Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ethan Edwards: Anti-Hero

What do we do with John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956)?  Even in the movie posters, he's larger than life, but he never stops being a problem.  His racism is part of his character, but are we to accept it in this hero?  The movie never seems to resolve this issue.  On the one hand, we see (suggestions of) the type of violence that has lead to his anger, but ultimately, is that an excuse for wanting to starve and kill an entire race?  Does this movie want to explore the genesis of genocidal thinking, or do we merely accept this ugliness as part of an otherwise good character, or did the film's first audience even question his hatred and desire for murder?  Was racism so accepted as a part of human nature that it wasn't seen as a flaw?  I'm very interested to see what my students have to say.

I watched John Wayne's 1939 film Stagecoach this evening, and it's fascinating to see him playing such a different role.  He's pure good guy* in this one--not to mention young, fresh-faced, and good-looking.  He's hero through-and-through here.  But is he a less rounded character for lacking a fatal flaw?  He fights for women, for the under-class, for the down-trodden, and all in the context of a society that's falsely branded him a villain.

On a totally different note, I was noticing tonight how many Westerns center on a quest story.  The quest for Deborah is the driving narrative of The Searchers, but other westerns too seem to share this theme--as does Smoke Signals

(* pure good guy: He does shoot and kill Native Americans in this one, but he shoots only when attacked, which seems to be a legitimate distinction in the violent world of the west.  He also seems willing to overlook race, class, and any perceived moral superiority to judge people instead on their actions, which contrasts strongly with the other characters in the film who use moral superiority as a premise to be hateful.  John Wayne's character in Stagecoach treats the Native American woman in Apache Wells with civility--something I can't see from old Uncle Ethan.  The movie itself is not quite so kind to her.  She betrays the trust of the characters and tells her people of their presence.)

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