The Never-ending Quest to Redefine the Western:
From John Ford’s “The Searchers” to Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man”
It was a few months ago. I had just come out of the theater having watched Kill Bill, Part One, excited that Quentin Tarantino had bounced back from his self-imposed hiatus with such a kinetic film that put him back at the top of the Hollywood heap. There were articles about him popping up all over the place, either his sneering face or the yellow and black clad Uma Thurman on the cover of practically every film and entertainment magazine. It was one of these articles that I started reading. I can’t quite remember which one. Anyway, in the article, QT was telling the journalist that he had started working on his next film, a Western, or more accurately, a Western Tarantino-ized. Well, that was inevitable.
It is inevitable because the Western, more than any other genre of film, has been the subject of redefinition. Filmmakers have tried to fit the Western into a slot in the current social and political climate, and the results, if somewhat uneven in quality, have been fascinating.
There is only one face and one name that defines the Western to not only most of the American audience, but to the rest of the world. And that face and name belongs to John Wayne. He was the “American Man” who stood for justice, liberty, and purity, not to mention very tall and very white. It didn’t matter that he was never a “great” actor or particularly charismatic. He was loved for what he represented. We didn’t even care to remember the names of the characters he played. He was John Wayne. He played John Wayne. This is why I consider “The Searchers,” the classic 1956 film by John Ford, who directed Wayne in thirteen other films, an attempt at redefining, or at least reiterating, the classic Western. However, it became more of a signal for the end of the classic Western, an end that came, in my opinion, with Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” and Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”
In “The Searchers,” John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, who goes on a five-year search for a niece that has been kidnapped by Comanche. Accompanying throughout the journey is Martin Pawley, a young man who was rescued by Ethan when he was just a boy and Indians killed his family. Martin also happens to be part Comanche. Although there are side stories, such as Martin’s half-cooked romance and some odd comic relief and (gulp) musical interlude, and the question about whether Ethan is searching for his niece to save her or to kill her, the thrust of the film is the search itself. Maybe a better word for it would be “hunt.”
Excluding the meaningless side story about Martin’s romance, the entire plot of the film is about John Wayne, I mean, Ethan Edwards’ hatred of the Comanche and all Indians. Sure there is a quasi-reason for his anger. His brother’s family has been killed and his niece has been kidnapped. But his hatred rises above (or sinks below) that level. Martin, his sin being that he is one/eighth Comanche, becomes the object of Ethan’s ridicule, racism, and hatred. All Martin wants to do is help the man who once saved him and find his surrogate sister. But John Wayne, oops, Ethan Edwards is so blinded by his hatred that he makes it clear that when he finds his niece, he will kill her himself because she would have become one of them, meaning Comanche. “Livin’ with Comanche ain’t being alive,” Ethan proclaims.
John Ford and John Wayne basically turned what was previously the underlying theme of Westerns, hatred of the “evil” Indians, into the main of “The Searchers.” In this way it redefined the genre. However, considering the audience at the time, it is logical to surmise that Ford/Wayne glorified such racist and narrow-minded perspective. As I stated earlier, John Wayne WAS Western. He was the face of the prototypical cowboy. He was a man to be respected, honored, and to a great extent, worshipped. To millions and millions of people both inside and outside the US borders, John Wayne was America. We accept the words that come out of John Wayne’s mouth to be the truth. What choice do we have, then, but to believe his perspective of the Comanche and other Indians? Many people point to the scene where he finally finds his niece (Natalie Wood). Ethan, who had considered killing her, instead throws his arms around her with sheer joy that he has found her. But once again, this scene is about John Wayne and his greatness, not about Ethan and his wrong view of the world. It is the greatness with John Wayne that allows him to look past the evil of the Comanche and love his niece. It is the greatness of John Wayne that allows him to see the pure white girl under the Comanche make-up and clothes that Natalie Wood is now wearing. It is the greatness of John Wayne that will save his niece and all other little white girls from the evil clutches of the Indians. Or so we are lead to believe.
