John Ford's The Searchers Essay

1922 words - 8 pages

John Ford's The Searchers

A critical theory by Robin Wood posits that the filmic genres popularized by the Hollywood system are not "discrete", but represent "different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions." (478) Wood claims that conventional theories fail to address this ideological phenomenon, and proposes a search for the myths and contradictions, produced by American capitalism, which fuel disparate filmic genres. Wood's attempt to discuss this ideology lists the "components" of a definition of "American capitalist ideology." (476) One component is the character of "the ideal male", the potent hero of the American way. (477) As the films produced out of capitalism tend to uphold the system's ideology, the hero produced by the film tends to represent the values of this ideology. Thus, through its hero, the classic Western naturalizes and justifies the "taming" of the land and the consequent subjugation of its "libidinous" native people in order to build "civilization." (476)

However, genre films are only potent because of the potentially subversive "intervention of a clearly defined artistic personality in an ideological-generic structure." (479) In The Searchers, John Ford manipulates the traditional relationship between hero, text, and ideology to challenge the dominant values of American society. The viewer initially identifies with the conventional character of Ethan Edwards, but is gradually forced to reject this "hero" and his values, and to regard Martin Pawley, a representative of more liberal beliefs, as the new-order "ideal male." Martin is both an indicator of how the audience should react to Ethan's extremist tendencies, and an alternative to them. Through the rejection of Ethan, in favour of Martin, Ford's film rejects specific aspects of the capitalist ideology, specifically economic greed, racism and the notion of excusable violence.

It might seem difficult to reappropriate a genre which exists to recount the expansionist myth to denounce the role of money in society, yet Ford successfully contrasts Ethan, the hero in decline, with Martin's quasi-socialist values. The Western hero rarely possesses a penny, even as he acts as the model of personal initiative. (476) This inconsistency founds Wood's belief that the Hollywood system is "ashamed" of its own role in the allocation of wealth in the capitalist structure. (477) The Searchers, however, immerses Ethan in the economic sphere in a very negative way. Early in the film, he literally tosses a bag of fresh-minted "Yankee dollars"

at his brother. The ominous music, Ethan's refusal to explain his whereabouts since the War, and Reverend Clayton's remark that Ethan "fits a lot of descriptions " make the viewer believe that the alleged hero is actually a bank-robber. A hero could only be excused for such activities if the money was reallocated to the poor afterwards, but this does not appear to be the case; Ethan uses his money to appease people,...

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