JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE….LANA MARTIN (Drums Along the Mohawk)

Film: Drums Along the Mohawk
Character: Lana Borst Martin
Played by: Claudette Colbert

[NOTE: This is the latest installment in a series on major and minor characters in the films of John Ford. I’m breaking the routine this time in order to write about Drums Along the Mohawk for the blog-a-thon at Krell Laboratories. (to whom, much thanks for allowing me to participate) Please be sure to follow the link and check out the other participants! For newcomers here, the first three installments in this slow-l-y-y-y developing series concern minor characters from The Searchers, and can be found by accessing John Ford’s People under the category listing at the right.]

TO BEGIN…

Let’s pause a little for the expression of some common sentiments (however passing strange), concerning Ford and the fairer sex:

“What he (John Ford) brought to the screen that made me admire him more than any other filmmaker was a kind of poetry, specific to the screen and specific to men. Granted his women were not his best creations….” (Elia Kazan)

“For a long time, I criticized his view of women–which I found too 19th century.” (Francois Truffaut, who, to be fair, had softened his view somewhat–though only somewhat–by the time he said this)

AND THEN…SINCE WE’RE GRANTING THINGS:

Grant this first: Hollywood being what it was, not even John Ford could make every film his.

Grant this second: He made more of Hollywood’s inevitable product “his” than virtually anyone else.

So…

Every Ford film is familiar. Every great Ford film, no matter how familiar, is unique, a world unto itself and, irrespective of its particular adherence to, or departure from, “realism” (which, with a certain kind of critic, and most often with the kind who strives to be influential, always means whichever version of the “facts” they themselves find most convenient), amounts to a steadfast refusal to allow human history and behavior to be turned into hard sciences after the manner of physics or engineering.

Drums Along the Mohawk, which has a certain amount of realism and a great feel of authenticity (which, accounting as it does for irrationality, mythology, imagination, isn’t really the same thing) seemed ultra-familiar when I first saw it roughly a quarter-century ago. As generally happens with Ford’s best films, it has grown more singular–more authentic–with each repeated viewing in the long years since.

And, by now, that’s a lot of viewings.

One reason it seemed so familiar in the beginning was because I recognized the people–not from other Hollywood product, where (except for John Ford’s other films) such folks are virtually absent except when they are being caricatured–but from the communities I grew up in during the sixties and seventies.

Maybe that was the last time such people will be familiar. I don’t get out enough anymore to speak with much authority on the matter. Suffice it to say that Ford’s signature gift for portraying ordinary lives (unique in the history of Hollywood, sure, but also, lest we forget, highly unusual in the history of anything) was never more fully on display than here.

One of the clearest markers of delving into the ordinary–lives as they might actually have been lived–is the cycle of destruction and renewal that sufficiently authentic lives tend to accumulate. Ford caught these cycles to a degree no other American filmmaker has approached. As I hope to demonstrate below, he never caught them more fully than here.

I suspect the intensity with which such rare qualities are presented in Drums, and its place as probably the least written about of Ford’s major films, are not unrelated phenomena. Hollywood has gone through a lot of changes in a century-plus. Its addiction to fantasy (to the studied and persistent absence of authenticity)–fully enabled by the audiences of successive generations (meaning, of course, us)–has, however, remained fundamentally unchanged.

To all of that, add this–Drums defies genre even more readily than the usual Ford masterwork. Nobody was quite so adept at confusing such issues–at reminding us that a film might be a Homeric epic despite modest length, that it might be a comedy of manners despite ultra-serious subject matter, that it might be about the future even though it is set firmly in the past, that it might be a “woman’s picture” despite the presence of forts (a recurring Ford theme) and muskets and Red Coats and Redder Indians.

Cue the music!

Ford was the best at a lot of things and the thing he was very best at–besides narrative depth–was overturning expectations.

The first thing worth noting about Drums Along the Mohawk, then, is the billing, which, despite a title and subject matter that seems to speak pretty directly to the misguided notions quoted above, places Claudette Colbert first.

That might have happened anyway. Henry Fonda was the male lead. His star was still on the rise, and, despite his eventual iconic status, he would arguably never be quite the glittering box office star that Colbert was in the thirties. In 1939, if she was in a picture, she was pretty much guaranteed top billing.

That didn’t necessitate it being her character’s story to anything like the extent Drums Along the Mohawk is–or that the character would be anywhere near as challenging or fulfilling.

For all that to happen, on a picture like this one, Ford had to trust he was working with a first-rate actress (as he certainly was), and he had to do his usual bang-up job of blurring conventional genre lines (as he certainly did).

Result? A picture that–once viewed a sufficient number of times–sneaks up on us slow-learner types and resists easy exegesis.

So, in a tale that includes a multitude of Ford’s usual arc-within-an-arc narratives, a story where even minor characters and by-the-way settings, take remarkable journeys, one journey stands out.

It isn’t this one, which goes from here:

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to here.

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Or this one, from here:

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to here.

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Or yet again, this one, from here

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to here…

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It’s not even the more general journeys, such as that from here…

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to here…

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or this one, from here…

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to here…

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Not any of those, or any of a dozen others….But this one…

From here…

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To here.

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…is where Ford chose to put the center.

No doubt he could have found other centers for a narrative as rich as Drums. Given a story set in the Revolution (America’s great un-examined subject) and also on the Frontier (America’s–and Ford’s–great familiar subject), he no doubt would have done just that, if he had been a man who truly misunderstood women.

But Lana’s story is the one he chose to build everything else around. If modernity doesn’t quite get her, (if Truffaut was unhappy with the women of the 19th century, one can only imagine how he felt about the 18th) then I suspect we’ve lost something. In America, at least, that amounts to something like where we came from.

What Kazan, Truffaut and, oh so many others, seemed to miss, is that Ford-the-director (I’ll leave speculation on Ford-the-curmudgeon, Ford-the-monster, Ford-the-terrible-person to others) was imminently interested in women.

He just wasn’t very interested in Hollywood’s ideas of women.

