In the justly famous finale of John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers, John Wayne chases down Natalie Wood on horseback, calling her name tenderly, but pursuing her with fury in his eyes. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who, by film’s end, has spent five years tracking down his niece Debbie—played in the film’s later scenes by Wood—after Comanche kidnap her in a raid that leaves Ethan’s brother dead, along with the rest of his family, apart from his adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and Debbie’s sister. The latter dies some time after the raid, after being raped and abused along the trail. Ethan finds her body abandoned and unburied in a canyon, and never shares the unspeakable details of what he saw.
As the film progresses, hope of rescuing Debbie dims until Ethan learns she’s alive, but living as the wife of Scar, the Comanche chief responsible for the raid that killed her family. This changes things. Ethan hates the Comanche—all Native Americans, really, as evident in his sneer when he learns that Martin has Cherokee blood—and the past five years have been driven as much by that hate as a desire to rescue Debbie. In fact, he may now not even want to rescue her at all. He tries to shoot her at one point, and when, in the end, Wood stumbles and he lifts her up, we don’t know whether it’s to embrace her or kill her. Neither does she. Neither, I think, does Ethan, at least until the moment he takes her in her arms and says “Let’s go home.”
It gets me every time, but it isn’t really Debbie’s rescue that chokes me up. The film doesn’t spend enough time with her to create an emotional stake in her well-being. The drama of The Searchers comes from Ethan’s mounting obsession and the toll it takes on him, spiritually and physically. (Wayne appears to age far more than five years over the course of the film.) He’s the hero, but he’s a hateful, racist hero who finds redemption at the last possible moment by letting Debbie live and recognizing her as part of his family, regardless of what’s happened since she was just a little girl beaming up at her uncle. Ethan ends the film no less alone than he began it, excluded from the family circle and doomed to wander the West. But we leave him a better man. He’s lost the world, but gained his soul.
The Searchers belongs to Ethan, not Debbie. Her abduction and the concern about her fate as she grows up with the Comanche keep the story moving, but it isn’t really her story. Ford shows her as a child (played by Wood’s sister Lana) standing helplessly before a towering Scar (German-born Henry Brandon). When next we see her, she’s Scar’s 15-year-old bride. She appears reluctant at first to leave the Comanche camp, but ends the film back in the arms of the family Ethan leaves behind. What she’s experienced in the meantime remains unspoken, though it’s easy to fill in some of the gaps. Ethan hoped to rescue her before she reached sexual maturity. He failed. But whatever’s happened hasn’t turned her into one of the sputtering, shattered abducted white women Ethan and Martin encountered in an army camp. Their time with the Comanche has left them broken, barely human wrecks, staring into space, and in one instance, clutching a log she imagines to be a child.
So what happened to Debbie? And what happened next? Was it force of will that allowed her to keep her mind intact? Unusual kindness from Scar and those around him? Will Debbie ease back into white society, forgetting her life with the Comanche? We’ll never know. But we can know what happened to the woman who inspired Debbie, Cynthia Ann Parker. Parker’s family was massacred on the Texas frontier in 1836 in a manner much like that seen in The Searchers. Historian S.C. Gwynne describes the moment in his recent book Empire Of The Summer Moon:
The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward: All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured to death as a matter of course, some more slowly than others; the captive women were gang-raped. Some were killed, some tortured. But a portion of them, particularly if they were young, would be spared (though vengeance could always be a motive for slaying hostages). Babies were invariably killed, while preadolescents were often adopted by the Comanche or other tribes.
As brutal as that sounds, Gwynne goes on to describe how those adopted by the Comanche were then treated as Comanche, which explains Parker’s tragic conclusion. “Rescued” against her will by the Texas Rangers at age 34, she never reintegrated back into Texas society. Never even came close. Parker never properly relearned English, or at least chose not to speak it often. She spent the final decade of her life trying to escape back to the Comanche while getting passed around from relative to relative. She left two sons behind—one of whom became the famous chief Quanah—and the daughter she brought with her died of pneumonia after a few years. It was, in short, a miserable existence being trapped in the world into which she was born while yearning for the world that had adopted her as one of its own.
The Searchers marginalizes Debbie’s experiences with the Comanche, but in its own way, the landscape of the film dramatizes it anyway. It takes place in a frontier no-man’s-land, a space between worlds contested by both whites and Native Americans. It’s a bloody place that Ford uses to illustrate the United States’ tortured history with Native Americans. He doesn’t have a clear point of view, but the film is all the more powerful for it. He makes the Comanche villainous, but turns Scar into a mirror for Ethan by giving him a monologue about how revenge for his lost sons made him the man he is. He shows Ethan shaken by atrocities committed against his family, then lingers on the aftermath of an army attack on a Comanche camp that’s killed innocents. Nobody gets off the hook, at least until that ending. Whatever misgivings I have about it, it no doubt will affect me just as deeply the next time I watch it. Debbie gets rescued. The Comanche fade from view. Any concern about their treatment or claims falls by the wayside. John Wayne says “Let’s go home,” and for a moment, everyone knows where that is and what it means.
