Sunday, March 13, 2016

John Wayne's Defining Role

"Figure a man's only good for one oath at a time; I took mine to the Confederate States of America."

Ethan (John Wayne)

Sixty years ago today, "The Searchers" premiered on America's movie screens. Its hero, played by John Wayne, was unabashedly racist. He was a middle–aged veteran of the Civil War, a former Confederate soldier who returned to West Texas a few years after the end of the war, presumably with the intention of forming a partnership with his brother.

When I say the character was racist, those who haven't seen "The Searchers" might presume from what they have read so far in this article that the character was anti–black. But he wasn't. He was anti–Indian.

See, in the story, Indians raided a neighbor's homestead and stole some cattle. Wayne and some others went in search of the Indians to retrieve the cattle, but it turned out that the theft was simply a ruse to get the men away. When the men returned, Wayne's brother's home was in flames. His brother, his brother's wife and their son were killed. Their two daughters had been kidnapped.

So Wayne and his nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) embarked on a search.

The search went on for five years. Early on, the body of the oldest daughter was found brutally murdered and, presumably, sexually assaulted. The search went on for the youngest daughter, who had been 8 years old at the time of her abduction. No one knew what had become of her.

They finally found out. She was with the chief of a company of Comanche. She was played by a young Natalie Wood, 17 in real life and one year removed from her Oscar–nominated performance in "Rebel Without a Cause." Seventeen is a bit older than Wood's character would have been. Kidnapped at the age of 8, discovered five years later.

I saw it a few years ago after having gone several years without seeing it, and I remember thinking that Wood looked really young in the early part of the movie, much younger than she should have been. It wasn't until later that I realized that the young version was Natalie's younger sister, Lana Wood, who would have been about 9 when the movie was made.

Natalie played the role briefly at the end when Wayne found her in the Comanche camp. She said she was now a Comanche and didn't wish to return with him. Wayne would have preferred to see her dead and pulled his gun on her, but Hunter shielded her.

I had to wonder, as I watched it a few years ago, if "The Searchers" would have been a success in the theaters today. Wayne's racism certainly would have been a lightning rod for criticism, but, like Captain Ahab, there was a kind of beauty in his character, driven by an obsession that seems ugly without its redemptive qualities.

What are those redemptive qualities? Well, the character stood for principles like devotion and loyalty, but he was driven by the desire for revenge. He was a complicated character, worthy of Shakespeare.

It was a gritty story; the American Film Institute ranked it #12 all time — and #1 among the westerns. High praise.

It was pretty successful at the box office, too, but it received no Academy Award nominations. That surprised me when I heard that for the first time. I wasn't really surprised that Natalie Wood wasn't nominated. Her part was pivotal, but her screen time was brief. She did far more to deserve that nomination for "Rebel Without a Cause."

But the failure to nominate Wayne was a big mistake on the part of the Academy.

I once read a Roger Ebert column about the movie, and I recall that he said Wayne's character was the most compelling character Wayne and director John Ford ever created together. And that is certainly saying something, given how many times they made movies together.

It also happens to be true.

John Wayne's fans will point to all sorts of movies and roles that they will tell you defined the Duke — but it is hard to imagine either a John Wayne movie or role that could be said to have defined him better than "The Searchers."