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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Sharing "The Searchers" with a Young Writer

One of the creepiest embraces in film history: Debbie (Natalie Wood) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) 
Did John Ford know now to compose a shot, or what? 
Do these pioneer women want Ethan Edwards to be arriving, or leaving?
Will he protect, or will he kill? What is the difference? 
I cried. 
Comanche warriors.
This image was probably not so picturesque if your village was about to be raided.
Comanche, no longer warriors. Source
Perhaps the depths of ignominy. Source
My student is brilliant and beautiful, talented and spirited.

She is, like me, a hyphenated American, from a little-known ethnic group.

As a writer and a woman, she's looking at writing, women writers, and the body of literature by and about hyphenated Americans.

We'll look at the predictable classics: Willa Cather's "My Antonia," Anzia Yezierska's "Salome of the Tenements," and a more recent work, "The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf," a book I have to say I really hated.

But, to start with, I wanted to look at the original ethnic others against whom European Americans defined themselves: Native Americans.

So, we started with the 1956 John Ford / John Wayne classic, "The Searchers."

"The Searchers" tells the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who spends five years searching for Debbie Edwards (Lana Wood and Natalie Wood), his niece, who has been kidnapped by Comanche Indians. It soon becomes apparent that Ethan is not searching for Debbie in order to rescue her. He is searching for Debbie in order to kill her.

Debbie has been sexually used by the Comanche chief, Scar (Henry Brandon). In Ethan's eyes, the only way to respond to that is to kill Debbie.


I had seen "The Searchers" years ago. I don't like Westerns and I don't like John Wayne. I'm a film fan, though, so I felt obligated to watch it. I sat down and thought I'd give it ten minutes of my time. Two hours later, my response was "Holy Cow!" I had been totally drawn in by the flic.

I wanted to research it before sharing it with my student. I learned more about why the Comanche kidnapped and sexually exploited Debbie.

Google brought me to material that ruined my day, material I almost wished I had never read. Native American torture practices: gang raping, enslaving, torturing and mutilating captives, both Native American and European, were all ritualized. I read of tortures I had never read of before, things that even the Nazis didn't do. I had been taught that Native Americans were all peaceful and spiritual. I wasn't prepared for this material at all. It put Ethan's obsessive quest in a new perspective.

The film was made under production code standards. They'd never show mutilated bodies in a big budget movie in 1956. The film alludes to these nightmares, though, in several scenes. Ethan comes back from a mutilated body and is visibly upset. When asked what he saw, he says, "What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more!"

I had to leave my desk after reading about Native American torture practices. I went for a long walk. After days of thought, I realized: Native Americans didn't live in walled cities. They needed some way to protect their own. Establishing a reputation as diabolical torturers was a form of self-protection.

My politically correct assumptions about benign Native Americans defending their land against all powerful and all evil European American settlers was further disrupted when I read about the Comanche. The Comanche, just like the Europeans, did not start out in Texas. The Comanche started out in Wyoming, hundreds of miles north of Texas. They adopted the horse in warfare, adopted a "total war" mindset, and expanded, as successful warriors do.

Part of their expansion was from the integration of captives from other tribes. Comanche widows immolated themselves. Comanche stole horses and cattle as well as women and children. Their name, Comanche, comes from an Ute Indian word for "enemy" or "foreigner."

I studied up on John Ford, too. "The Searchers" was made in my student's grandparents' time. Would she grok this flic?

As the door was slamming on Ethan's retreat from the peaceful home his violence made possible, and the lights went up in the screening room, I turned to my student. "Well?"

"I think there was something going on between Ethan and Martha!" she announced. I could have burst from happiness. Ford leaves little hints that what drives Ethan is his relationship to Martha, but those hints are not easy to pick up. Martha's theme is "Lorena," a Civil War ballad about impossible love. Lorena plays on the soundtrack, as Ethan closes in on Debbie, to kill her. It's a subtle clue, one of many – clues my student picked up.

We chatted about the film for a bit, and I tried to bring it home why a movie from over fifty years ago, about events that occurred over a hundred years ago, might have pertinence to a hyphenated American today. We looked at snapshots of Comanche today, including Comanche casinos. Two hundred years ago, Comanche housewives, without metal, lined a hole in the ground with buffalo stomach in order to heat water with hot rocks. Comanche women today have access to running water and electricity. My student and I both have ancestors who could build their own houses with their own bare hands. We come to America and that physical labor is no longer necessary, but we lost something in process of Americanization.

We looked at a snapshot of a modern-day Comanche woman. She looked like a Comanche-themed Barbie doll. Exquisite beadwork; hair permed; lots of lipstick. A bit kitschy, and not really true to the spirit of a nomadic, warrior tribe.

What can we save of our past? What is usable today? How can we communicate the best of our past to American readers? My student will be working on those questions. I look forward to her answers.

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