After enjoying the process of reviewing 3 films previously I’m carrying on with another Western trilogy, this time John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, a chance to return to three classic films that I haven’t viewed properly in a long time. During which I have read up on how they function together and what they discuss singularly and together as a whole. Beginning chronologically with Fort Apache (1948) which I remember mostly for sewing the seeds for Ford’s later film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which I’ll come to later as I explore the first third of the trilogy.
In my opinion the trilogy is strongest at its start and end, with a weak middle with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), my view may change after another watch. For now having seen Fort Apache (1948) I can clearly see that Ford know’s his American history, focusing this film at least during the Indian Wars just as during the time of production the Korean War only a few years from breaking out in the early 1950’s. Taking Custer’s famous Seventh Cavalry, renamed Fort Apache under the command of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) whose at the opening of the film is making his way to begin his tenure there. In a stagecoach with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). He’s not shy in expressing his frustration in his new posting in the wilderness, practically sent into oblivion to put him out-of-the-way for reasons we will soon begin to understand. A man whose world’s built on social order and the structure that comes with it, he’s a man easily ruffled. Whilst his daughters ready for adventure with her farther out in the frontier. We don’t even reach the Fort before we meet freshly graduated 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) awaiting an escort to the Fort. The first of many social insults for Thursday to endure, his presence is unknown to the sergeants who’ve arrived due to the broken cable. Also unaware of Philadelphia’s growing attraction to the Lt.
Fort Apache is again filled with actors from Ford’s stock company creating for the audience a welcome set of faces on the screen. From Ward Bond to Victor McLaglen, who are not just used for comic relief, they become integral to understanding the structure of the world that Thursday is exploring and trying to take control of. As much as John Wayne is given top billing with Fonda owns this film, the ideas are all liked back to him, his actions affect the plot and all those around him. Whilst Wayne’s Captain Kirby York takes the brunt of it he does help to ground the film and sell it to the general public, not that takes much effort, his own star power rising over the past decade since Ford rescued him from the world of B-movies.
Turning to life of the Fort we have two worlds, one of domesticity and one of the soldier, the two can co-exist but following a set of precise set of rules that Thursday is constantly fighting. Coming from another class he’s a gentlemen of West Point training and high society etiquette, each with their own set of rules that are meant to exist in perfect sync. Whilst the reality of domestic life on the frontier which adapts to the Army fort it can work. Lead by Mrs. Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich) who sees knows she and other women have little place outside, take over the home, once crossing that boundary a soldier must follow another set of rules and regulations. First meeting them all at a dance with the other men, Thursday’s taken aback by the perceived lack of discipline, so swept up in his own arrival he forgets it’s George Washington Day 18th February, reminded by one of the only men who has the confidence to talk back to him – York.
Another strong example of this clash of worlds is when Thursday wants to escort his daughter back home, on learning that she has left to visit Lt. O’Rourke, the man the family and the audience know to be who she will marry. Thursday doesn’t see the young O’Rourke to be suitable to marry due to his social position, despite his West Point training, even through presidential approval, it’s not enough that the highest power in the land can afford a man to go up a class in society. It can’t be earned, it’s a birthright in the eyes of Thursday. There’s no problem for the rest of the family, who also see that his uniform is practically meaningless under the private residence of the O’Rourke’s, nearly causing an argument.
I now want to look at that seed that was sewn for Liberty Valance, the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. After what we hoped would be a peaceful resolution between the United States government and the Apache. York’s meeting with Cochise’s thought to be enough for them to return to the reservation and get changes underway. The racism in Thursday prevents the talk of peace going any further than the crossing of the border, when he can lead a charge to kill the renegade Apache, solving yet another issue of the never-ending Indian problem. By this point I had forgotten that we see them all ride off into battle and all but fall under a 4 to 1 massacre. Not just an underestimation of the enemy, a complete disregard of cultural differences and promises previously made to ensure their return.
It’s not a pleasant sight to see, all those men we have come to know and love, ride off into the vast emptiness of Monument Valley to face a death that could’ve been avoided. The recording of that battle is not what we would have hoped but does ensure that the legacy of an officer’s maintained and also that of the Fort and ultimately the Army. York makes the bold decision in his report, not seen on camera to be complicit in the lie that must be maintained for a better history and that of the West to be told. Helping build the morale of the country, something which has been done which each conflict that the United States has entered, rewriting the events to convey a myth that can be shared for generations. Essential to the American story, when the facts don’t fit the legend why bother. With all the images, paintings and social impact of Thursday supposed sacrifice on the battlefield, he has become a hero just by fighting with his boots on, it doesn’t matter what lead him there. York knows that he can’t fight that, it’s bigger than him, bigger any man in the uniform.
