Ford’s use of John Wayne’s Star Persona in The Searchers

The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne’s star persona, in John Ford’s The Searchers, instructs the viewer insofar as much as it builds expectations about the character he portrays; Ethan Edwards. The importance of John Wayne as a star is captured in the title sequence at the beginning of the film; John Wayne’s name is much larger than his characters, although normal and expected in most Hollywood films, this seems to be indicative of the Hollywood star system that invests more heavily in the actor rather than the actual character.1. Viewers come to a Hollywood text expecting the same tough, charismatic, paternal John Wayne they see in his countless Western and War films; though in the guise of a different character he continuously embodies the attributes of American Culture seen as positive and inspirational.2.

In The Searchers the director Ford subverts this expectation as he manipulates our trust and identification with John Wayne. Wayne’s character Ethan is an overtly racist character, this is a continuous motif of the film, and his actions after finding an Native American grave support this. The scene starts with the traditional continuity editing technique of Match-on-Action; this ensures the movement of the riders between two cuts to different scene locations seem smooth. Ethan shoots the eyes of the uncovered dead Native American, indicating the bitter hatred and anger he has; this act dams the dead warrior to an afterlife, according to his beliefs, wondering the wind and never reaching his Heaven. This violent act, signposts the nature of the journey Ethan is wishing to undertake; he wishes to take revenge on Native Americans beyond death and into the afterlife. This eternal vendetta indicates the mistrust Ethan has in the Western vision of the afterlife and judgement – Eternal Judgement is meant to be Gods.

The play on Wayne’s star persona also helps to create a tension when Debbie comes over the hill to see him: the normal expectation is that he will save her, though he pulls out his gun to shoot her. This is the reverse that you expect from a John Wayne character, and in many ways Ford’s use of Wayne helps the critical vision of the film. Due to the popularity of Wayne we automatically associate with the central protagonist Ethan, but are constantly challenged, through his racist outbursts and violent action, to question our association with him.3. We are also, due to the foregrounding of his racist ideology asked questions about the inherently racist genre of the Western.4. The conflict which arises due to his overt racism can only be effective if it was at first an institutional part of the genre itself. Fords use of generic characterisation and the star system indicates his understanding of Hollywood film as a genre itself, which is more prominent in the Post-Classical Hollywood films such as Deadman.5. Furthermore this understanding ensures Ford can, within generic restrictions of Hollywood and the Western, make political and social observations on the way America conceptualises its present and past.6.

 

1. M, Pramaggiore. & T, Wallis. (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 355-372

2. D, Thomas. ‘John Wayne’s Body’, in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996), PP75-87

3. P, Cobley. Narrative, (London: Routledge, 2006) P69

4.  R, Maltby. ‘A Better Sense of History: John Ford and the Indians’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP34-49

5. Deadman. Dir Jim Jarmusch. Miramax Films, (USA) 1996.

6.  S, Hall. ‘How the West was Won; History, Spectacle and the American Mountains’ in I, Cameron. & D, Pye. (Ed) The Movie Book of The Western, (London, Studio Vista, 1996) PP 225-261

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Critique of the Western Genre in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

 Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man critiques the myth of the western, principally the westerns’ conceptualization of white American protagonist as a competent, fearless and free thinking individual. Jarmusch does this by exploring the generic conventions of the western and ultmiately by altering and subverting its traditions. The cinematic genre of the western is typically defined by it’s strong protagonist and setting. The environment or setting of the western is traditionally a spacious post-civil war frontier in the south-west of America. This setting is a mirror image of the central protagonist; the vast open isolated desert reflects the individualistic pioneering character of the western figure. The shot selection also further augments the feeling of isolation and rugged individualism. A convention is the use of the extreme long shots to portray panoramic, expansive open spaces – even when the film is exclusively from the perspective of the protagonist, this open space, which overshadows the individual, is prevalent. The fact the protagonist survives in this space is what makes him admirable; that the protagonist sits on the border between civilisation and the wild and survives (whilst others shrivle up and die) proves his rugged pioneering independence.1


If a traditional western protagonist is a tough pioneer, then Dead Man’s William Blake [Johnny Depp] is the antithesis. A symbol of virginal inexperience Blake jumps in fear at the government sanctioned shooting of buffalo, and is surprised at Thel’s ownership of a pistol. The short lived relationship between Thel and Blake highlights the feminine aspects of the protagonist. While in her bedroom she controls the dialogue, and it is her sexuality that commands the screen space and camera’s focus. Thel’s ownership of a pistol, symbolically phallic, is metaphor of her strength and dominance over the more feminine Blake; it may even be representative of his lack masculinity, a traditional aspect of the central protagonist in westerns is the ownership and ability with firearms. Blake doesn’t sit on the barrier of civilisation and the wild, but the barriers of masculinity and femininity.

As well as character, the setting no longer reflects that rugged isolated individual thought of as so admirable, the landscape is seemingly a representation of paranoia and neurosis. The form of Dead Man creates a close, claustrophobic vision of the American with close-ups, point-of-view shots and landscapes with vertical lines that splinter and fragment the screen. This reversal of generic convention foregrounds the error of the traditional perceptions of the west and conceptualized heritage of America. The west wasn’t a large expanse with a sparse handful of Native Americans littering the horizon but an area with colonists, nature and Native Americans in direct competition with each other for breathing room, Dead Man represents the colonists as the trespasser rather than as the trespassed. Most westerns, as in John Ford’s The Searchers, the Native Americans are represented as trespassers encroaching on in the homesteads of the European settlers. Jim Jarmusch highlights the cultural conception of the west as a rugged place of individualistic through manipulation of generic conventions, by exploring convention film becomes a space in-which a director can explore and expand on ideas of critical and theoretical principle.

1M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007), pp. 397.