That being the case, Claudette Colbert, who had, by 1939, already personified, just about as perfectly as anyone could, nearly every type of wondrous woman Hollywood was interested in (the Dizzy Heiress, the Screwball Dame, the long-suffering Madame of Melodrama, the Queen of the Nile, all that just for starters), might have seemed the last possible choice for Lana Martin. Given the stories that have circulated regarding their conflict on the shoot, she might have been Ford’s last choice.

But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t the best choice.

However she got the job, she put everything she had into it. And everything she had was consummate skill and artistry–including the ability to diffuse her star power in order to fully represent a gentle, naturally subservient spirit that must have been as far from her own as it was possible to get. On the evidence of this single time they worked together, she certainly understood both big-picture arc and small-picture moments (the long and the short) as exquisitely well as any of Ford’s regulars. And, whatever his feelings about her insistence on glamour makeup, Ford was right to put the story in her hands.

Truth be told, I love just about every element of Drums: Edna May Oliver’s Mrs. McClennar (okay that’s an easy one); the wealth of period detail (especially the interiors); the genuine feel of Appalachia–the American Frontier’s first barrier–rendered glorious for once (and in Utah no less); the you-are-there aspect of the pioneer experience (especially the barn-raising scene that turns into an Indian raid). All that and so much more.

But the real reason I keep watching is to find out how Lana got through.

How the rich girl from Albany survived (and survives) not just the frontier, but The Frontier–the process of winning the hard ground the Mohawk valley represents, and the weight of Myth that winning created.

Drums Along the Mohawk keeps this balance perfectly, and it does so in large part because Lana is such a well-drawn character, an exemplar of the quiet, essential, forgotten women, generally ignored by both history and literature (fact and myth).

In order to understand such women, Ford had to be not only a poet of community (something that is generally acknowledged) but of community’s historical foundation stone: marriage. Which meant he also had to understand just how and where women stood in the very particular stories he was telling.

Women generally, yes, but also specific women–and not always the most familiar types.

Even when Ford was making his films, Americans already had a long-demonstrated preference for the firebrand–the kind of women played in their respective primes by Maureen O’Hara or Vera Miles, or Ava Gardner or Anne Bancroft (to stick to obvious examples from Ford’s own oeuvre).

I suspect the main reason  Lana Martin is infrequently–if ever–mentioned among Colbert’s finest performances, is that she does not fill this bill. Lana is genteel (a strike against her already), but she’s also genuinely eager to please. Give her almost any circumstance through the first parts of the film and she will look to someone else for approval.

Most often that someone is Gil–as definitive an example of the stolid husband as she is of the demure, even submissive wife.

Fragile as a flower you might say:

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With that vivid image established, we’re hardly surprised, then, to find her forever seeking approval, assurance, a new kind of self-worth. Be it in a tavern:..

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On the road…

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In a cabin…

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In a field…

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In church…

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In a crisis:

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At a turning point:

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One could go on. One could even note that Lana’s persistent need for some sort of assurance isn’t limited to Gil (who you will note, is generally not indifferent, but rather oblivious, as though he can’t imagine anyone of Lana’s background needing such assurance from the likes of him)….Meanwhile, Mrs. McClennar, in particular, operates on a lot of levels, none more important than as a kind of anti-Lana, an assurance to all and sundry that the firebrand spirit is alive and well!

Where Lana fusses…

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Mrs. McClennar asserts:

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Where Lana, fearful of the future, pines…

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Mrs. McClennar (wife of the late Captain Barnabas “Blast his eyes lovin’ it” McClennar and mindful of the past), pontificates:

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Where Lana demures…

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Mrs. McClennar snorts with derision…

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To this point, even the most generous critique might have us wanting to leave Lana where we found her–to share what is evidently her low opinion of herself (and that’s without the screaming and fainting that were much more accepted as dramatic norms at the time than any right-thinking modernista is willing to put up with at this distance….heaven forbid any woman should act effeminate in the movies these days, when they would only be taking jobs from all the leading men so eager to shoulder the burden).

But, Ford being Ford, it’s a safe bet there’s a convergence coming–that we won’t leave Lana there. That there will be a moment when Lana starts to show that, while she’ll never be Mrs. McClennar (that sort of obviousness would do for most filmmakers, never for Ford), the differences between her and her de-facto mentor, don’t cut all the way to bone either.

Let the crisis rise to a sufficient level and likenesses–specific to them, general to woman’s accepted place in the times being portrayed–begin to emerge.

What Mrs. McClennar already knows about men returning from battle…

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Lana will know soon enough. If not here:

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Then certainly here (where the care she gave Gil’s immaculate clothes upon his departure, pictured above, is finally turned to something genuinely useful as she applies it, in heightened degree, to his torn body):

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[I’ll pause to note that the sequence referenced here–where Gil recounts his experience in battle (a battle, incidentally, which was genuinely significant in the foundation of the country and during which the colonials won despite suffering the horrific casualties Gil mentions, and which Ford shows us only through this scene), has been justifiably praised for its striking portrayal of a soldier suffering what is now called PTSD. Fonda has received plenty of well-earned praise for his harrowing performance. But Colbert had perhaps an even harder task–to both support Fonda’s performance and, simultaneously, to bring forth, for the first time, the full measure of Lana’s residual toughness. To focus on the nuances she deploys throughout this very long and compelling scene–to achieve the considerable accomplishment of tearing your eyes away from Fonda throughout–is to be awed.]

A simpler narrative, moving on straight lines, would mark this as Lana’s ascendance, perhaps even the moment when she swaps places with Mrs. McClennar. No such simplicity occurs. Lana gets tougher, Mrs. McClennar eventually goes a little dotty. But neither woman loses her essence. Being molded by time and circumstance is not the same as having your basic character overthrown.

Hard to imagine Mrs. McClennar, for instance, ever being afraid of Indians. Certainly not this afraid:

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Or even this afraid:

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Let alone still this afraid…

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Right after she has done this:

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No, However much bonding Lana and the older, saltier woman do, Mrs. McClennar will always be more apt to respond this way…

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Or this…(mounting the barricades, instead of cowering below):

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This separation of natures, does not preclude an essential sisterhood, of course…Mrs. McClennar does hate sewing:

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And, it being the 18th century, it will still be woman’s lot to watch and wait…

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And tend the wounded…

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And mourn the dead…

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Strong bonds indeed.

