If you watch John Ford's 1956 Western "The Searchers" and then read about "The Searchers" because you just can't let go of the experience, you will find fans and scholars mentioning two other films. John Huston's "The Unforgiven," discussed here, and "Two Rode Together."
"Two Rode Together" is a 1961 Western directed by John Ford and starring Jimmy Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, and Henry Brandon.
"Two Rode Together" comes up in discussions of "The Searchers" because both films were directed by John Ford. Both films treat the subject of white, Euro-Americans kidnapped and acculturated by Comanches. Both films feature Henry Brandon, a German-born actor, playing the part of a Comanche.
In "The Searchers," Brandon plays Scar, Ethan Edward's (John Wayne's) nemesis and parallel character, if not quite doppelganger. In "Two Rode Together," Brandon plays Quanah Parker himself, the son of Cynthia Ann Parker.
Cynthia was a real person who had been kidnapped by the Comanche when she was a child. It was her story that inspired the plot of "The Searchers." She married Comanche chief Peta Nocona and bore him three children, one of whom, Quanah Parker, was one of the last Comanche chefs.
"Two Rode Together" is not a celebrated classic and finding a DVD is not easy. I had to get mine through interlibrary loan. Princeton University sent it to my university and forbade me from removing the DVD from the library. I kept trying to bribe the librarians with homemade cookies but they resisted. I should have tried sexual favors.
Finally I had to watch "Two Rode Together" in the library, in a room under bright, fluorescent lights, with scholars chatting animatedly in the background about world peace or some other important topic. I think actually they were trying to figure out how to work a computer.
Even in that lousy environment for film-watching, "Two Rode Together" wrecked me. My reaction to it was so strong I had to ponder, yet again, if I am just too sensitive for this world.
Then I went to IMDB and found a review entitled "A good movie, but too sad for a western." The reviewer went on to add, "a beautiful, poetic title, it shows the usual John Ford's art, it avails of Stewart's and Widmark's perfect acting, but it is too sad, too depressing to be really loved … there is no hope for anybody: to escape violence, to have back their beloved relatives, to overcome prejudice, even to find love. And to see Ford's supporting actors, we are so fond of, involved in a beastly lynch-law, this is really tough to bear; however, we respect the will of the artist."
I'm with him. Or her.
On one level, "Two Rode Together" is a buddy movie about the love-hate relationship between Marshall Guthrie McCabe (Jimmy Stewart) and Army First Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark). McCabe is a selfish ne'er do well who does as little work as marshal as he can get away with. He sleeps with Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes), a beautiful, intelligent, cutting, dominating whorehouse madam. Annelle Hayes is spectacular in this part and her performance is worth seeing the movie for.
Jim Gary is a by the book true believer, very sweet and sincere.
If you've ever seen a movie featuring either Jimmy Stewart (of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" fame) or Richard Widmark, who, as Tommy Udo, laughed while pushing an "old hag" in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death (see here), you know this casting is totally wrong. Jimmy Stewart should be playing the sweet, sincere Jim Gary and Richard Widmark should be playing the slightly sketchy marshal. Stewart is never fully convincing as an anti-hero. Widmark is believable as the nice guy.
So, these two guys are friends, and they go on a mission together, riding pretty horses through pretty countryside and every now and then meeting with colorfully costumed Indians and shooting their guns. What's not to like?
"Two Rode Together" is kind of like a kolach, one of those Eastern European pastries where black poppy seeds are rolled up, spiral fashion, in white dough.
There's a heartbreaking, deeply complex story intertwined in all the horseplay. (Get it? Horseplay? Pretty clever, no?)
The mission these two guys are sent on is the retrieval of Euro-American captives the Comanches have had for the past seven years. Their desperate relatives see McCabe as a Messiah figure who can bring their missing sons, daughters, and wives back, against all odds. The scene where these heartbroken families greet McCabe is powerful.
McCabe, though, is a selfish bastard, and he will undertake this dangerous mission only if the families pay him a hefty ransom. So cynical, so sad.
Marty Purcell -- Shirley Jones, in a totally fake blonde braid wig, in fact it's as fake as the blonde braid wig Vera Miles wore in "The Searchers" -- is seeking her little brother.
And the heartache begins. Marty describes being a child and playing outdoors with her little brother Steve. She hears the Comanche approach, and hides. She watches from hiding as the Comanche take her brother Steve. She is saved. She lives with lifelong guilt.
Look – this is a semi schlocky Hollywood movie. You can see the phony makeup, the fake eyelashes, the fake wig, the fake rocks, the fake scenery. But if you have any kind of a heart, you can't not be moved by Marty's story. And even though this is a movie, you know this really happened. These are real, human feelings.
