Life these days is such a cacophony of self-interest groups,
screaming their points of view in a dialogue of the deaf, that it’s balm for
the soul when everybody shuts up for a minute and listens. The occasion for
this pause in the day’s ululation was a film series at the Brooklyn Academy of
Music called Screening Through Prejudice .
I had agreed to appear on a panel following a morning showing of John Ford’s The Searchers , and as the event drew
nigh, I experienced mounting trepidation. Ford’s epic Western featuring John
Wayne as a racist avenger on the warpath after murderous Comanches was only
recently admitted to the pantheon of masterpieces, and has never been either a
general critical favorite or a crowd-pleaser.
Westerns have always been a tough sell, and when I heard the
audience would be a group of New York City high school kids, mostly minority, I
feared the worst. How would young people who had probably never seen a Western
even comprehend such a film? The idea for the series, as exemplified in films
like Imitation of Life and Gentlemen’s Agreement , was to focus on
images of discrimination. It was a noble idea, except when it came to a great
and difficult film about which one has mixed feelings, and whose artistry can’t
be made to fit a political agenda.
The smart and scintillating Margo Jefferson was to appear
with me, and I’m sure we both wondered ahead of time how these kids would even
sit still for a movie that was not just a Western, but one that had baffled the
critics of its time (1956) with its gargantuan ambition-an “action” film that
was a full two hours long, as deliberately slow and cosmic as the turning of
the earth that becomes the film’s reigning visual metaphor. Seasons change,
years come and go, failure succeeds weary failure, families and tribes are
decimated, children grow up.
We needn’t have worried. Oh, yes, there was a good deal of
restlessness and giggling at the beginning, but gradually the room quieted
down. The 100 or 150 kids laughed at Ford’s boisterous humor-nothing too broad
for them-and held their breath at the drama: They knew a good story when they
saw one. They responded to the generational and racial tensions within the
family: the hostility of Ethan (Wayne) toward Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), the
part-Cherokee boy adopted by Ethan’s family when his parents were killed by
Comanches; the weakness of Aaron (Walter Coy) alongside his alpha-male-type
brother; the children’s adoration of Ethan; the arguments over staying and
trying to develop the land versus moving on in defeat. The kids also responded
to old Mose Harper, Hank Worden’s holy fool of an Indian scout. And, as emerged
in the question period after, they even loved Look (Beulah Archuletta), a.k.a.
Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky, the squaw Martin mistakenly marries and
whom at one point he boots down a hill. Where we adults only cringed at the
reflexive gesture of ruling-class cruelty, the kids saw the racism but also
something more-the brown woman’s appealing dignity and warmth, her proud
Indianness and even her loyalty to her tomfool of a husband-and they felt the
mysterious void she leaves when she disappears.
My eyes were opened, too. I began to see Vera Miles’
sometimes shrill unmarried lady as something more than comic relief at the
expense of a desperate woman, more than simply the embodiment of Ford’s archaic
Irish-Catholic view of women. She loves Martin, but if he won’t come home and
settle down, she’ll tie the knot with the impossible Charlie. In the context,
she’s the female counterpart of the male warrior. Far from the little woman who
waits passively, she’s fighting for her life, or rather for the life of the
tribe, through the only means at her disposal: through husband and family. We
may question this view of the settling of America as White Man’s Destiny, but
as ritualized in the Western it’s a woman’s job to marry and procreate as sure
as it’s Ethan’s job to fight Indians.
The kids understood the good and bad in Ethan, the mixture
of fanaticism and heroism. In his sardonic refrain, “That’ll be the day,” they
heard Eastwood’s emulative “Make my day,” a gauntlet thrown down by the super-cool
dude, but in this case one who, eaten up by hate, has nothing left when that
hate ebbs away. In the end, Wayne’s sand-gravel voice has slowed down to a
reluctant drawl; it’s as if, for Ethan, there’s hardly a soul on whom it’s
worth expending the energy it takes to talk. Ironically, his communion is not
with his own kind but, mystically, with the man for whom he saves all his bile
and force: his arch-enemy Scar, the Indian chief whose presence he intuits,
whose scalp he seeks.
There were various opinions as to the enigmatic ending, but
most felt it meant that Ethan’s (and Wayne’s) time is over, as Ford, too, must
have felt when he has old Mose anoint Martin, man of moderation and ethnically
mixed heritage, as leader of the younger generation. Watching the film with
these kids, I felt excited all over again, reinvigorated in my admiration for
Ford’s majestic work.
When I had returned home that afternoon, I got a call from a
reporter from the Los Angeles Times
who was doing a front-page story on Julia Roberts to run the day after the
Oscars, on the almost certain supposition that she would win the award for best
actress. Was this some kind of radical breakthrough, the reporter wanted to
know, for a star as popular and gorgeous as Ms. Roberts to win an award usually
reserved for “serious” performers-i.e. thespians of less pulchritude and charm,
and more obvious signs of hard work and self-transformation?
The question presented the false dichotomy between
personality and talent. People complain that a certain star-John Wayne or Julia
Roberts-is just playing him- or herself, when in fact there are subtle
modulations in the persona that become apparent only with time, when we’ve
gotten far enough away from the spell of their presence to evaluate the discipline
and artistry involved. As with Wayne, the sheer number of good films Ms.
Roberts has made should tell us something-that she makes others look good,
listens more eloquently than most people speak, gives of herself, risks charges
of repetition and self-parody.
John Wayne won an Oscar, at the very end of his career, for True Grit . Now that Julia Roberts has
one while she’s young and dazzling, it would be nice to think that those old
high culture–low culture barriers have sufficiently melted away so that we can
appreciate prestidigitations of cinematic magic when they occur.