Still, for all that, we know that, if Lana, young and beautiful, were to find herself a widower, she would not be caught cavorting with handsome young men…

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Or leading cheers…

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No, her own lot will still be to quietly validate the passage of the seasons. The living…

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The dying…

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The high tide…

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And the low…

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And, most significantly of all…the worrying…

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And the hoping…

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Hoping, perhaps, that this…

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And this…

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And all of this…

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Will somehow, finally, be validated by all of this…

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The future that had not quite arrived in Ford’s time…and has not quite arrived in ours…That remains tantalizingly out of reach…NVE00724 NVE00725 NVE00726 NVE00727

A future that was once brought into view by those John Ford was forever reminding us we would forget only at our peril…

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JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE…THE EDWARDS CHILDREN (The Searchers)

Played by:

Pippa Scott (Lucy Edwards)
Robert Lyden (Ben Edwards)
Lana Wood (Debbie Edwards)

(NOTE: This is (finally!) the third installment in a series of essays on the major and minor characters in various John Ford films, beginning with The Searchers. The series can be accessed under “John Ford’s People” at the right. WARNING: All installments are likely to contain SPOILERS!)

With very few exceptions, social beings are more acted upon than not–more controlled than controlling.

This cuts very much against the American grain, which prizes the ideal of individuals being in possession of their own fates above all else–and leaves us clinging to that “ideal” on the surface in the face of even the peskiest and most persistent countervailing evidence provided by our essentially Calvinist underpinnings.

For better and worse, this preference for the superficial ideal also leaves most of our movie-making (that inherently, and seductively, superficial art form) stranded in various absurdist fantasy lands. And it leaves children–the group most acted upon, the most vulnerable to the whims and values of others in any society that hasn’t entirely descended into chaos–with a thousand stories either untold or, worse, falsely told.

Who really wants to hear overmuch about the controlled after all?

About their various ordeals, yes. For that we seem to have an endless thirst. Especially if the ordeals can keep us mindful of Order the meanwhile. Check the news for evidence. And, of course, the occasional triumph over such ordeals. That always sells!

But about the everyday strictures and rituals required to maintain civilization we, the busy moderns, so easily bored, perhaps tend to think we know too much already.

Of course, in those societies which do descend into chaos, however temporarily, children are typically even more vulnerable.

And, since frontier societies are almost inherently bound to endure chaos at some point, making sense of a particular consequence of chaos was a necessity-driven virtue of Frontier America’s first popular literary genre, the captivity narrative–the source of our near-obsessive fascination with the taken and their recoveries.

It has been oft-noted that The Searchers is a kind of reversal of the standard captivity narrative since it is told from the standpoint of the pursuers–the would-be rescuers–rather than the captive. (And I’ll just note that the steady rise of the Rescuer-Oriented Procedural in pulp fiction and television, which began soon after The Searchers, as novel and film, arrived in the world and has likely reached saturation point in the present day with Law and Order, CSI, Without a Trace, et al, is just one more example of Ford’s greatest narratives always being about the past and the future simultaneously. Even when this aspect is built into the source, as here, you can always count on Ford to intensify the scope. The same reversal occurred, incidentally, during the Pentagon’s disastrously back-fired attempt to gussy up the Jessica Lynch captivity narrative in the Iraq War, a narrative which was handed to them on a platter and then dumped on the floor because somebody thought it would be a good idea to be Rescuer-Oriented–or to allow the media to be so–for the inevitable cameras. Having a heaven-sent substitute for Natalie Wood fresh to hand they went looking for John Wayne (albeit surely not the John Wayne of The Searchers) to play the lead instead, and–shockingly!–did not find him in any way, shape or form (not even in the form of Jessica Lynch herself, who was offered the role and, to her everlasting credit, declined). Some people never learn.)

This stress on the reversed emphasis is valid up to a point and it certainly holds true in Alan LeMay’s very fine source novel.

But the film takes place in John Ford’s universe. So, of course, it can’t really stay as simple as that.

Because Ford never left anyone out–never really seemed to accept the fundamental trope of movie-narrative. Namely, that anyone in his universe, past or future, was truly insignificant.

That’s probably the main quality Orson Welles was referring to when he said Ford’s films at their best had the stuff of life in them and it’s a quality finely displayed in his handling of the Edwards’ children.

*  *  *  *

There are three of them and when we meet them at the film’s opening they are, collectively and individually, the embodiment of the “acted upon,”–a perfect embodiment, in part, because we know immediately that they are being acted upon responsibly. Raised, as opposed to our New Age ideal,which is “guided” if not “privileged.”

This sense of responsibility never goes away. It’s one of the hidden threads woven through the entire film that hold it together across time, space, tragedy and the inevitable vicissitudes of seeking truth in a mixture of history and fable.

At the beginning, we can see that they have parents and also each other. Soon enough, they have “Uncle Ethan,” for a day at least. Following immediately on this, we find they have an “adopted” brother who is no less family to them than they are to him and to each other.

And not too long after that, it becomes clear that they also have a community to rely on as well–albeit an ad hoc one. Texas Rangers, fellow ranchers, a preacher even (and a preacher’s presence means something even if he moonlights as a Ranger captain).

Very shortly, they will be let down by all of these responsible actors, Ethan in particular.

The result?

One killed in a raid, another raped and murdered, another….lost?

Order into chaos.

It all happens very rapidly, and, in virtually any other filmmaker’s (or even novelist’s) hands, they would become purely representational (as, frankly, they are for LeMay, though Debbie springs to life at the very end). We hardly see them, after all. There’s not time (or celluloid) for more than a few glimpses here and there and no single moment when they are witnessed in any contemplative state that might speak definitively–as opposed to suggestively–to state of mind, quality of spirit, or any other defining characteristic. Surely it’s enough that we know terrible things have happened to them and that, as long as one survives, the presence of Ethan Edwards in the world will ensure there is some sort of tale to tell.

