All genres of film have clichés. Sometimes, this makes the plot predictable and boring. Other times, it gives the director a chance to be satirical and poke fun at how much some films have in common. It is a directorial accomplishment to utilize or play off of these clichés in a way that makes an assertion about life which extends beyond just what the viewers are seeing on screen. It sounds confusing because it is rare and an unfamiliar concept which most viewers never pick up on, as it usually does not directly have anything to do with the plot. But once a viewer realizes that the choices made by the director in the composition of the frame, in the camerawork, and in the lighting can be read and analyzed the same way that one analyzes structure and word choice in literature, it opens up a world of possibilities for seeing that some movies have a much deeper meaning beyond just the story shown. One such director who took advantage of the tools at his disposal to make a claim about racism was John Ford, the king of Westerns.
Westerns are possibly the biggest offenders when it comes to being oversaturated with genre clichés. A genre which thrived mostly in the first half of the 1900s, the United States public became obsessed with the Western. In a period where the world was changing faster than anybody could keep up, with new technologies being invented every day, there was certainly something humbling about stories of gun slinging cowboys on the frontier of the wilderness during the Westward Expansion.
Although there are many character archetypes and other tropes specific to the Western genre, they almost always deal with the underlying theme of wilderness versus civilization. The Western Hero, the main character, is always exactly the same. He is always white, young, handsome, and extremely charming. These heroes also have very clearly defined feelings about right and wrong, and a very strict moral code which they will adhere to no matter what. If they see something in the world which they deem wrong, even if they are not involved in the situation, they will step in and do something to make it right. Although a noble cause, this moral code never lines up with the law or what society deems correct, therefore they have no place in society and consider themselves better off in the wilderness. In fact, the Western Hero is attached to the wilderness often in the same way that the white American characters of the film consider Native Americans attached to it. They know everything about tracking, plants, animals, and Native Americans themselves. Finally, the Western Hero is never complete without his mysterious origin story. Emerging from the wilderness at some point in the film after the other characters and plot have been introduced, the only thing that audiences ever usually learn about where the Western Hero came from is that he has a reputation and is feared universally in all of the towns. Although this archetype has existed for almost a century, it is still easily recognizable today.
John Ford made many of the titles that come up when talking about the best American Westerns of all time. His work displays range in what he can do with the same genre standards and how he can adapt them to throw the audience off. As an Irish-American born in Maine, Ford lived from 1894 until 1973. Not only was he a major component to several huge leaps forward in the film industry such as the addition of sound and the addition of color, he also won four academy awards for best director, making him the record holder for most best director awards since 1952.
THE INNOCENT MAN OUT TO BRING JUSTICE TO THE WEST
The 1939 film “Stagecoach” is an example of Ford taking all of the Western movie standards and rather than putting a twist on them, doing them extremely well. The film depicts a crew of eccentric characters boarding a stagecoach on a route known to be under close surveillance by the greatly feared Native American chief Geronimo, who is depicted as ruthless and bloodthirsty. The group consists of the town idiot who is driving the coach, an alcoholic doctor, the Good Woman character miss Daisy, the town sheriff hoping to protect miss Daisy if she needs it along the way, a shady banker, a prostitute, an old man, and a baron who has an obsession with miss Daisy.
As they are about to embark, they hear rumors that the infamous Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne, has escaped prison in order to get revenge on the man who killed his family and supposedly framed him for murder, leading to his incarceration in the first place. Low and behold, they soon encounter the Ringo Kid and find that he is friendly, charming, and willing to help them in place for a spot on the coach. However, as a feared outlaw, the sheriff still detains Ringo and brings him along so he can be arrested when they arrive in the next town. Along the way, however, they encounter Geronimo and his tribe who end up killing two of the passengers. With the aid of Ringo’s gun slinging skills, the stage passes through and is rescued by the cavalry, who escort them to their destination. Out of appreciation for saving him, the sheriff grants Ringo his freedom briefly in order to take on the outlaws who killed his family, which he makes quick work of in the film’s climax. In this scene, however, the audience learns that Ringo did not want to get revenge at all, but really bring about justice where nobody else would. After Ringo returns to the sheriff, he has fallen in love with the prostitute and the sheriff allows them to ride off into the sunset together. The final lines of the film are “They are free from the blessings of civilization”. Although “Stagecoach” did not necessarily create the clichés that the Western genre came to adapt, it is universally agreed that it did them better than anyone else, which is why it still holds up as an exciting film even today. When watching Westerns, “Stagecoach” is a great point of reference to see how far a film deviates from the standard.
THE HATE-FUELED KILLER SEEKING REVENGE
On the flip side, Ford’s 1956 film “The Searchers” spits in the face of these tropes. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a cocky, selfish, racist, ex-confederate thief who has spent the past three years since the end of the Civil War as a criminal, probably robbing banks. The opening scene shows Ethan returning home to his brother’s family far out West in the wilderness. They adore him and question why he did not return with the rest of the confederate soldiers, although Ethan does not tell the truth. Soon, the character of Martin comes home, who is young and athletic. Although around twenty years-old now, Ethan saved Martin’s life when his home was destroyed and he was left orphaned. The Edwards gladly took Martin in and raised him as one of their own, but Ethan despised Martin for being one eighth Cherokee. Eventually, a tribe of Native Americans led by the villain Scar lure Martin, Ethan, and all of the other men anywhere nearby far into the desert, kidnap the children, and burn the Edwards home down killing Ethan’s brother and his wife (who, by the way, scumbag Ethan was having an affair with).