Ford knows the power of the story telling and the American story that he’s help to shape into the cinematic form that has become its own legend and part of the greater myth of the West. I’m still not looking forward to Yellow Ribbon, even with the drunken scenes, I just can’t see how it will even come close to the complexity of the Apache that dives head first into the fabric of the genre.
My fears for what I thought would be a string of comic events was all but washed away coming away from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) the middle piece of the Cavalry trilogy. I could see why I saw this as potentially being the weaker of the three. Yellow Ribbon acts as a celebration of the Cavalry. Opening with narration over the vastness of Monument Valley in beautiful Technicolor. Ford is very much home in the desert landscape that stretches for what seems like a limitless distance. His playground to get out his actors and re-enact his countries past.
Taking his cue once more from Custer, who this times named to have fallen after The Battle of Little Bighorn (1976), a major blow for both the U.S. Army and the country during its long campaign to see the Native Americans rounded up onto reservations. The treatment of the nations is the complete opposite of Fort Apache. No longer are they respected or feared for the damage they can do. Now they are a nuisance that must be resolved. We’re told that a number of plains tribes have put aside old rivalries to come together to fight the army that’s trying to pen them into land they aren’t interested in. The failure of Little BigHorn really hurts, any future defeats aren’t allowed.
Yellow Ribbon is not so much concerned with legacy as it is with the history that it hopes to make. Instead there’s a focus on the people who populate the unnamed fort where we Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is 5 days away from retirement. He’s not so much concerned with what he is leaving behind but the future he’s going off to. With the focus of the film being his last patrol of the area before his retirement. Before he heads out we get to learn about his relationship with the men. First what is a long-standing friendship with Top Sgt. Quincannon (McLaghlen), you get the feeling they go back a long way. However it’s his time with both Lt. Flint Cohill (Agar again) and Second Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) new to the Ford Stock Company) who themselves are fighting for the affections of the only eligible woman on the fort – Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). The chemistry between the three makes for some great scenes, not so much sexual tension. It’s a charming fight between two young men for a woman whose far maturer than both. It’s also the origin of the film’s title, a fictional tradition that neatly ties into the richness of the film. A symbol of a woman showing her affection for a soldier. Matching the yellow handkerchief that was once part of the standard uniform until 1872 (four years before the film’s set). Ford takes creative licence along with the strong influence of Frederic Remington’s depiction of the accessory, that evokes a certain romanticism of the army that has carried through the classic cycle of the Western.
“Never apologise, It’s a sign of weakness” another layer of masculine code that is laid down by The Duke, part of his image that defined his on-screen persona. Something that many men have tried to live up to during his life-time. Today however the idea of never apologising is both laughable and disturbing, that in itself is a strength in modern man. As a male myself I believe that the ability to own up to your faults or errors shows a sign of great strength. To understand you’re in the wrong and admitted is today respect, that way you can build on itself and grow as an individual. A sure sign that the image of man as defined by the duke is slowly being chipped away, becoming something of a dinosaur. Just saying that is depressing, however a raised awareness mental health in men shows that you have to understand and be in touch with your feelings instead of hiding behind a persona of a masculine mystique that can trap a man down the route of potential depression and even suicide. Looking at Wayne’s image of a man I can only take so much of it use for myself, mostly a sense of confidence and the ability to not take yourself so seriously, which he did much later in his life.
Whilst life on the fort is very pleasant, there’s a time for regulations and a time to relax and understand there’s more to life than the uniform. It’s out in the open that we see the cavalry showing what they’re made of. Out on patrol, with the addition of two women – the major’s wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia Dandridge in female uniform and riding side-saddle. One complains of the rotating between riding and walking, whilst the older has had no stability in the last ten years. Both being escorted to a stagecoach to be taken East and away from very real dangers out in the open. The women reflect the negative side of a military life, one more from marital experience, whilst the younger is more frustrated.