And for Ethan, they perhaps are representational. Certainly John Wayne’s performance allows for that notion, perhaps even encourages it.

But for us, the audience, Ford makes them something different.

For us, there are arcs to trace: a collective arc that contains three separate arcs which, in turn, reinforce the collective, before finally isolating a single, separate arc which will have its own internal series of arcs.

And, this being Ford, it’s all accomplished in about ten minutes.

*  *  *  *

In the beginning, right after the now-legendary introduction shots, we see them not as the community sees them or as their parents see them or as they see each other, but as Ethan, the outsider, sees them–or rather as he might have seen them in his mind’s eye when he imagined his own homecoming.

We see them, in other words, looming large in the space he will spend the rest of the film trying to get back to.

Not Monument Valley, or “Texas, 1868,” or The West, or even The Frontier.

Instead….This space, which is all of the above, but also something far more specific (Lucy in the foreground, Debbie in the back, though, perhaps tellingly, also centered):

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As is this one (Ben at the far right):

NVE00110So far, very representational indeed. Then the deft touches begin, drawing us in. First and most famously–three become one:

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And then become three again (with parents attending)

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After which, Ford outdoes even his own matchless standard for narrative economy, not to mention his understanding of ritual as the basis of civilization. Normally that basis is double-edged–security forever threatened by conformity. But Ford, poet of the frontier among many other things, understood that while “the Frontier” may represent freedom in the American imagination, in reality it needs adherence to ritual far more than established society does.

So rituals we get:

Reunion…and the passing of the saber

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Manners…(it’s true Ethan forgets his, but he’s the only one)

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Dinner at the table:

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Where Ethan’s forgetting has its effect (note the subtle changes in the children as everyone is suddenly reminded of Martin’s Indian blood, the ritual of forgetting having been suddenly, and rudely, dispatched):

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And then on to gift-giving…

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And receiving…(a “gold locket”…actually, and, as we’ll see in a later post, significantly, a war medal)

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And then to the deepest and most sacrosanct ritual of all, the one which the overwhelming and astonishing success of our now-scorned ancestors has allowed modernity to most completely ignore (I speak as a serious transgressor myself)….Bedtime:

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Civilization then, is firmly in place, even with all that empty space without and Ethan’s cantankerous presence (which I’ll address more fully when it’s his turn) roiling the waters ever so slightly within.

What’s left then?…Neighbors perhaps…a beau perhaps (note Lucy fussing with her collar)…trouble perhaps:

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All of the above…except the trouble is barely hinted:

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Lucy makes her getaway (the courtship ritual is not for prying eyes–neither the family’s nor ours)

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But these are the Texas Rangers, and they have their own rituals (including the swearing in, of course, but more to the present point, also the ritual denial of the youngest boy’s ritual expression of his desire to go along–doubtless with his new saber in tow…I’ll revisit the Reverend and “and faithfully fulfill” when it’s his turn)…

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And when that’s all taken care of, of course, we have some ritual teasing…

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of the courting couple…the first time we see Brad Jorgensen, though his real introduction has been the sight of Lucy fixing her collar…and then running out the back door the second her duty to the guests has been fulfilled…

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And the Reverend smiles…ritually upon the rituals…

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All is well, then…as the men ride off:

NVE00151With this arc-within-an-arc-within-an-arc concluded (at least in the English-speaking world, don’t look for any common occurrence of arcs-within-arcs-within-arcs anywhere but Ford, incidentally, unless you are reading a high-end Victorian novel or Shakespeare, though, come to think of it, they aren’t all that common, even there), the next several minutes are spent with those men as they pursue what they believe–or have made themselves believe (arc-within-arc style)–are cattle rustlers…until the moment when they, and we, know they’ve been taken in…

And civilization as they–and we (the film’s intended audience, then and now)–know it, prepares to pay the price of their mistake. While setting the table, of course:

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Mrs. Edwards tries to remain ritually calm…

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But we already know that the saber will be useless…

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As will the rituals…

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As awareness dawns and order breaks down temporarily…

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And is then restored…temporarily (with the final shot of Ben, saber still in hand, and Lucy), as three become two.

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Separated–psychically and physically–from the one:

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Who will make her ritual escape (in the manner of frontier families who did, on occasion, actually make plans to separate children who were young enough to be more likely taken captive than killed outright in the event of a raid, to lessen the chance they would be killed in the raid itself).

NVE00177 At which point, the isolation of the one descends…on her and on us.NVE00181

As her living family is replaced, momentarily, by those already gone…

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Who have no more chance to protect her than those still present…

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When the shadow of the warrior falls.

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Ford was fond of saying that the best things in movies happened by accident. It’s worth noting here that Lana Wood, interviewed for the 50th Anniversary edition of The Searchers, said she had been instructed to scream when she looked up at the Comanche warrior, but that Henry Brandon, the actor playing Chief Scar, was so intimidating, she froze.

Ford was never one for second takes, though he certainly wasn’t above shooting them when necessity required. There was no re-take here. He must have realized–consciously or sub-consciously–that Wood’s preternatural calm was far more effective than any demonstrative reaction could have been.

This is where we leave the Edwards’ children after all. And, in the long stretch before we see the lone survivor again, nothing reinforces the notion of endurance more than this final shot, where we see Debbie Edwards as Scar sees her and cannot help feeling, as he might well have, that–far more than her sister or her mother–she is a tough nut.

And that, plus the Hand of Fate (ever-present in Ford, and ever-questioned), will ensure that she is all that is left–spiritually and, soon enough, materially–of this…

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..when the new arc begins.

 

JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE…LOOK

Played by: Beulah Archuletta

Film: The Searchers (1956)

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of essays on characters in John Ford’s films beginning with The Searchers. All entries can be found in the category “John Ford’s People” at the right]

“One of the most deeply moving scenes in the film remains, at least for me, the discovery of Look’s death at the hands of the cavalry. Even Ethan is touched. And yet this is the same character at whom we are expected to laugh when Marty kicks her.”

