Every Thursday evening recently, BBC Four have been airing a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It has been wonderful to watch a few of the classics, such as Doctor Zhivago. However, The Searchers was on last night, and it left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth.
Widely regarded as an all-time classic, this John Ford western has John Wayne going in search of a young woman apparently abducted long ago by Native Americans. I must say, though, the way the film is shot, with Wayne and co going off to deal with savage, backward ‘Indians’, appalled me. Viewed from Twenty-First Century eyes, the imperialism in this film is sickening. No attempt was made to explore things from the Native American perspective, but they were just dismissed as savages who had kidnapped a white girl and were bringing her up as one of their own. She thus needed rescuing. The Europeans, or those of European descent, on the other hand, were presented as noble, brave, and always doing the right thing: the settlers are depicted as out on the west, civilising it, trying to make a living for theirselves. Whatever faults they had (arguments, fights etc) were quickly, often comically dismissed. Wayne’s character in particular struck me as sickeningly racist and right wing, yet he is presented as heroic and brave. When he eventually finds the girl they’re searching for, she just flings herself into his open arms, no questions asked, no debate offered.
Perhaps at the time it was made, such issues would be taken as read; but viewed today, knowing what we now know about history and politics, so called classic westerns like this are shocking in their imperialism and arrogance. I know a lot more can be and has been written about this film, and, not having watched The Searchers since my undergrad days, this is only meant to represent my gut reaction to my viewing last night. Yet it nonetheless struck me as very problematic and dated indeed. I’m tempted to say that I’m glad we have grown past such attitudes, but I’m not sure all of us have.