The Searchers: Why Scar Is Played By A White Guy

013-Debbie-Cowering-In-Cave-The-Searchers-1956So this I’m posting this as a gut reaction-response whatever to something this critic said in his article on re-evaluating classic films.

The merit of the whole thing is a bit dubious to me.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/dec/19/why-re-evalute-films-once-great-queenan

If you think The Maltese Falcon is boring and 2001 is endless…well, OK. That’s a matter of taste I guess, though I personally question the prowess of a self professed film critic who touts Dirty Dancing over any of those (and I like Dirty Dancing).

Anyway, the thing that stuck out to me was a criticism I hear leveled at one of my favorite movies, John Ford’s western, The Searchers.

Ethan kissing his brother's wife...Ward Bond is obviously aware of the situation.

Ethan kissing his brother’s wife…Ward Bond is obviously aware of the situation.

The Searchers is much more complex then modern viewers tend to give it credit for. It’s a nuanced study of racism, with the central concern being John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards relentless pursuit of his niece Natalie Wood, who has been kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Ethan is of the school of frontier thought that posits she may be better off dead than in the arms of ‘a Comanche buck.’ While his intent seems to be clear, his main motivation is revenge against the ones who killed his brother’s wife, a woman he obviously had some history with prior to the war. He is in fact wrestling with just what he intends to do with his niece once he finds her.

Now newcomers to The Searchers often complain about the folksy trademark Ford humor not gelling with the gravitas of the rest of the film. I can understand this criticism.

What I don’t get is the near universal critique of the Comanche antagonist Chief Scar being portrayed by white German American actor Henry Brandon. People say it undercuts the stance against racism which the film portends to take.

I’ve searched the internet, and I’m amazed to find nobody saying what I’ve always suspected about Brandon’s casting.

Scar wasn’t born a Comanche.

He’s a white captive inducted into the tribe.

Blue eyed Cynthia Anne Parker with one of her Comanche children

Blue eyed Cynthia Anne Parker with one of her Comanche children

Historically, this kind of thing happened all the time on the frontier – and John Ford was an avid student of western history. He knew about Cynthia Ann Parker who was captured by Comanches as a girl, and her half Comanche son Quanah who rose to prominence as a chief of the Kwahadi band in the 1870’s. In fact, I’ve read western historians who’ve remarked on the similarities between The Searchers and the Parker story. The original writer of the story The Searchers was based upon certainly knew it.

But you don’t need to be a western history buff to see this. It’s plain in the movie.

scarScar has bright blue Peter O’Toole eyes. Of course he’s obviously a white man. He’s not supposed to be an Indian.

In a picture where every other Native American on screen was portrayed by Navajo extras and Mexicans were played by Mexican actors, not Burt Lancaster or John Saxon with shoe polish in their mustaches, doesn’t anybody think John Ford’s casting of the main antagonist would’ve been deliberate?

The notion that Scar is a white man is further born out in an exchange between Ethan and Scar after their first face to face meeting.

“You talk pretty good American,” Ethan growls, “for a COMANCH.” (Wayne’s own emphasis)

and Scar

“You speak pretty good Comanch.”

11_the_searchers__Blu-rayEthan Edwards knows Scar is a white man raised by Comanches. Scar is everything Ethan hates. What he doesn’t want his niece to become, what he himself, it can be argued, is in danger of becoming It’s foreshadowed in his reaction to the two slightly crazed white captives he finds with the cavalry earlier in the picture (women who are not crazy because they’re Comanche, but, judging from the one woman’s reaction to the doll, likely bore witness to a cavalry massacre). It’s been theorized elsewhere that Ethan has some unknown past with the Comanche perhaps prior to the war. His fringed rifle scabbard and ability to speak to the Indians or at least comprehend their language is evidence of this.

Scar being a white man feels to me has always felt like a deliberate choice by Ford which adds another layer to every bit of dialogue between Wayne and Brandon, another level to the entire movie.

Apologies if I’m mistaken and this has been posited elsewhere.

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Published in: on December 20, 2013 at 10:32 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Well done, Ed

  2. I suspect you might be on to something. Considering the incredibly subtle filigree Ford applied to this film in other aspects, it would not be surprising to learn that this was deliberate. If nothing else, it’s a more thoughtful approach to the question than Mr. Queenan took.

    • Thank you Jim. And I should point out of course that this is my opinion. I’m not privy to any notes by Ford or anything. It’s just an interpretation I developed early on and always took for granted as being the intent.


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