(Source: Kathryn Kalinak, How the West Was Sung: Music in the Westerns of John Ford, 2007)

“This is also the section [the flashback sequence where Laurie Jorgenson reads Martin Pauley’s letter] that seems to contain contradictory ideological messages: the revelation of the savagery of the cavalry versus the racism of the ‘comic’ portrayal of Look, the Indian ‘wife’ Marty acquired in trade.”

(Source: Joan Dagle, “Linear Patterns and Ethnic Encounters,” John Ford Made Westerns, Gavlyn Studlar and Matthew Bernstein, eds., 2001)

“From the first misunderstanding (when Martin finds he has bought a wife instead of a blanket) through Ethan’s ribbing, to her leaving Martin when he kicks her out of bed, Look provides comedy, not the seriousness of theme that Debbie’s and Scar’s mixing does. But Look is justified in the end; after her departure, she may have gone back to another tribe to find information for Martin–we do not know, and it does not really matter.” [Italics mine]

(Source: J.A. Place, The Western Films of John Ford, 1973)

“Interesting here how Ford sets up the character of the Indian Maiden who’s a bit overweight and not that attractive and it becomes a questionable running gag in the picture. Some people have said Ford was insensitive in how he did it, but Ford doesn’t really endorse the behavior of the actors or the characters in this, but he does not flinch from showing their racism and their insenstivity to her. But then it also becomes touching, so it’s like the whole movie. The way they deal with this Indian woman is ambiguous….

“This of course is a sequence of questionable taste. Got a big laugh in the theater but I don’t know if it really makes you comfortable today. And I don’t know that Ford didn’t feel very conflicted about it himself.”

(Source: Peter Bodgonavich, DVD commentary track for the 50th Anniversary edition of The Searchers, 2006)

Read a little Ford scholarship and very soon you run across his habit of supplying each of his actors–even those playing minor characters–with ‘biographies’ of the character they were to play.

Who exactly wrote these biographies–whether Ford, his scriptwriters (at his behest) or some combination–I’ve never quite gotten clear on. Nor have I quite gotten clear on whether the biographies were a page or several, when the habit began, or how much Ford really insisted on his actors knowing what he (or his scriptwriters) knew about the person they were hired to embody.

What I do know is that if these biographies existed in the number that has been continually hinted at, and if, by some unlikely miracle, they could be assembled into a book, it’s a book I would pay almost any price to own.

And certainly one of the first characters I would want to read about in that book would be the “Indian Maiden” Look.

Absent all that, I’ll have to be content with throwing myself back on first things–having to settle for what’s in the film itself.

First I would like to point out–starting from the select, but representative, commentary above–that this is a limit scholars have not tended to put on themselves.

Almost always with Look, it is about how “we” feel. We, of course, being all us representatives of modern enlightenment.

Tag Gallagher has written (eloquently as usual) that we do not actually “see” this character called Look. “We” being the viewer and/or our surrogate white characters in the film: Ethan Edwards, Martin Pauley, Charlie McCorry and the Jorgensen family.

I think he’s right up to a point. That point stops when we get to the camera actually showing us this Look. You know, us “looking” at her.

At that point it gets tricky.

Is she really supposed to provide comedy “from the first misunderstanding…to her leaving Martin when he kicks her out of bed?” And is all this really not supposed to “matter?”

Is the point of her existence–in life, in film, anywhere–mostly to provide some combination of crude belly laughs and grist for scholarly misunderstandings and gentle chidings about somebody or other’s racism (yours, mine, Ford’s, white folks in the 1870s…or the 1950s…or…somebody)?

I wonder.

* * * *

One interesting aspect of looking at Look is that just about everybody agrees we shouldn’t be laughing at her and just about everybody also insists that there sure are a lot of other people who do–or at least who have.

We have the word of Bogdonavich and others that lots of people laughed in the fifties. I don’t doubt it.

Okay, actually, I do doubt it at least a little, but it’s certainly a valid possibility and I’ll buy it for the sake of argument.

Having said that, I don’t imagine many people laugh now.

Oh, sure, maybe when they/we see this…

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Or this…

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But, even taking into account that she’s only in the movie a little under twelve minutes from first appearance to last (and that includes her time as a corpse and as a reason for Laurie Jorgensen to throw Martin Pauley’s letter in the fire), this is but a small sample of her presence.

What about the rest of the time?

Would much of anyone–I mean anyone other than the people who will laugh at anything–be laughing here? In 1872 or 1956 or any other time?

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Or here?

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Or here, here and here?

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Let alone here…

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I mean even in the fifties, when the great American liberal conscience was still yearning to breathe free, did laughter ring from the rafters of movie palaces across the land whenever poor Look came on the screen?

I’m not so sure. How are/were we really supposed to feel when Martin Pauley kicks her down that hill? That is, how are we supposed to feel when we get to the crux here…

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…without which, incidentally, virtually nobody would be likely to think Look had been treated so badly that we needed to talk about it decade after decade and continually reassure ourselves that we certainly aren’t laughing at her (even if we allow ourselves to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, which is a somewhat different matter).

And without which, we also might be inclined to think of Martin Pauley–Indian blood and all–as Puritan True Heart.

I’ll have more to say about what Look’s presence (and their reactions to her) might signify for Martin and Ethan when it’s their turn.

Staying with Look for now–and that “sequence of questionable taste”–I’m put in mind of a movie-going experience that offers a strange but somewhat apt comparison.

*  *  *  *

Back in the early and mid-eighties–before the full weight of the video age had settled in–my local college theater was still running a regular series of arthouse fare. So one semester they had a weekly program of Bunuel and ran some of the then-hard-to-see usuals, including Los Olvidados. It played to a packed theater, as almost everything did in those pre- and early home video days, with film majors and like minded citizens of what I would have deemed a more than usually sensitive collective mindset. And, of course, not too far into the movie there is a famous scene (famous at least among cinephiles, though I doubt more than a handful of the several hundred people in that particular auditorium were prepared for it by either word of mouth or a previous viewing), where a gang of street kids take a legless beggar off his rolling cart and push the cart down a hill, laughing all the while.

With us being unprepared to say the least, the audience split just about equally into those who gasped and those who laughed out loud–much the way somebody would laugh at the Marx Brothers or better yet a good Saturday Night Live skit.

