Continuing my exploration of The Searchers in modern film I was reminded to check out The Missing (2003) which I originally watched nearly a decade ago so the memory is pretty foggy. I remember Cate Blanchett talking about it with the late James Lipton as her then upcoming film. Not connecting the dots until years later. Now I want to see how John Ford‘s seminal work influenced The Missing, to read it with a growing understanding.
The basic premise of a girl – young woman being kidnapped by Native American’s remains the same, it’s the journey we take to get to finding her that’s very different whilst still operating in the same world of the Wild West. Based this time on Thomas Eidson’s novel of the same name, you can’t say that he was drawing directly from the legend of Quannah Parker whose life was the basis for Alan Le May’s book that inspired Ford. You still can’t help but draw similarities between the two. The changing of elements and events are switched around enough to be a different story that to get away with it.
We still have a white man leading the search, who has returned from a lifetime of being a native, having left behind his now grown up daughter Magdalena Gilkeson (Blanchett) who naturally doesn’t want him around at first. After seeing off her lover Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), daughters Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dot (Jenna Boyd)and ranch hand (Sergio Calderón) who all fail to return, as the met meet a very grisly end at the hands of Natives who we later learn have teamed up with Mexicans and white man for slave traffic women across the border. What’s interesting that the Ethan character who we can only guess had a history of encounters with Native Americans before arrive home. Tommy Lee Jones’s Samuel Jones has lived as one and doesn’t hide that fact. In fact he prefers that way of life.
What makes this film differ greatly from The Searchers is the reason for the capturing of the eldest daughter Lilly as we learn is to be trafficked along with 7 others. There’s no wanting extra wives like Scar did. There’s not even a fear of miscegenation as we don’t even get close to the border where that danger could happen. None of the renegade Natives try to take advantage of their prisoners. They are mistreated to the point of one woman’s child dies.
Ford chose not to show the horrors of a massacre, instead leaving them in the darkness off camera or in the imagination of the audience. Director Ron Howard chooses to go there and make it look more exotic as we see a detached talon of bird used to cut into a victim’s neck, which doesn’t match the way we found Brake and his ranch hand who are disfigured and dismembered. Different forms of torture are being used in The Missing. The closets Ford gets is just before Ethan scalps Scar, edited to remove us from the scene and move us away from the potential horror and seeing how low this man will go in his thirst for revenge. Which does nothing for cleaning up the depiction of Native American’s on screen.
Once again it’s a man leading a the women in the search, both mother and daughter do use and fire rifles. They have some agency in being able to protect themselves. Whilst deferring to Samuel who has a greater knowledge of the wilderness and the potential dangers they will encounter. He does save his granddaughter from drowning and later his daughter from a curse. A curse she is saved via a multi-faith effort of Bible reading and Native potions and chanting to lift its power from her.
Ethan always made it clear that he was no relation to Martin Pawley who in the eyes of his dead family was related by blood. It’s true he was ¼ Cherokee, however they could look beyond that biological definition to love the young boy they took in. Even to the degree they allowed him to date Lucy their eldest daughter. It was only until Ethan sees how the now adult Debbie had been transformed into a Comanche that he wanted to kill her, leaving him with only Martin to leave all his worldly possessions. The drive in Samuel to be with his family is driven by a Native healer who cares for him after a snake bite that urges him to be with his family. A superstition from an adoptive culture leads to a reunion with his family unlike the built in repulsion of Ethan who chooses the lesser of two Native evils, a relative who has lived longer with white settlers than his niece who is he struggles to recognise.
I made an unusual observation that occurred when Two Stone (Steve Reevis) has wrestled Lilly to the ground after an attempt to escape her captors. Speaking in his own language
Two Stone: CRAWL! You’re better than him… You’re not better than me!
Of the captors, he believes that women are of more value, sexually or financially compared to his white partners who may have brought more horse and manpower to complete the job, he doesn’t see them as equal. As we see towards the end of the film when they are ambushed in the rescue they turn on Isaac Edgerly (Max Perlich) and his men who are killed in order to survive. They have little more than seething contempt for them. Whilst the women are property that needs to be looked after, which in reality places them at the bottom.
The depiction of Native Americans maybe once again reinforcing the stereotype, they at least have subtitles so we finally understand what they are saying. Previously audiences have to decide for themselves based on the direction of the plot and the gestures to gauge what was said. Now the next question is, are the translations correct or were the actors allowed to say whatever before titles were place on top.
Finally for Samuel Jones if he had chosen to live with Natives for most of his adult life, was that way better than the civilised life on the frontier that he has brought his daughter into. It was only after being cured from a snake bite that he returns to civilisation and his family. For Ethan we still have no idea, we can only guess what lead him to return. We know a number of descriptions of wanted men matched his, did he lead a life of crime, hiding out with Natives would make sense, picking up their culture and customs, but what lead to his racist hatred of them and his eventual return to his own family and former lover
The Missing maybe based on a more recent novel, yet it relies on some on the same objective, rescue the women in distress. However it takes a man who has lived peacefully with Native Americans to save the day. He carries no hatred, just guilt for being an estranged father. He’s driven just like Ethan by a bloodlines to rescue Lilly from a life worse than death. If anyone is more like Ethan it would be Magdalena who wants nothing to do with her father and the culture he now associates with. However she comes to accept him for who he is, not forgiving his past but eventually allows him to be a father the only way he knows how.