Now, since this movie is made in 1961, and not five years before like "The Searchers," some things can be said and are said that were not said just a few years before. The Production Code was loosening its grip. Society was changing. And so Jimmy Stewart says some things to Shirley Jones that are shocking in the context of an Golden Age Hollywood movie.
If I find your brother Steve alive, he tells Marty, he stinks. He has braids down to here and they smell of buffalo grease. He is a hardened killer, and he'd as soon rape you as look at you.
Shocking. Horrific. Marty is horrified. I was horrified. Even though "The Searchers" begins with Scar's rape of Martha and the tribe's rape of Lucy, and ends with horror over Debbie being Scar's "wife," the movie never uses the word "rape." It's used here.
The movie inevitably prompts the viewer to think about big, tough issues. Who is Steve, anyway? Is Steve a "white" boy? No, he was kidnapped when he was a child. He's been acculturated as a Comanche warrior. Steve no longer exists. The Steve who could have been, the Steve who would say Sir and Ma'am and speak English, never came to be.
The Comanche warrior who is out there in Steve's body doesn't want to be Steve. He wants to be what he is: a Comanche.
Does Marty have a right to impose her idea of what her brother should be on him, even if he is found?
After all, Cynthia Ann Parker, after being rescued, tried multiple times to rejoin her Comanche tribe. She died heartbroken, they say.
McCabe and Jim Gary ride to the Comanche camp, with goods to trade for hostages. They meet Freida, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed child of a Swedish couple. She is now fully acculturated into Comanche life. She has Comanche children. She adamantly refuses to return to American society. We know this will break her parents' hearts.
They meet Mrs. Clegg, the wife of one man, and mother of two, waiting for her. She insists that she is dead, and she has no desire to return to American life. Whereas Freida didn't want to return because she has gone full Comanche, we assume, that Mrs Clegg doesn't want to return because she is so ashamed of what has become of her. She has lost her American self.
These scenes are heartbreaking and I still don't know how to understand them. Who has the right to tell these folks what their identity should be?
A boy refuses to return, but McCabe has given Quanah goods, so they tie the boy to a horse. The boy keeps screaming something in the Comanche language. We assume he is screaming, "I am a Comanche! I am a Comanche!"
A Mexican woman, who self-identifies only as "Stone Calf's woman," also returns.
Back at the camp, everyone is broken-hearted. To be kind, the rescue party lies. Freida and Mrs Clegg are dead, they insist.
No one recognizes, or wants, the boy, except a clearly crazy woman, mourning her lost son. She would probably think a tree or a rock is her boy. This mourning woman is given the boy who keeps screaming, 'I am a Comanche!" in the Comanche language. He promptly stabs her through the heart.
The mob is leading the boy to his lynching when the boy passes Marty. Marty had brought with her a music box she used to play for her brother Steve. The music box plays, and the boy recognizes it. Too late. The last we see of him are his moccasins as he is hung from a tree.
If that was not sad enough for you, there is a dance. Everyone is all dressed up and smiling, and dancing to traditional American music. The Mexican woman captive arrives. She's been given a bath and American clothing and she looks spectacular.
None of the men will dance with her. All of the woman stare at her. She says to McCabe, "Since I arrived, I have not seen the back of anyone's head."
As she sits on the sidelines, the women present approach her and ask her questions. They want to know what it's like to be married to a Comanche like Stone Calf. They want all the erotic details. She can't take it.
McCabe rises to reprimand the crowd. "You want to know why she didn't kill herself? Because it's against her religion."
That would be Catholicism, also the religion of John Ford.
These scenes are very painful. Marty has now lost her brother twice. If she had survivor's guilt before, you can imagine how bad her survivor's guilt is now. And yet the movie drops Marty after Steve's lynching.
If all of that were not enough. McCabe brings the Mexican captive, drop-dead gorgeous, to his town. Belle, the whorehouse madame, says to her, "Everything you see here is my property, including the livestock," meaning she "owns" McCabe.
"Would you like to work here? I can dress you in buckskin and braids. My customers would like that."
This ugly, racist dressing down goes on and on. It was horrifying to watch.
Stewart puts money on the bar and drags the Mexican captive out. They two of them take a stagecoach to California.
The movie has a "happy" ending. We assume that Jim Gary, the nice guy, will marry Marty, and McCabe, the scoundrel, will go off to California with the Mexican woman, so she can escape the racism tormenting her.
That happy ending didn't solve anything for this viewer. I was wrecked.