It was unsettling to say the least. Not just the scene itself, but even more so the very audibly split reaction.

Any laughter that took place after that was careful, guarded. I think those who laughed got the idea that others might be watching and, as I say, the place was filled with us sensitive types–a thoughtful group who were quite sure we were the last people on earth who could be divided into those who laugh at the casual consequences of human cruelty (that is, at anything) and those who don’t.

Very daring that Luis Bunuel was.

And he was daring. As daring in that short sequence as he ever was–far more daring I’d say than when he was having razors slit eyeballs.

But it wasn’t the last word in daring. I mean, the legless beggar in Los Olvidados is every bit as obnoxious as his tormenters. And while he is certain to be gravely inconvenienced, there’s no indication that the loss of his cart is permanent. “Look,” Bunuel seemed to be saying. “Look at the war of the rats, how terrible it is.” Or how funny it is.

I have no idea if Ford (or his screenwriter, Frank Nugent) ever saw Bunuel’s movie or that scene. I’d be surprised if anyone knows one way or the other.

So I’ll just note that–whatever gave him or Nugent the idea–Marty kicking Look down a hill is far more disorienting.

Here we have the very likable hero committing a truly unseemly, violent and frankly inexusable act against someone who has done him nor anyone else any wrong, has even earned a degree of sympathy. For Ford–or anyone–the act is, on its surface, supremely unbalanced.

This is not John Wayne dragging Maureen O’Hara through a field full of sheep dip in The Quiet Man (to take a Fordian example) or Cary Grant pushing Katherine Hepburn in the face in The Philadelphia Story (to take an example from George Cukor who was really supposed to be above that sort of thing). We know O’Hara and Hepburn’s characters have plenty of ammunition at their disposal to fight back with (sex appeal, familial and communal protection, firebrand spirits and, in O’Hara’s case, what looks like a killer roundhouse right if she could only connect with it). We might tut-tut, but I don’t think anyone is really under any illusion that they will fail to get theirs back, one way or another.

Look enjoys no such privileges, protections or expectations.

She is not being played by Katherine Hepburn or Maureen O’Hara–or, if it comes to it, Vera Miles or Natalie Wood.

She’s being played by an actress who, according to the usual online sources (IMDB, Wikipedia, etc.), worked for many years and received exactly one other on-screen credit (in a television episode of Wagon Train). The actress is, as Peter Bogdonavich describes her, “overweight, not particularly attractive.” She was also forty-three years old at the time of shooting–playing a much younger woman, presumably because Ford had one of his whims which, as usual, probably wasn’t really a whim at all, but a gentle chiding of his own.

Of our expectations perhaps.

After all, we know what we are supposed to think and feel about the stooge who is, however briefly, holding up the third side in a romantic triangle where the other two sides are being played by the supremely attractive leads.

We know what to think because the movies have taught us–or at very least reinforced our base prejudices.

Ralph Bellamy ain’t gonna get the girl!

And a female version of Ralph Bellamy–or Ralph Bellamy cubed (by age and social position and ethnicity)–ain’t gonna get her man!

So Ford invites us to laugh, if we will, at a modestly unattractive Native American woman who is twice the age of her character and is sold by her father (in the movie, evidently a Native American of his own time, who is thus unaware of his future status as a proto-feminist flower child in the raised consciousness of the modern liberal-who-does-not-liberate; on the set of the movie itself, a Southern Plains Comanche being played by a Monument Valley Navajo who was probably old enough to remember how much Navajos hated Comanches) for the price of a tall hat.

Then he has us stop laughing, if we will, when she is kicked down a hill, subjected to rough interrogation that borders on physical abuse:

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disappeared from sight, if not consciousness:

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then massacred by the U.S. Cavalry.

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Meanwhile, without us presumably noticing (certainly I haven’t seen her discussed much in this light, even though she’s probably been discussed more than any other thirteenth-billed character ever played by an actress who would work for years and pass away with a single official film credit to her name), he also gets almost impossible narrative mileage out of her.

Like most great narratives, The Searchers runs on triangles. Unlike most great narratives–even most great Ford narratives–it runs not on one or two triangles but on many.

I’m not going to bother counting them all–at least not yet–though I will note that they interlock with a congruity that is remarkable even by Ford’s own frequently astonishing standards.

Suffice it to say that, by being what she is in the movie (as opposed to the source novel, where she is young, beautiful and immediately spirited away by a young warrior–an episode, no more), Look herself creates and joins at least three such “triangles” (with Martin and Ethan, with Martin and Laurie and, ultimately, with Martin and Debbie, who Look may or may not be trying to find so that she can win Martin’s favor when she is cut down). Plus she illuminates or heightens several more (between Martin, Laurie and Charlie, between Ethan, Martin and Scar, between Martin, Laurie and Debbie…and that’s before we get into symbolic representational triangles of the sort favored by psyche-oriented modernists like, say, White People/Native Americans/Frontier, Slavery/Abuse/Decency and so on and so forth).

I’ll leave the latter to others because my own focus is on Ford’s characters as they actually appear in the movies he made. But the immediate triangles are plenty interesting in themselves, not least because Ford splits the difference here between image and reality (exemplified in the old question, raised by several Ford apologists who think that this particular mini-narrative calls for one, of whether Look, as she appears to us, is really just a projection of Laurie’s spite-filled imagination–a question that the movie doubles down on when Martin’s letter says Look, played by the plain-faced forty-three-year old Ms. Archuletta is “not nearly as old” as Laurie, played by the twenty-six-year old Vera Miles, signed that year by Alfred Hitchcock to be the very specific replacement for Grace Kelly….Hello, John Ford. Hello, Mr. Perversity.)

On the one hand, Look really is a helpless bystander in the game that is already being played (between Martin, Laurie and Charlie McCorry) far beyond her possible consciousness, let alone the one that will be played (between Martin, Laurie and Debbie, about which much more later) long after she is dead.

On the other hand–and this is where Ford is jabbing, jabbing, going far beyond where the clear boundaries of even the best script or the most perverse sense of humor could possibly take us–she is everything a man might want….except young and beautiful.