Action finally gets underway each time we encounter either Apache, Southern Cheyenne etc, as much as they are pretty much faceless and nameless, they are ever present in the environment. From the cliched yells as they ride into battle to the broken English, building on the image that Ford had a hand in creating for the Native American on film. When not on-screen the patrol’s one of character and discipline, set against the backdrop of Monument Valley from butte to butte we traverse the desert for what feels like forever, I wouldn’t mind that in a Ford film any day. The riding reminds us that we are away from the security of the fort, open the elements and dangers of the open West.
Yellow Ribbon is very much a celebration of the cavalry, we didn’t have time for that in Fort Apache looked at the legacy of campaigns and the wider history that’s written. Yellow Ribbon looks more closely at the people who are in the uniform, mostly of Brittles wise old captain who has seen his share of warfare on the frontier. Wayne gives one of his best performances, something that Ford had a knack of doing on countless collaborations, maybe it was all the goading on set that forced him to give his best, or knowing that this man-made him who he was so owed him his best. Now I look forward to Rio Grande (1950) with a renewed excitement, knowing that the trilogy is a solid set of films that are all very different, showing varying sides of a history that was repeated and reflected during the production of the three films.
I’ve been itching to catch Rio Grande (1950) completing the cavalry trilogy, which came out of a contractual obligation with Republic studio. Ford wanting to make his pet project The Quiet Man (1952) was allowed to be made on the provision that he make another Western first. The director not one to just make a slap-dash film gave this final cavalry outing the time it deserved. Falling back on the character of Kirby Yorke now a colonel and posted out to Fort Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexican border we find the man who was once ensuring that the legacy of another senior officer remain in-tact. Here he has concerns of his own past that are brought to light. Grande focuses on the York family in particular. Noted as the first of 5 films they would make together, a pairing that worked very well on-screen. The only woman who could truly hold her own in front of The Duke, and one that he found to be his favourite too.
Tonaly looking back at Yellow Ribbon there’s a real shift from celebration of the uniform to that of reflection of what life in the uniform can be like. The consequences of past action or military engagements, how they effect those around you on a personal level, pretty deep stuff for a Western of this period. There’s also a return to the beautiful black and white cinematography, connecting it back to the world of Fort Apache where we last found York, Allowing us to focus on the action and drama without the distraction of colour.
From the opening dialogue free scene we know we are in the world of the military, the anxious wives and mothers waiting for their men to return home from battle. Looking onto find them in the column of exhausted troops returning home. Ford again focuses on the community that is directly effected by the cavalry, or any armed force. Due to his time in the Navy’s photographic department, reflecting his experiences in the most American of genres. He turns what could be a wild West scene easily into any conflict and any time in America’s military history. Handled with great sensitivity. Not one line of dialogue can express the emotions going through the women and children waiting for fathers, husbands and brothers to return home safely. It’s here we learn that York has a son whose just been expelled from West Point, the same school where only a few years before 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) who had to fight class distinctions with Colonel Thursday. The younger Trooper “Jeff” Jefferson York (Claude Jarman Jr.) who then went back to enlist as a regular. Showing determination to ensure he sees a military future and carrying on his families legacy in uniform. The younger York doesn’t have that social stigma but could potentially carry another one – a West Point failure. The news of his failing in maths doesn’t come as a surprise to the father, which could be seen as a trait that he has passed onto his son.
Among the other enlisted men we have the youngest men of the Ford Stock Company, which are used successfully for lighter scenes and depicting the men in uniform with faces we can recognise and relate to. Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) allow us to get under the surface of what it takes to get into the uniform, what makes a man in the cavalry. Essentially average Joe’s who want to make a life for themselves. Becoming essential to the plot as it reaches the 3rd act, showing that solider with our without stripes and medals is needed on the field of battle.
It’s the addition of Kathleen York (Maureen O’Hara) which has the potential to turns things upside down, carrying with her a deep-rooted resentment of her plantation being burnt to the ground during the Civil War. Her main reason for being on the fort, to collect her son from the cavalry, something she learns is easier said than done. Not just needing her signature, but that the willingness of her son to also sign, which form him would be a sign of giving up on himself, essentially a sign of weakness. Her resentment towards York, extends also to Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) who carried out the order to burn hers, among other plantations in the Shenandoah Valley, part of a strategy to cripple the Confederacy at the heart, if the farms are scorched, no food can be grown to feed the army and the men fighting within them. Taking place over a 5 month period in 1864 under the orders of General Ulysses Grant. Seen in the context of Rio Grande as regrettable but necessary actions needed to speed up the wars process in the favor of the Union winning the war.
