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.

Published in: on December 20, 2013 at 10:32 am  Comments (20)  
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  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.

  3. Yes. For as meticulous a visual artist as John Ford it’s hard to believe Scar’s blue eyes don’t signify something. He clearly seems to be Ethan’s mirror image in some ways.

  4. I too saw the same thing you did. The casting of Scar is too different from the casting of all the other characters and too obvious with those piercing blue eyes to have been either an accident or yet another instance of simple whitewashing. There’s both a parallel between Scar and Ethan with similar personalities (obsessed with vengeance, “practical” to the point of cruelty, etc.), and a parallel between Scar and Debbie both being captives who have switched cultures (but aren’t 100% comfortable with it). It also seemed to me that Ethan’s death intention for Debbie -mentioned before, but only casually- got really serious only after he recognized one of Scar’s scalps as being the dead woman he had had some kind of romantic history with.

    • Hi Chuck, Ethan tells Martin that one of the scalps was Martin’s mother. I understood it as his biological mother not his adoptive mother.

  5. I have seen this western at least 50 times. And I always walk away with a new lesson learned. Just like Shane with Alan Ladd, it is not the typical Western, but a movie that makes one think long and heard about any prejudices that one may hold internally and how the prejudices can be exercised in life as well as the consequences of giving in to one;s prejudices. The native people in movie this did not find Scar likeable but feared him, nor did the white settlers look upon Ethan as an enjoyable person to be around. Growing up, I always felt that Ethan would always be the person looking in at the lives of others from the outside. I really like your theory of John Ford’s motives and plots for this movie.

    • Thanks, Dola! It’s a movie I often find myself returning to, and like you, seeing something different each time. I get exasperated when people dismiss it out of hand. It really has a lot going on beneath the surface.

  6. I wonder how many folks know that Scar’s (Michael Brandon) first film role was as mean old Mister Barnaby, the villain in the Laurel & Hardy classic March of The Wooden Soldiers (Babes in Toyland). He was in his early twenties at the time.

    • Wow! Not I. Long career!

  7. Being a new fan to westerns and classic movies in general, you put a lot of context into the character of scar and Ethan for me. Thank you..

  8. This was a brilliant observation. I can’t believe this never occurred to me about one of my top five favorite films. Something always poked at the back of my mind about this casting, especially considering the presence of actual Native Americans in the other roles, and Brandon’s is such an odd and intense performance. Your interpretation makes it totally believable now and it falls into place. Thanks so much for increasing my enjoyment of this masterpiece even more, I didn’t think that was possible!

  9. I’ve seen Brandon in a few more films and he seems to have been regularly cast as an ethnic “other.” For example, he played a Polish/Jewish immigrant in a movie about the KKK (where Humphrey Bogart plays a Klansman). This doesn’t take away from the idea that he could have been a white, or half white captive in The Searchers. Jeffrey Hunter’s character was part Mexican and part Cherokee (and he was just as white as Elizabeth Warren). I do think Ford is playing around with ethnic ambiguity, with the idea that race and ethnicity are social, not biological constructions.

  10. It is interesting to note that John Ford cast Henry Brandon (Scar in the Searchers) as Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together (1961), the mixed-blood son of Cynthia Ann Parker (the real Debbie). That certainly points to the fact that Scar is supposed to be at least partly white.

  11. Great, mr Erdelac. It’s clearer now. Thank you.

  12. Do you think Ethan lived also with comanches til he escaped or something like that? Maybe Ethan and Scar were brothers… Ethan escaped and Scar stayed (i see it’s not possible but simbolically it seems. Thank you again.

    • That’s a really interesting idea, but I don’t remember any evidence that they knew each other prior, except perhaps by reputation. It’s been a while, though I remember the line ‘Plain to see how ya got your name’ in regards to his scar….could Ethan have given it to him a long time ago? Maybe, maybe not.

      • Thank you again!

  13. […] “You speak good Comanch. Someone teach you?” (Via Delirium Tremens) […]

  14. I love your theory and think it might even be possible that Scar’s casting was intentional. More than likely it was the “non-traditional” casting that existed back then of casting white actors for major speaking roles. The possibility that Scar was half-white seems unlikely based on info I found at http://www.native-languages.org/. The site claims: “Blue eyes, like blond hair, is genetically recessive, so if a full-blood Indian and a blue-eyed Caucasian person had a baby, it would be genetically impossible for that baby to have blue eyes. Blue eyes only occur in people who have blue-eyed Caucasian relatives on both sides of their family tree, and even then only some of the time.”


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