Despite his harsh laughter…

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Ethan isn’t really kidding when he says she’ll make Martin–or anyone–“a fine, dutiful wife”–a higher value, incidentally, in Ford’s universe than sex appeal.

Besides which she is clearly intelligent, faithful, loyal, hard-working. And, at least in the single moment where she is not being terrorized and speaks her own language, possessed of one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever recorded on film.

She is not sexually aggressive. When she lays down next to Martin, she carefully puts her back to him, so we can count her dignified as well–hardly a threat to Martin’s puritanical decorum.

She is also–unlike her counterpart in the novel, and certainly unlike Laurie or Debbie–down to her last chance.

If we look back at the frames above where she truly is “comic”, we find that they are interspersed with equal-and-opposite scenes where she clearly is not. Where, long before she meets her tragic fate, she is anything but a joke.

She is someone who could have had her life saved–perhaps even her existence fulfilled–by the simplest kindness. And she is someone who never finds it, who is never granted even this smallest of rewards or slimmest of chances. Not from her own people or from the U.S. Cavalry or from Fate. Certainly not from the film’s “heroes” who cannot, in the only moment that matters to her, meet even this least standard of civilized behavior.

So laugh or don’t. Watch who else laughs….or don’t.

And before you get too terribly satisfied either way, put yourself in Martin Pauley’s place and ask if you would have done it any different.

I doubt I would have. Maybe I wouldn’t have kicked her. And what a standard that is.

I wouldn’t have kicked her, my modern liberal self!

But I would have been just as glad to see her gone–and likely lingered no longer over her corpse.

With Vera Miles and Natalie Wood to worry over–in film or in life–I’d have not given her much thought, once I knew she was past helping me find the one so I could get back to the other.

I’d not have given her much thought even if, in my heart, I knew I was wrong.

Unless maybe John Ford and Beulah Archuletta made me keep looking.

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JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE….CHARLIE McCORRY

Actor: Ken Curtis

Film: The Searchers (1956)

NOTE: This is the first in a series of studies devoted–film by film–to an assortment of major and minor characters in John Ford’s oeuvre. If you’re asking “Why this approach?” or “Why John Ford?” I hope the posts themselves will ultimately provide the answers. I’m beginning with The Searchers for the simple reason that I’ve lived with it the longest and the closest…

I’ve known Charlie McCorry my whole life–and not just because he literally turned into Festus on Gunsmoke.

In my own world, he’s worn a half-dozen different names and faces but certain characteristics–besides his actually being referred to as “Festus” now and again back when the TV show was common cultural currency–remain constant.

Inherently shy, he tends to mask it by a show of boisterous, occasionally abrasive behavior. This includes a tendency to exaggerate whatever accent he was born with and a braying laugh that can fill a football stadium when he decides to unleash it.

His humor runs to the crude and obvious but is ameliorated by a spirit of genuine self-deprecation.

He is fiercely loyal to whatever rare authority he deems legitimate and–in the manner of all equal and opposite reactions–deeply suspicious of any deviance from same. This makes him a poor choice for captain but an extremely capable second-in-command, especially in small units (like, say, a Texas Ranger company). Capable, in part, because his trust will always have been earned–and because he’ll view any threat to his Captain as a threat to everything.

If it’s broke, he can fix it.

Once he’s fixed it, it stays fixed and, unless it’s in the practice of his profession, he will be deeply insulted if you try to pay him for it.

If it is in the practice of his profession, he will give you a price break. Unless he knows you really can’t afford it, in which case he’ll do it for free anyway.

He always has some special talent that surprises. This talent might range from playing a mean rockabilly guitar to doing beautiful, museum quality craft work (usually in wood or leather) to (as with Charlie McCorry himself) possessing a beautiful singing voice (which he not infrequently uses in the service of a church choir, though Curtis himself put his at the disposal of the Sons of the Pioneers).

He is slow to anger and an extremely tough opponent in any fight you manage to pick with him.

Judging by the quality of the women he ends up with, he is a formidable romantic rival.

No matter how many of his friends he outlives, his funeral will always pull a crowd.

Finally, because he is nearly always portrayed as a straight buffoon in American narrative–fiction, film or stage–it is not surprising to find him described by quotes like these:

“The subplot with Vera Miles and Ken Curtis becomes a bit more grinding every time you see the film.” (David Thomson, Have You Seen…?)

“A comically (even grotesquely) inappropriate potential partner” [for Miles’ Laurie Jorgensen] (Douglas Pye)

“Dumb hillbilly suitor” (David Grimsted)

“Country bumpkin” (Arthur M. Eckstein)

Preposterously yokelish” (William Luhr)

(All from The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western, Arthur M. Eckstein and Peter Lehman, eds.)

“An absurd booby” (Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford)

“Irritating,” “too coarse by half” (Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford)

“An oaf” (Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films)

“Gormless bumpkin” (Edward Buscombe, The Searchers: BFI Film Classics)

I could go on but you get the drift.

The only countervailing view I’ve found is J.A. Place’s insightful commentary in her The Western Films of John Ford–which judges Charlie McCorry by who he actually is in the film rather than by the response he is likely to draw from critics who might not ever best him in any other scenario but can very definitely out-type him. Doubtless there are other positive views somewhere or other but they certainly don’t add up to more than a tiny fraction of the intellectual scorn heaped on the character.

So, with this disconnect between image and reality fully established, let’s look at Charlie a little closer.

Outside of his broad accent–which is actually quite true to such characters in life, though Curtis was understandably reluctant to play him that way and expose himself to the inevitable tide of “sophisticated” commentary sampled above–the film makes no real distinction between Charlie’s qualities as a “suitor” and those of his rival, the movie’s hero, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).

In no way does the film Ford actually made–as opposed to the one many seem determined to run in their heads (sometimes buttressed by cineaste-level knowledge of Ford’s own dismissive on-set comments regarding both Curtis–his son-in-law at the time–and the character, which are no more meaningful in terms of reading the ever-contrary Ford’s intent here than they are elsewhere)–suggest Martin is a superior man, or a worthier object of Laurie’s affection.