Looking at the depiction of the Native Americans who again are focus of the external conflict, the Apaches are again reduced to being vicious faceless, nameless pests for both American and Mexicans on both side of the border. When they are heard to be chanting by Quincannon they are seen as just a nuisance to be quelled with a threat. This is quickly undermined with an attack of three combined nations heading over to rescue to captured Apaches. There’s no effort to see their side of events, just something to be stopped at any cost. A cost that could lead to a court martial if the orders to bring their rein of terror to an end. Verbal orders which are carefully delivered as to avoid legal complications if they were to go horribly wrong.
These orders reflect the then contemporary policy towards Korea, if orders were made public of the countries intervention into the country were to go wrong. The social and political implications would be far greater than the result. Keeping the operation quiet until known to be a success and an American victory was far more important. Colonel York experiences the same dilemma. As much as he wants to carry out the orders, he knows the weight on the consequences o the mission failure on a personal level. I found this situation fascinating, how many failed political decisions that have been hidden from public scrutiny, probably very few with a decent press.
Concerning the York family dynamic we have a father whose hard on not just himself, understanding that historically he’s lost his family based on orders he was given that broke a family that was already split down the middle politically. Kathleen’s presence brings all of these emotions of guilt, honor and duty into question when it comes to his own family. The uniform comes before his own life and those of others, he has to follow the orders of his superiors without question, it’s the chain of command that has cost him his wife and son for 15 years. With the arrival of his son – coincidence I think not, see him begin to soften to life as a parent whilst maintaining his position. Whilst Kathleen softens over the film’s duration to realise that both the men in her life are in uniform and that comes before family. By the end of the film she sees herself more as a military wife who understands the importance of the uniform. Again ending with a scene that relies only on emotion, as the men return from another campaign, she looks on and waits for husband and son to return, finding the colonel on a travois injured, reaching out for his arm as they walk into the fort. Nothing mores needed to convey how far thy they have both come together.
Looking back at the trilogy they each explore different facets of the cavalry. Whilst celebrating they look at legacy of campaigns, the individuals involved and the impact they will have on history. The celebration of life on the fort at all levels and aspects of life from new recruits in training to those about to retire. Until the final installment Yellow Ribbon is the most romantic of the trilogy, Rio Grande pours it on thick musically with the Sons of the Pioneers and the carefully lit scenes with between Wayne and O’Hara. Ford doesn’t miss a trick, even if the last installment was purely by accident, creating a trilogy before the term franchise was even a thing in cinema, it was the actors who were the real attraction not so much the reliability of the content that guaranteed success at the box-office.
Another Western that I’ve been looking out for over the years, with the wait now finally over I have mixed feelings of deflation. Comedian Rich Hall began his BBC4 documentary on the film depiction on Native Americans by starting with the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden -, soldiers uttering the word Geronimo. A word that was originally linked to the name of the Apache warrior who held out and fought until he’s forced to surrender to the U.S. army. How many other names have been so misappropriated? A name of a countries former enemy has become a term of celebration and liberation. None have the same sound to them as Geronimo as it rolls off the tongue out of all the prominent Native American figures. It’s a practice that I try to avoid, aiming to keep his name in historical context, not to use in celebration.
The 1993 film Geronimo (1993) was one of two released that year about the Apache warrior, one made a Native American produced TV movie, very different in tone, celebrating the life and times of the figure, one that I feel I should watch again to compare. And the Hollywood Western that bills the lead actor, fourth on the list below Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. A symptom of how Hollywood make and market their films. Placing the more prominent names above others who have a larger part in the film. Also indicating the position of Native American actors in the film industry, at the bottom. The only positive you can take away from this billing is that the role went to Wes Studi, a Native American (Cherokee) and not someone in brown face, that’s some progress.
