" I say "why bother?"

Jason Horsley said...

thanks for the comments, zara

not too comfortable being described as an intellectual neo-sorcerer, however. But I know what you mean.

chris' interactions were no doubt with a kind of human being largely unencountered by many of us. Be interesting to know if they considered having their digits snipped to have been "personal," and if they bear any grudge about it now (assuming they are alive). After all, if not Chris, someone would have done the job.

"For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!" (Matt 18>7)

Anonymous said...

um.. a ha........

Pure and Simple said...

I gotta watch this movie....as sad as it sounds....poor ethan. :(

Holliwood isn't all that bad when they are following their emotions/heart.