There’s little to choose between them socially. Martin’s better looking to be sure, but, in Ford’s universe, surfaces are as likely to conceal as reveal–though he certainly never discounts sexual attraction (or even obsession) as a powerful motivation for both rational and irrational behavior. Charlie has more responsibility in the community, is clearly a good provider and a stable, respected presence (though Martin is hardly deficient in these categories–his long absence is for reasons that seem perfectly valid to everyone but Laurie herself, and is hardly a sign of waywardness.)

Even when they fight, it’s to a draw, with both men finally collapsing in exhaustion.

Tellingly, in a movie where the main character, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, is famously contemptuous of everyone and everything–and where his contempt is expressed directly, by look, word or deed, to Martin Pawley, Mose Harper, Jerem Futterman, Look, Laurie, Mrs. Jorgensen, Mr. Jorgensen, Brad Jorgensen, Nesby, Chief Scar, Ethan’s brother Aaron, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, Comanches, “Yankee cavalrymen,” women who “ain’t white….anymore” and, finally, Debbie Edwards herself–he has no confrontational scene with Charlie McCorry.

Even more tellingly, the scene where this might have been expected to take place–when Martin and Ethan arrive just in time to interrupt Charlie’s planned wedding to Laurie and where Ethan might have been expected to lay on something more than even his usual withering sarcasm, plays this way:

Charlie: “Marty with ya’?”
Ethan: “Yep.”

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That’s it.

Ethan does allow himself a wry smile and it might be at Charlie’s specific expense (as opposed to general bemusement at the overall situation he has walked back into). But he’s careful to save it until after Charlie has left the room.

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It is true that Ethan is wearied by this point, but he’s ready enough with his usual barbs when Laurie begs him to stop the ensuing fight (“Why? You started it.”), when Mrs. Jorgensen wants a better view (“Don’t forget you’re a lady!”), when Lieutenant Greenhill shows up (“Yeah, he’s a Yankee cavalryman.”)

Charlie McCorry is spared all this for a simple reason.

Ethan Edwards–and John Ford–knew him a lot better than your average film critic does.

Charlie’s real place in the moral universe of The Searchers is the place he actually tends to occupy in the sort of community the film depicts–the sort of communities that have to exist first in order for film, or film critics typing away (not to mention a lot of other things), to exist in turn.

He’s a guardian of order and his thanks is the usual–see above.

In addition to inspiring phrases like “gormless bumpkin,” an awful lot of typing has been variously dedicated to Charlie’s relationship with Laurie and even with Martin.

I’ve never seen a single word about his relationship with Ethan.

That’s certainly in part because the relationship is not exactly verbal. Though they are present in numerous scenes together, the exchange above is the full extent of what they actually say to each other….in the entire film.

Easy enough to understand how such a relationship can be missed, even by people who have a lot of time for studying such things.

But they do have one and it’s a long way from incidental.

It involves Charlie keeping watch.

What he keeps watch on is anything that threatens his community’s stable underpinnings.

The first time he starts keeping watch on Ethan Edwards–the very first time he pays him any extra attention at all–is early in the film, at the dawn of the original “search,” when Ethan shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche. Watch that scene and you’ll see that Charlie McCorry (left) keeps staring at Ethan long after even his Captain has turned away.

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Once he cottons to Ethan being a man who needs an eye kept on him, their relationship remains fixed–and silent–until Charlie is understandably forced to turn his attention to Martin near the end of the movie.

If Ethan chunks a canteen at Captain Clayton, everybody else watches the canteen….or the Captain.

Charlie (second from left) watches Ethan.

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The first time Ethan utters “That’ll be the day,” it is in defiance of Clayton.

The Captain gives him a long look before calling for the horses.

Charlie (right) gives him a longer look.

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Finally, in the aftermath of the river shootout that follows close on, Charlie–who we should note has been the coolest head in the fight itself, the only man who has remained entirely untouched by fear, rage, confusion or the pure elation of killing the enemy (again, quite true to his character in life)–is on his feet in an instant when the long-simmering confrontation between Clayton and Ethan boils forth.

Watch that scene and what you see is everyone present doing their level best to stay as far away as possible.

Except for Charlie (moving from the left).

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Charlie is at his Captain’s side in an instant, without the least hesitation–quite prepared to take on Ethan Edwards in that moment or any other where he has strayed across the line.

Just as he will be when Martin’s “Well, if it’s all the same to you Reverend, I ain’t goin’ to Austin.” finally makes him something taking Laurie away could not–the new threat to earned authority. Yes, Charlie’s response is given extra heat by his jealousy–but it’s what we would expect in any case if we’ve been paying attention–“You’re goin’ if the Cap’n says you’re goin’.”

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And I should add that this relationship between the “Captain” and Charlie is well earned. Earned for all the reasons mentioned above and best demonstrated by the fact that Charlie is the only one who consistently calls him Captain, as opposed to Reverend, (all of which, in turn, is maybe the reason the Captain is not likely to let anyone else tend any wound that shows up in a highly inconvenient location as a result of the “Yankee cavalryman” getting careless with his saber–in a scene that grates on many a delicate sensibility, though I’d call it a perfect example of Ford’s consistent ability to use the commonest devices, in this case low comedy, to delineate character and a put an exclamation point on a relationship that is no less important for never having to be spelled out).

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The measure of respect that Ethan Edwards drops into the only word he speaks to Charlie McCorry–a word spoken at the very moment when Charlie is about to be spiritually cuckolded and would seem most prone to mockery–is thus fully earned as well.

With the possible exception of Laurie Jorgensen, he is also the only character in the film who Ethan never makes the mistake of misjudging or underestimating.

He does not poke him or prod him or insult him or throw him on the ground or kick him square in the ass. He does not romanticize him. He does not underestimate him. He does not mete out any of the usual fates or judgments that otherwise accompany proximity to Ethan Edwards.

He does not mess with him at all.

Most of all, he does not speak to him until he’s spoken to.

And then?

“Yep.”

Ethan Edwards knew Charlie McCorry very well indeed.

He probably even knew that Laurie Jorgensen could have done a whole lot worse than end up married to him.

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