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.

 

2 thoughts on “JOHN FORD’S PEOPLE…THE EDWARDS CHILDREN (The Searchers)

  1. Well done, Johnny! You have quite the eye. I have always believed that Ford was always drawn to (and drawing us toward) those who are ordinarily just off-handed characters in films. His own comments about the quiet, unassuming little man being the truly brave hero as opposed to more showy ones (in reference to soldiering) reveals much of his feelings this regard. Also his films that feature no great movie stars, but focus on ordinary, real people (Pilgrimage, Flesh, The Sun Shines Bright, The Informer, to name just a few).
    I think it significant that Ford often tosses important, pivotal actions typically executed by the hero to minor players (Francis Ford offs an unsavory type in The Sun Shines Bright; Chief Big Tree kills the arch-enemy in Drums Along the Mohawk…).

    How poignant it is to see little Ben in The Searchers trying to be a man (specifically to be like his Uncle Ethan, who seems to have supplanted his father in his hero-worshipping eyes for the time being) yet appearing more vulnerable carrying a sabre almost as big as he is. Another young man later in the film (Patrick Wayne) would also show his inexperience and need for protection (or to protect the Reverend backside) by the unwieldly handling of his sabre. These seemingly trivial details make for poignancy in retrospect. The death of the Edwards children, unseen and sudden, reminds me of that of young James Earp (Tim Holt) in My Darling Clementine. Your analysis of the character arcs is lovely…something I am sure I would never have been able to pin down, yet I can see how they make the family—each member—fully rounded, real people.

    I’ve shared your article on my site’s FB page and will add a link to the main site reference section, I hope you don’t mind.

    • Please share away! Just FYI, feel free to link anything you want anytime. Believe me it’s my honor to be recognized on your site.

      Great point about Lt. Greenhill! I hadn’t actually picked up on that little detail he shares with Ben! (and yet now it seems so clear!)…And while I’m not going to do the Lieutenant specifically it’s a testament to Ford’s narrative capacity that I could, even though he’s something like the sixteenth most “important” character in the movie. I’ve really never found that kind of specific narrative depth in anybody else’s films–that real sense that everybody matters. (Hard for me to judge foreign films admittedly, as I don’t speak the languages and language is such a major part of character). Frankly, though,I’m not even sure it exists at this level in novels. If so, it’s a long way from common.

      I’m planning to do Aaron and Martha next (probably as a tandem, rather than separately) and I’m already fascinated by the ways their story, which takes place in the very same part of the movie, links to their children but each one has a separate arc as well…not to mention their relationships to Ethan!

      Hopefully it won’t take me six months to write. For some reason, this one was a toughie! (lol)

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