The Searchers’ Debbie has a real-life source, and as a woman stuck between worlds, she also has fictional predecessors. James Fenimore Cooper became one of the first American novelists to achieve popular success thanks to the character of Natty Bumppo, a white man raised by Mohicans in what would become upstate New York. (Having grown up there, Cooper knew the area well; his father gave Cooperstown its name.) Cooper wrote five novels featuring Bumppo, most famously 1826’s The Last Of The Mohicans, which has been adapted to film several times, most recently by Michael Mann in 1992. Mann’s version—which takes liberties with Cooper’s novel and credits the 1936 Randolph Scott-starring version for inspiration—ends with the villainous Magua (Wes Studi) in fierce hand-to-hand combat with the noble Chingachgook (Russell Means), who, by this point in the film, has lost his only natural son, Uncas (Eric Schweig), and become the eponymous last of the Mohicans.
Meanwhile, Natty—called throughout the film by his nickname, “Hawkeye”—looks on, rooting for Chingachgook, who raised him as his own son alongside Uncas. Natty has been educated in the ways of the settlers, speaking both English and Delaware, but chose to live with his Mohican family, making a living as a hunter and trapper. In Cooper’s novel, he describes himself as “a man with no cross.” No world is his by birth, which makes him believe all the more intensely in the one he’s chosen. Looking model-handsome and behaving with sensitivity and lofty principles to match his strength in combat, Daniel Day-Lewis turns him into an example of perfected humanity, a blend of cultures that improves on both contributing vintages.
Michael Mann doesn’t take filmmaking lightly. He scrupulously researches the worlds in which his films take place, then tries to recreate those worlds to the last detail. That’s why, for instance, a newcomer to L.A. could probably study Collateral for street directions, and the Kentucky family of The Insider has a kitchen filled with Little Debbie snacks, not Ho-Hos. It’s the way he works, and occasionally it serves another purpose. If a note of The Insider rang false, its argument would fall apart. Or if Last Of The Mohicans—which hit theaters in the brief period after Dances With Wolves when Hollywood took an interest in respectful portrayals of Native Americans—felt phony, it would have left him open to criticism.
Instead, it looks refreshingly accurate in its details, but the big picture owes a lot to Cooper’s depictions of Native Americans. Roger Ebert’s review of Mann’s film calls Cooper’s book “all but unreadable,” a harsh assessment, though one I think will draw a lot of nods from those who’ve gotten lost in his circuitous, repetitive descriptive passages. He’s worth reading, however, if only to observe outsiders’ attitudes toward Native American culture in their infancy. Cooper writes reverently of the Mohicans and their allies, and with unbridled contempt for Magua and the Hurons. It’s a strange mix of glorification and vilification. Chingachgook can do no wrong. Magua is surrounded not by American Indians, but by “demons.”
Considering Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans in bulk, it seems like the rest of us can’t make up our mind whether we want to be American Indians or wipe them out. They’re fearful, unknowable, murderous people—or they’re better than the rest of the world, in possession of secret wisdom that, if we can disconnect ourselves from the corruption of civilization, they might share. Put another way, there are good Indians and bad Indians, and here at the end, for all the attention to detail, Mann ends up using the same broad strokes as countless filmmakers before, as our white hero looks on and hopes the good Indian wins.
There are nuances. Magua, like Scar, has an injustice to avenge, and Studi plays him too thoughtfully to make him a cardboard villain. Mann has also reshaped the British colonial forces to look far less heroic, and their mission far more destructive, than in Cooper’s book. But for all the attention Mann pays to carbines and tomahawks, he ends up recycling the most dubious parts of an old, influential story about the right kind of Indian clashing with the wrong kind.1
Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man makes no claims to authenticity, but ends up feeling real anyway. Adapting Thomas Berger’s rollicking, tragic picaresque novel, Penn keeps the focus on the humanity of everyone involved. Dustin Hoffman stars as Jack Crabb, otherwise known as Little Big Man. First seen under mounds of unusually believable old-man makeup, Crabb recalls his days in the Old West, beginning with his adoption by a Cheyenne tribe and ending with the battle of Little Bighorn, of which he claims to be the sole white survivor.
