Academic journal article Film Criticism

Red River and the Searchers: Deception in the Modern Western

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Red River and the Searchers: Deception in the Modern Western

Article excerpt

"Sorta like ... [when] a man says he's goin' one place, means to go t'other."

Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

Protagonists who pretend to be something they are not or lie about what they believe or plan to do are de rigueur in gangster and detective films and in films about politics and espionage. Machiavellian Vito Corleone instructs his son, Michael, in how to recognize deception and use it artfully (The Godfather, 1972). Sam Spade famously deceives Brigid O'Shaughnessy (The Maltese Falcon, 1941); Lonesome Rhodes deceives everyone (A Face in the Crowd, 1957).

Deception, especially when used to gain long term advantage, is not, however, associated with the Western hero. When the cowboy hero deceives it is usually to achieve immediate, lifesaving advantage. In Westerns probably the most elaborate deception to achieve immediate advantage was executed by Marshal Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). Ford emphasized his hero's cunning to differentiate him from previous movie Wyatts. To outwit the Clantons at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt has two men pose as Morgan (Ward Bond) and Doc (Victor Mature) while, in stocking feet, Morgan and Doc sneak behind the buildings lining the main street to hide in a ditch near the Corral. Wyatt's most ingenious "staging" has to do with his killing Ike Clanton (Grant Withers); Wyatt times their confrontation to coincide with the arrival of the morning stagecoach. The cloud of dust that Wyatt knows the stage will stir up momentarily obscures his location, permitting him to pick off Ike as visibility begins to clear (Cohen 207-209).

Though psychological deception is the stock-in-trade of the heroes in other genres, for decades no Western hero deceived others for long about who he was or what he thought, believed, or intended doing. (Law officer Destry cannot long sustain the impression that he will rely solely on persuasion to keep the peace in Destry Rides Again, 1939.) The main reason that the Western hero eschews pretense is that he prides himself on being who he appears to be. As Robert Warshow observed, the "Westerner [has] an apparent moral clarity which corresponds to the clarity of his physical image against his bare landscape; initially, at any rate, the Western movie presents itself as being without mystery, its whole universe comprehended in what we see on the screen" (47). Most Western heroes are men of few words, and those direct and clear. And as Warshow also pointed out, because the cowboy hero inevitably finds himself in life and death situations his words must not be ambiguous. Others--robbers, rustlers, Indians, women--may deceive, but not the Western hero. And they didn't, that is, not until two John Wayne films changed things.

John Wayne's Johnny Ringo (Stagecoach, 1939) was that traditional, transparent cowboy hero, but his Tom Dunson in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948), which I will argue was a major influence on The Searchers, and his Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers' (1956) brought to the screen a more complex cowboy hero, one who deceived, which may partly account for why so many critics for so long have had difficulty explaining them, Ethan Edwards especially. I was led to this realization while pondering the question that has bedeviled critics since The Searcher's release: "Why, when at last he has her in his grasp, does Ethan Edwards suddenly go back on his promise to kill Debbie?" (1) Peter Lehman recently rendered that question irrelevant by pointing out that, "Ethan has decided not to kill Debbie before he dismounts and approaches her. The proof is that he speaks her name in a kindly, reassuring fashion, not a threatening, hateful one, while still on his horse.... [H]e has already decided to return Debbie home before he lifts her high in the air" (Lehman 256). (2) (Ethan's merely calling to Debbie to stop running is sufficient evidence that he intends her no harm.) But this crucial observation still leaves two questions: "What and/or who earlier caused Ethan to abandon his stated purpose of killing Debbie? …

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