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.

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)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight The Critics

I’ve been against this new Lone Ranger movie since it was announced Johnny Depp was playing Tonto. You can read my initial reaction, and my personal take on the character HERE.

lone-bannerI had no intention of seeing this thing, but about a month ago, I accidentally committed what’s pretty much a hanging offense in terms of movie appreciation: I spoiled the ending of a movie (STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS) to a friend who had been looking forward to the thing all year, the very day before he was headed to the theater. It was an honest mistake (I thought he had seen it early, he sees a lot of movies early, and that we were talking about WRATH OF KHAN), but yeah, I felt pretty terrible, particularly as it was a movie I had no intention of seeing (I had read the synopsis). I told him I owed him, that he could name any fitting recompense. Knowing full well my resistance to the thing on a moral basis, he told me I had to go see THE LONE RANGER and talk about it with him on his podcast.


So I went into this thing with my arms firmly crossed, and I saw it in a theater I hate (because it was cheaper and closer).

Lone-Ranger-largeBut you know, I came away appreciating it. It touched the greatness of the original material at times, and everybody did a fine job. I was a fan of the movie REMO WILLIAMS as a kid, and having seen it on a crummy, blurry VHS tape with tracking lines galore, I didn’t figure out the Korean character Chiun was played by Joel Gray, a white guy, until maybe seven years ago. I still think he did a pretty bang up job, and Depp plays Tonto well and fine here. I still wonder about his Native ancestry and maintain somebody like Adam Beach or an unknown Native actor would’ve been more ideal in the part, but whatever. For the purposes of this piece, I’m gonna refer you to my previous blog post and ignore all that. For now, this’ll take its place alongside REMO WILLIAMS and GUNGA DIN, in terms of white characters in makeup that I grudgingly accept due to my enjoyment of the material.

410241-the-lone-rangerThe Lone Ranger is fun. It’s like SILVERADO. A high adventure, rip snorting bombastic shoot ’em up where the bullets are as fast and plentiful as the jokes. It’s a buckskin buddy movie.

It’s LOADED with inaccuracies, as I’ve read in criticisms all over the place. It’s 1869, but there’s cartridge ammunition flying all over the place (most guns were cap and ball black powder till the mid 1870’s), and the Texas Rangers go thundering past the distinctive mesas of Monument Valley, wayyy out of their jurisdiction. The Comanches range far out of their usual stomping grounds as well (and Tonto was a Pottawatomie anyway).

But consider this. Verbinski and company aren’t dummies. They displayed a love for pirate movies in the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, referencing everything from THE CRIMSON PIRATE to CAPTAIN BLOOD. The same thing happens here. THE LONE RANGER is full of homages to classic westerns. Tonto’s elderly makeup reminded me a lot of LITTLE BIG MAN from the get-go, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is referenced a few times, in the train sequences, and in the musical cues throughout.

The Searchers inspired?

The Searchers inspired?


Cue the Morricone.

Cue the Morricone.

Maybe I’m giving the production team a little too much credit, but is it possible these glaring inaccuracies were intentional? John Ford regularly told us Monument Valley was in Texas, and Leone had Tuco, Angel Eyes, and Blondie loading their revolvers with cartridge ammo in the midst of the Civil War. Heck, maybe even Johnny Depp as Tonto is a reference to all the white guys in redface that permeated THE SEARCHERS, WINCHESTER 73, and numerous other classic outings.

lone-ranger-review-butch-800x600And let me say, the ubiquitous William Fichtner, whose face I was amazed to see when I looked the actor up after the movie, as you see this guy in solid supporting roles everywhere, played the HELL out of villain Butch Cavendish. There’s a scene where he escapes from a prison train. The doors to the car open behind him to show his gang racing along side the train, and he steps out onto the saddle. For an instant he has this fantastically exultant grin, that was a spectacular choice. Wish I had a freeze frame of it, because he’s got this sense of rogueish evil relish that really made me dig the portrayal.

My biggest criticism about the movie is that Armie Hammer isn’t really allowed to BE the Ranger as we know him until the last twenty minutes. Up until then he’s as bumbling as his cinematic grand nephew Seth Rogen (as Britt Reid in THE GREEN HORNET – interestingly, Tom Wilkinson, who plays the rail baron in THE LONE RANGER, played James Reid in THE GREEN HORNET). Is there some PC fear on the part of Disney to let the Ranger surpass Tonto? I don’t know. What I do know is this movie’s getting the John Carter treatment. Like that movie, it’s much better than people are being led to believe, and it doesn’t deserve to bomb the way something crummy as say, THE WATCH, does. It’s not perfect. But it’s escapist western adventure. A fine fantasy.

But those last twenty minutes are sublime. Yes it’s completely unbelievable to have Silver racing along the top of a speeding train (or IN it), but when Hammer is trading shots with Barry Pepper (on ANOTHER train) and the William Tell Overture is blaring….

THE LONE RANGERThe Lone Ranger rides again.

Go see him before he rides off into the sunset for another twenty years.