As Hoffman’s Crabb makes his way through the West, he drifts in and out of Cheyenne life. Raised by a chief named Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), he grows up learning the ways of the Cheyenne. He’s no hero, however, at least not yet. At the first conflict with the U.S. Cavalry, he abandons them for the safety of white society. (He memorably embraces the heritage of his birth with the line “God bless George Washington!”) From there, the film follows him through his careers as a gunfighter, con man, drunk, Cheyenne again, and ultimately as a scout for General Custer who keeps a hidden agenda to himself.
The late ’60s and early ’70s saw a shift in attitude toward portrayals of Native Americans and the white people who join them. The change wasn’t always for the better. Packaged as an authentic representation of Sioux culture, A Man Called Horse seems to exist almost solely for its bloody, psychedelic Sun Vow sequence, in which star Richard Harris hangs suspended for hours by hooks in his chest, enraptured and in tremendous pain as part of an initiation ritual. It isn’t really a film about the Sioux; it’s a film about whether a white man has the mettle to tough his way into the tribe (and about the masochistic histrionics of Harris’ performance).
More often, Indians were idealized where they’d previously been demonized, portrayed as noble victims of U.S. expansion. To my eyes, that’s closer to the truth than the inverse, but idealization is its own kind of condescension. When portrayed only as noble, uncomplicated victims—all Chingachgooks and no Maguas—Native Americans become simultaneously less than and more than human. Little Big Man isn’t innocent of idealization. Breaking with Berger’s novel, another tribe, not the Cheyenne, slaughters young Jack’s family, and there’s a whiff of hippie projection to the film’s portrayal of Cheyenne life. Penn, by his own admission, had an agenda in mind that had less to do with the Old West and more to do with 1970, using scenes of an army attack on an Indian camp to echo the war in Vietnam. (Sometimes awkwardly: The lovely but not particularly Native American-looking Hong Kong-born actress Aimeé Eccles plays Crabb’s Cheyenne wife.)
But there’s more going on here. Crabb experiences life among the Cheyenne and life among the whites at ground level, and finds both cultures have their pros and cons. Cheyenne life has its discomforts and peculiarities—dishes made of boiled dog among them—but he encounters just as many problems in the white world, and far more hypocrisy. And there’s no one among the Cheyenne like General George Custer (played with psychotic abandon by Richard Mulligan), who brings a genocidal single-mindedness to his goal of making the West safe and Indian-free. Berger’s book gives him more shading, and the real-life Custer was, by most accounts, a more complicated man with mixed feelings about his task. But for the film to work, I think Custer needs to be a madman.
Penn’s tone is acidic yet humane, melding Berger’s Mark Twain-isms to the revisionist Western imagery of the time. By the time we reach the end of the movie, Penn’s West feels familiar: Freed of the operatic dramatics of the classic Western, it becomes just another place where flawed humans go about their business. We also feel like we know Crabb’s Cheyenne family as well as he does. He’s bonded with them on the most fundamental human level, but sweeping government policies of the kind enacted during the Indian Wars don’t know how to account for such bonds. The film needs a man who sees the world in terms of ideals that need to be realized at the end of a rifle to wipe all that away. Only a madman, the film suggests, could have killed all those Indians if they’d ever gotten to know their enemies as Crabb did.
Or is that just dippy humanism dressed up in Western garb? Maybe. But the film’s ending is devastating either way. In the aftermath of Little Bighorn, Crabb accompanies Old Lodge Skins to the top of a hill overlooking the site of the battlefield, where the aged chief believes he will die. Though the Indians have won the battle, he knows the victory won’t last and that his time has passed. Only Old Lodge Skins doesn’t die. He’s condemned to live on into an era he can’t call his own.
Cut to the present day. Though his raspy voice has provided the film’s narration, we haven’t seen aged Jack Crabb since the beginning of the film. He reappears looking even more exhausted than usual from his storytelling, and angry at having to relive it for a condescending academic looking for stories of life amongst the “primitive” Plains Indians. “Get out,” he rasps. And then the film shows him sitting there, amid the tile and metal of a nursing home, in a civilized world made possible by the military campaigns and broken promises of men who share his skin color, remembering again a lost moment of connection on the American frontier.
1 And one that has odd echoes if you know the stories of the men doing the fighting. A Vietnam vet and founder of a Cherokee newspaper that he left due to political differences with the Cherokee Nation, Studi is an outspoken man, not afraid to call Terrence Malick’s The New World “not my cup of tea” while ostensibly promoting it. An activist, actor, musician, and tireless self-promoter, Means was a leader of the American Indian Movement in the late ’60s and ’70s, a key player in the 1973 incident at Wounded Knee, a subject for Andy Warhol, and lately a denouncer of Obama as a Zionist controlled by Israel.