And what of Martin? He is never allowed to be anything more than a impotent sidekick, the idiot half-breed with his ludicrous romance, the helpless kid who owes his life to Ethan and doesn’t understand the greatness within his uncle. In the moment when Ethan hugs his niece, there is never a sense that Martin has somehow changed Ethan’s perspective. Martin has just tagged along for the ride and has had no impact on the outcome. This is in stark contrast with another revisionist Western decades later, “Dead Man” by Jim Jarmusch.
To the long list of names we associate with the Western, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, we add…Johnny Depp?
In 1995, Jim Jarmusch almost redefined the Western just by casting Johnny Depp in his masterpiece, “Dead Man.” Okay, maybe redefined is going a bit far, but in a way, just by putting a new face and a new type of “Man” into the role of a Western lead forces us to rethink our views regarding the Western. Of course, the film is more than just unorthodox casting. The story is not about a gunslinger that uses his bullets and violence to bring justice to the evil men out there. “Dead Man” is about a common man who wants nothing more than to disappear, only to have violence find him, overtake him, and eventually lead him to his death.
The story begins with William Blake (Depp) taking the train to a town called Machine to take a job he has been promised. But he really is trying to get away from the life he once had, but was taken away by the deaths of his parents. Alone and forced to be a man for the first time, Blake sets out to Machine with a letter in his hand that tells him there is job waiting for him. When he gets there, he learns that the job is no longer available and that he is an outcast that has entered a world he does not quite understand. A night with a hooker leads to two deaths and a bullet in his own chest. He is forced to flee and is involuntarily thrown into a journey that will only begin and end when he realizes he is a dead man.
As in “The Searchers,” an Indian accompanies our hero in his journey, this time a portly and funny Native American who calls himself Nobody. Nobody thinks Blake is just another “stupid white man,” until he learns Blake’s name and mistakes him for his favorite poet, William Blake. Nobody quotes from the poet Blake’s poems throughout the journey, more concerned with the fact that he is here with his favorite poet then the fact that bounty hunters, sheriffs, and an evil businessman are chasing Blake.
This Indian sidekick is in many ways the flipside of Martin Pawley in John Ford’s film. Nobody not only helps Blake in his journey, but he leads Blake by the hand into and out of this existential journey. At one point, after unsuccessfully trying to remove the bullet from Blake’s heart, Nobody claims that Blake is already a dead man since he has a bullet in his heart. Nobody opens Blake’s eyes to his own death, a death that began long time ago, perhaps even before his parents died in Ohio.
With the use of an unorthodox soundtrack, songs from Neil Young, not unlike the use of Leonard Cohen songs in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and Robby Muller’s beautiful and haunting black and white cinematography that captures an ominous, ugly, and frightening America, Jarmusch has created a Western that is the polar opposite of “The Searchers.” But upon closer look, there are facets in the two films that mirror each other instead of opposing.
As important a role as Nobody plays in the narrative of “Dead Man,” he is still played with a comic bent, like Martin and his love letter in “The Searchers.” Fortunately, Nobody’s personality helps Blake find his way to his destiny.
Even as you watch a film as unique as “Dead Man,” you can’t help but see the history of its genre within the film. When Blake asks Thel, the hooker, why she has a gun, she replies, “Cause this is America.” Jarmusch, never a subtle societal commentator, is not only making a statement about weapons and the NRA in today’s America, but he is speaking about John Wayne and Gary Cooper and “The Wild Bunch” and Clint Eastwood. This is a moment where you realize that the Western is not just a genre about a certain period in American history, but a method in which America has rewritten history itself. And as “Dead Man” tries to tear down one myth about the Cowboy and the Indian, it perpetuates another myth, that of the sensitive, trapped, and victimized White Man, and the peyote smoking, joke cracking, and mystical Indian.