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Reversals of Imperial Fortune: From the Comanche to Vietnam

Paraphrasing Norman Mailer, after reading Andrew Stewart’s “Advertisement for Himself” in last weekend’s CounterPunch, I immediately downloaded his Taxi Searchers: John Wayne, Robert DeNiro, and the Meaning of America  and found it completely absorbing. Although I have a particular interest in the work of John Ford, I can strongly recommend Stewart’s book to everybody as a successful multidisciplinary work that is so hard to find in scholarly treatments of film. With so many film scholars focusing narrowly on auteur theory, mise-en-scène, tracking shots and camera angles, it is a relief to read a young film scholar who makes the connection between film and politics. Since the two films under consideration are deeply immersed in the big questions of race and violence, it is almost impossible to analyze them out of their historical and social context.

I had never made the connection between John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” but found myself saying “of course” after Stewart pointed out that both involve anti-heroes trying to “rescue” women who don’t really feel any such need. Another important insight found in Taxi Searchers is their proximity in time to two important reversals of imperial fortune. Ford’s film was made just two years after the French were defeated in Vietnam and Scorsese’s came out just a year after the Vietnamese kicked the imperialists out once again.

John Wayne, a major booster of the Vietnam war who made a wretched propaganda film about the Green Berets, played Ethan Edwards, a veteran of the Confederate army while Robert De Niro played Travis Bickle, a deeply alienated Vietnam war veteran who views New York as a virtual Sodom and Gomorrah. Implicitly, a good part of his antagonism is directed at “street crime”, which in the minds of most New Yorkers meant people of color.

Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for “Taxi Driver”, put much more of a psychological distance between Travis Bickle and the audience than was the case with Ford’s main character. Keep in mind that John Wayne was the prototypical Western movie hero who likely would be seen by many in the audience as having “saved” his niece from the barbarian Comanche. When Bickle decides to assassinate a liberal antiwar politician after being rebuffed by one his aides that he took to a porn movie for a date, that would make most people blanch at the one-two blow of sexism and psychopathology.

What Stewart brings to the table is an analysis of how these two troubled characters fit into the larger political landscape:

This ideological matrix can be understood when one understands the criticism of THE SEARCHERS regarding inter-ethnic coupling because of the inherent connection between the black radical tradition, Euro-American fear of property expropriation, and a psychological fetishization of notions of European feminine purity. And in understanding this reactionary element, the criticism of TAXI DRIVER and the insights regarding the psychology of the gun as a phallic symbol becomes much more tangible as a profile of the militia movement that has existed on the fringes of the Republican Party for the past three decades following the ascendancy of Reaganism. These two films are not merely comments on yesterday, they are prophecies of today and tomorrow.

Although I agree with Stewart that “The Searchers” is a searing indictment of white racism, I am not quite convinced that this was Ford’s intention. The film is based on a novel by Alan Le May that is not so nearly as dark as the adaptation. Le May also wrote a screenplay for “Tap Roots”, a film about the white-led anti-slavery revolt in Mississippi that was also dramatized in “Free State of Jones”. In Le May’s film, the leader of the revolt is depicted as a madman in much the same way that William Styron wrote about Nat Turner.

In a way, it does not matter what Ford thought since in many cases a film exhibits deeper truths about American society whatever the intentions of its makers. For example, “Invasions of the Body Snatchers” might have been intended as an innocent sci-fi movie but it reflected the paranoia of the Red scare.

Ford returned to the story of Comanches kidnapping of a white child that they raise as their own five years later in “Two Rode Together”. To start with, the films were based on a true incident. In 1836, the 10-year old Cynthia Ann Parker was seized by a Comanche band that had massacred her family. She lived with them for 24 years until the Texas Rangers “rescued” her and returned her to a white society she found lacking. Her resistance to her white “saviors” is reflected much more accurately in “Two Rode Together”, a film whose screenplay Ford reportedly despised. Apparently he made the film just for the money.

For those interested in this story and the larger story of the role of the Comanche in American history, I recommend an article I wrote for Capitalism, Nature and Socialism four years ago titled “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”. It is behind a paywall but I would be happy to send CounterPunch readers a copy. This excerpt deals with the Cynthia Parker’s attempt to get a white man who spoke her language to bring her back home to the Comanche:

If Comanche society was nothing but a breeding ground for sociopathic behavior directed toward others, one might expect a similar kind of brutality to exist within its own ranks, as would be the case with other “Empires” from Britain during the Victorian epoch with its 12-year-old chimney sweeps to Hitler’s war on the German working class.

That is belied by the case of Cynthia Ann Parker, the kidnapped white girl who was raised with the values and duties of a typical Comanche woman. As dramatized in John Ford’s “The Searchers” and recounted in S.C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon”, Cynthia Ann struggled desperately to return to the tribe. Anxious to get inside the 36-year-old woman’s mind, the Parker family called on a cotton agent named Coho Smith, who was fluent in Spanish and Comanche.

When he told her to “come here” in Comanche (Ee-wunee keem), the reaction was “immediate and almost violent”, according to Gwynne. He quotes Smith: “She sprang with a scream and knocked about half the dishes off the table, scaring Mr. Parker…She ran around to me and fell on the floor and caught me around both ankles, crying in Comanche ‘Ee-ma mi mearo,’ meaning ‘I am going with you.’”

Parker was not permitted to return to her people and even was forced back to white society after running away. Her only wish was to be returned to the tribe and be reunited with the children she was forced to leave behind. Eventually she refused to eat and died of influenza in 1871.

Someday a film will be made about Cynthia Parker from the native people’s viewpoint but given the state of Hollywood, I doubt it will be any time soon.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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