This leads Ethan and Martin on a decade long journey through the wilderness after Debbie, the youngest of the Edwards’s children and only survivor, where Ethan’s evilness is revealed every opportunity he has. He never comes to respect Martin despite the fact that Martin is just as skilled and has much better morals, and at one point even uses him as bait without telling him. Furthermore, Ethan mutilates the corpses of dead Native Americans out of hate and loots the bodies of his victims. One of the most significant points of their adventure is when, after the duo is taken in by a friendly group of Native Americans, Martin accidentally marries a Native American woman named Looke who does not speak English but will not leave him alone. After a comedy scene where Martin tries to actively avoid his new wife, he and Ethan leave and upon return find that the Native American cavalry slaughtered Looke and her entire family. All together, throughout their journey, Ethan becomes the complete opposite of what one pictures when thinking of a Western Hero, despite the fact that he does fit many of the tropes. On the flip side, Martin becomes the actual Western Hero over the course of the film because despite times getting hard, he remains vigilant and his moral compass never faults. Finally, when they find Debbie, she is a fully assimilated Native American queen, which infuriates Ethan and leads him to suggest they do not save her. However, in a twist, Debbie is happy to see them, causing a shift in Ethan’s attitude and he saves her, killing Scar and many of his followers. However, this choice does not ultimately redeem Ethan because Martin forced him to do it.
HOW THE FILM ITSELF IS RACIST
There is something to be said for the specific period in which“The Searchers” came out, and the irony in the subject matter when looking back at it from a 21st century perspective. Coming out two years after the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and having one of two main characters be an evil confederate soldier, Ford was certainly trying to make an assertion about racism toward black people using a different type of racism which existed in the old west. By analyzing the visual choices that he made, it can be concluded that Ford believes that racism comes from one being in denial about something within themselves that they hate, and having a generalization about this one thing being connected to every member of an entire race of people. However, by doing this, it could be argued that the film itself is ultimately racist toward Native Americans because most examples of Native Americans are depicted as either evil or primitive. The only time where this is not the case is in the character of Martin, who has sound morals and acts civilized, but he is still mostly white. The characters who are completely Native American are depicted as either brutal and violent such as Scar and his warriors, or primitive and stupid such as Looke.
FORD’S DIRECTORIAL CHOICES
So, if Ford’s thesis statement with “The Searchers” is that racism derives from something within ourselves that we project onto another race, how does he show that if not through dialogue? By using the power of visual storytelling, of course! Notice the introductory shot of Ethan, for example. This is where the audience first sees him, and at this point we assume that he is the Western Hero of the film. Usually, the hero has an opening shot that is, simply put, heroic. When the audience first meets the Ringo Kid, the camera quickly zooms in on his welcoming and brightly lit face as he sits on horseback spinning a shotgun around. The entire frame is encompassed by his body at first showing off his unmatched skill with a shotgun, and then his friendly face, characterizing him as important and the film’s hero. On the other hand, Ethan’s introduction displays him slowly approaching the Edwards home far in the distance, while in the forefront of the frame there is a blanket with a Native American pattern on it, immediately connecting him with indigenous people. The fact that Ethan is so small in the frame compared to the blanket conveys that not only is this aspect of him a key part of his character, but he is in a way trumped by it.
DEATH OF EDWARDS FAMILY VS DEATH OF LOOKE
The most important part of the film to suggest the hypocrisy of racism is in the duality of the massacre of the Edwards family and the massacre of Looke’s family. Although one of these scenes is at the beginning of the film and one is at the end, they are remarkably similar in both structure and storyboard. In both situations, Ethan and Martin are somewhere out in the wilderness and unable to help the situation, when Martin hears or sees something signaling that something has happened. In the beginning, he sees the smoke coming from the burning home, signaling trouble, and the duo rush to help to find the burning corpses of the Edwards family. In the end, Martin sees the cavalry coming from the direction of Looke’s village, which makes the two feel safe at first but then upon arriving back, they find that the cavalry left the campsite in the exact same flaming ruined state which Scar left the house. Ethan is the one to find both the bodies of the Edwards family and Looke, and these two moments are framed in exactly the same way. The camera sits inside the structure with the bodies looking out the door when Ethan enters and sees the bodies which are off-screen. By visually connecting these two moments, Ford illustrates the duality of racism.
Because the norms which are standard to the Western genre of film have specific depictions of a certain race of people, it is inherently racist. However, by toying with these tropes and playing off of them in a different way, they can be used to make a point. By visually illustrating that Ethan Edwards, a racist and ill mannered gunslinger, is actually deeply connected with the race which he so much despises, Ford conveys that people are racist as a result of something within themselves. Whether you agree with this or not, it cannot be argued that it takes advantage of things which the audience has come to expect from a Western and creatively twists them to do something that nobody had done before. John Ford’s Westerns are some of the most influential pieces of American artwork in history.