Made during the early 1990’s when there was a boom in the genre, released in between Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994), the same year as the larger than life, sweeping epic – Tombstone (1993). Easily categorized as a revisionist Western, attempting to rewrite the genres pasts wrongs to tell a more honest account of history. So how did they get on? I’m reminded of Broken Arrow (1950) when James Stewart narrated Tom Jefford’s experience with the Apache, we even met Geronimo in one scene when all the tribes of the nation met for a council meeting, his own histories picked up in a Chuck Connors film – Geronimo (1962) which I might check out of curiosity. This 1990’s take on the warriors narrated by baby-faced Matt Damon as a fresh out of West point officer Lt. Britton Davis, leaving me thinking how much of Lt Dunbar has influenced him, his moments of reflection and modern thinking on a 19th century issue that’s now become part of America’s history and less talked about politics. Britton us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he waits to meet with his commanding officer Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) heading off to join the stately and much admired Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman) who was given the task of rounding up the Apache and sticking them on the reservation.
Now with all Native American revisionism its going to be more graphic – think Little Big Man and Soldier Blue (both 1970) et al, it’s brutal and attempting to take their side for again. Yet it still comes from the perspective of a white soldier – Davis who is reflecting over this period in history. There is however more screen time given to Wes Studi and rightly so really allowing us the best Hollywood can do depict the final days of freedom for the Apache. As revisionist the film tries to be, it takes a massive cue from John Ford, depicting the film entirely in Monument Valley, trying to be both a Cavalry film and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which moved around the Navajo country, having now taken on this mythic form and space which allows filmmakers to tell the story of the West in this landscape almost exclusively at times. I found this distracting at times, thinking about Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at times, not seeing for it wants to be.
With more screen-time given to Studi we’re allowed to understand his point of view, he’s not just a pain in the backside for the Army and the White House, He’s has a credible point of view. First meeting him at his initial surrender, brought the charge of the two Lieutenant’s who see this as a big moment in both their careers and history. For Geronimo it’s the end of his peoples way of life and loss of freedom, he’s not taken this decision lightly. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously, giving time to both fact and action during the films run. Time for the peace talks that see the Apache accepting they’ve been worn down and needing to talk. Before things get messy after an Apache’s killed for a ghost dance (disturbing the peace) which triggers another war between them and the white eyes.
The action scenes are rather mixed, bloody at times, filled with dust which makes it hard at times to see what’s going on. OK we’re in the desert but its supposed to be discernible to the viewer. Suggesting that it was a bloody time for both sides, more so the Natives who are fighting for respect and honor at this pivotal time.
Turning to look at the other characters times taken to develop the two lieutenant’s and even the aging scout Al Sieber (Duvall) who has suffered 17 arrows and gunshots and still standing, he’s learned to respect his enemy whilst growing tired in his role. A nice character for Duvall to play, having been a presence in the genre ever since he got “shot to pieces” by the Duke in True Grit (1969) he gives the film extra strength by him just being there. I felt as much as those in uniform were given more time to grow, we got less time with Chato (Steve Reevis) a once feared warrior, now a loyal scout to the cavalry, outside of his obvious skill and knowledge he is only seen as a traitor to his people. At least he’s not being played by Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972).
Summing up this film it’s an attempt to tell two sides to the same events, whilst naturally being slightly more biased to the Army, made by White men, it’s only able to go so far. We do have a more fleshed out depiction of the Apache which i can’t complain about and with subtitles which gives allows more depth, only speaking English when faced with White Eyes. I noticed also a bit of slopping editing, splicing in an elder to Crooks final treaty talk, it looked really out of place, shoe-horned in there. I can’t complain too much, its an early 90’s Western that attempts to rewrite events, yet still holding back in places.
I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
I’ve been looking out for Ulzana’s Raid (1972) ever since I read about it a years ago, discussed in relation to Native American’s once again. Focusing this time on an army company of men in search of a band of Apache who had left the reservation at the beginning of the film. Something which I can relate to in my current work. Naturally the army’s notified of Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his braves who have left over night. Today you would rightly be behind the Apache’s to make a break for freedom. I noticed as the film progress as much as it has dated it has a new relevance in the age of ISIS and Islamaphobia which has gripped parts of the world. I’ll explain my observation as I carry on. My initial reading (literally) was a comparison with McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) yes there’s more discussion about The Searchers (1956) this time focusing on how the white man functions with his knowledge of the other.
Much like my review of The Stalking Moon (1968) we have an army scout with knowledge of “Indians” for Edwards the knowledge comes from an undisclosed place in a back story that fuels his hate, scaring those around him to the point of alienation leaving him with his unwanted mixed race Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who stick with him throughout, thick and thin. We can only presume his knowledge comes after leaving the Confederate Army, being absent from the surrender he follows a different path from everyone else who has seemingly adjusted to post civil war life.
With Edwards out of the army, I turn to those still in the army, Varner’s (Gregory Peck) seen as a knowledge, the army want him to stay, they feel safer with him and his partner riding with them. I can’t really imagine Peck ever being as dangerous as Wayne could ever portray. Even the white woman Sarah (Eva Marie Saint) feels safe in his company as her escorts her home. Turning to Mcintosh he is as worldly-wise as they others, you can see it on his face, he has seen a lot, done a lot and even married a Native woman for his wife. Something that Edwards would never contemplate, his racism wouldn’t allow it. He is more willing to share his knowledge as advise not to scare the cavalry men he is riding with. He wants to educate not fear them, he doesn’t need to do that as the trail of blood-shed speaks for itself. He instead explains what they do and why.
If anything the explanation for all the atrocities is better explained by the sole Apache Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) whose allowed to have a good portion of the script. He’s better able to answer all the questions that the men have. Especially for wet behind the ears Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) who sees all this death as meaningless, he wants to act without fully understanding his enemy. He’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) before the racism has set in, wanting to make a career and a name for himself in the army. Here’s the chance to learn and change his perspective and direction in life. With the motives for the Apache’s explained by Ke-Ni-Tay, acting as the others representative. Today he could represent the hunted ISIS (and rightly so to) he becomes the misunderstood Muslim who has done nothing wrong, whose labelled the potential terrorist in their absence. Racism without cause, fear is wrong directed to Muslims when 99% of them are as decent as everyone else we meet on the street. It’s the 1% who are disillusioned, radicalized and want to inflict harm on the rest of the world. Back in the Western of the 1970’s the Native Americans act as the Vietnamese who have been wrongly killed because of the fear of communism (I know there’s more to it than that).
I want to look at some lines from the film, something I do rarely, a few stood out for me that I have to interrogate.
Do you hate Apaches, Mr. McIntosh? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
No. – McIntosh
Well, I do. – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
Well, it might not make you happy, Lieutenant, but it sure won’t make you lonesome. Most white folks hereabout feel the same way you do. – McIntosh
Why don’t you feel that way? – Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin
It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em. – McIntosh:
It feels like a conversation that could have taken place in Fort Apache if rank wasn’t a problem between Thursday and Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). Instead with have the advantage of age over experience. The time to consider whether there is enough time in life to devote so much to hating a race of people. McIntosh understand his commanding officers position but has given up on the emotion as it only gets in the way of living and functioning as a human being out in the frontier.
Turning now to the violence of the film, this isn’t one that young kids could watch and get a sense of fun, the cowboy and Indian dynamic of the past is not present in this film. The violence is more brutal. Animal rights groups would today have ensure animals were treated better. There’s nothing to suggest that any animals were harmed or not. This is a few years before Heaven’s Gate (1980) and exploding horses in the name of art. As much as the violence is tame in some respects, when you see a horses neck being cut you think twice about putting a young child in front of the screen. We are meant to see these violent acts, suggesting that the Apache are not civilised, they are capable of terrible acts, making the cavalry’s presence all the more relevant. The savages have to be tamed if possible at all costs. Although history would argue they only ever acted in self defense at the threat of losing their way of life. Once again I am mixing fact with fiction and in film that doesn’t always work.
The depiction of the Native American’s doesn’t really fare that much better than the animals, They are treated once again as savages with skills of the wilderness. They become more desperate over the course of the film, as if they are broken down. They way they treat their horses/ponies is not really as animals to respect but more as tools that can be disposed of. Practically seen as people you wouldn’t want to have dinner with. They are however seen as a people who can work together with only gestures, almost as if Ulzana is orchestrating his men from a distance which I can’t help but admire.
So to sum up as I explore The Searchers through other films I am building up a bigger picture of how it has influenced others films and the western genre. It’s clear that Edwards is a powerful and very human character that interests us even to this day. The role of the outsider and racist will always be a dangerous one. Lancaster doesn’t play that role, take cues from Peck, two trackers who are able to function, to take a step back from the other. Instead its given to the younger man Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin who as much as he is eager to learn, he is being shaped in front of our eyes. This mission wont easily leave him, just as the 1956 classic will never leave me.