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 (5)  
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Writing The West: A Reference Guide

Charles M. Russell’s In Without Knocking

I often write stories set in the Old American West which is why the adage ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really fly with me to a point. If everybody simply wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age or the Galaxy Far Far Away. Of course, the real interpretation of that saying is to find what you know and relate that to what you’re writing about. Tolkien was a veteran of the Great War, and the battles and reflections of the soldiers in Middle Earth reflect that to an extent. Robert E. Howard was an iconoclast living in a disapproving little town, and Conan’s ‘barbaric’ reactions to a decadent society are his author’s own. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

But when you’re talking about writing in a real place and time, you’ve got to do your research. I’ve said it a thousand times before. Slapping a cowboy hat on a zombie doesn’t make a weird western, and putting boots on your protagonist doesn’t make him a cowboy.

In the course of my writing, I’ve amassed a reference library of course. Writing to me is a learning experience, both in terms of craft and in terms of the settings I choose. I like to write about the past, and about other cultures, and to challenge myself by writing about things I don’t know too much about. Graham Masterton is an Englishman, but he writes stories set in the US.  If he does his job, you never question his birthplace.

For those interested in writing or just reading about the American West (and I mean the Old West of gunfighters and free roaming Indians), I have a core of books I always find myself going back to.

The New Encyclopedia of The American West, Edited by Howard Lamar – This is the jumping point for any story I write set in the West. In preparing the Merkabah Rider series, I read the Jews In The West entry, and in turn sought out the books cited there. This is an astounding (and thick) reference work with entries on most every state, territory, event and individual you can think of, dating from the early Lewis and Clark days through the waning of Tom Mix’s movies up to the recent present.  It opens with a handy timeline dating from 1785-1998.

 The Look Of The Old West, by Foster-Harris – I recently picked up this gem of a book to familiarize myself with western cavalry uniforms and accoutrements. Besides being written in an extremely present and familiar folksy style, its loaded with invaluable illustrations on every minute aspect of frontier life, from firearms to women’s wear and modes of transportation. It’s quickly become one of my favorite books.

The Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, by Bill O’Neal – This book is an alphabetical listing of the more notorious western gunmen with cross references of men they’ve faced as well as lesser known personas like William Blake and Heck Thomas. If they were in the west and they ever fired a gun at another person, they’re likely to be in here. There are some great lists in the beginning too, including a timeline specific to gunfighters and a ranking of the most well known gunmen in terms of kills, lifespans, causes of death, and occupations.

Forts Of The Old West, by Robert W. Frazer – A breakdown of military outposts of the frontier period arranged by state, with brief entries on the histories and uses of each.

 A Treasury Of American Folklore, by B.A. Botkin – This is a great potpourri of American frontier culture, including humorous stories and songs from the period.

Dictionary Of The American West, by Winfred Blevins – Another of my favorite books. An alphabetical listing of some wonderfully colorful terms from the American Western lexicon, including a great list of synonyms for the more popular pastimes (dying, getting drunk, getting buried, etc).

Cowboy Slang, by Edgar ‘Frosty’ Potter – I love hearing those western metaphoric sayings like ‘There ain’t enough room in here to cuss a cat without getting a mouthful of hair.’ I always wished somebody would collect them into a book. While I was at Yuma Territorial Prison over the summer doing research I came across this book in their gift shop, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to what I want. The entries are a little G-rated at times for my liking, but it’s still a pretty good book.

Daughters Of Joy, Sisters Of Misery, by Ann M. Butler – Before you go writing a peachy complexioned Miss Kitty swinging her legs on the piano, her heart of gold fairly brimming from her eyes, you owe it to yourself to read this book, the best I’ve found on the stark realities of frontier prostitutes.

In Their Own Words: Warriors And Pioneers, by TJ Stiles – A great book of first hand accounts from various individuals involved in the period. Includes excerpts from Geronimo, Custer, John Wesley Hardin, and Buffalo Bill Cody among others.

Conversations With Bushwhackers & Muleskinners, by Fred Lockley – Much like the book above, but more unpolished, and thus, a little more valuable. Whereas In Their Own Words includes stuff taken from autobiographies, Conversations is just a collection of anecdotes from plain old folks, most of them relative toOregon. But it’s great just to read the vernacular speech of the time and get a feel for it.

 The Encyclopedia Of North American Indian Tribes, by Bill Yenne – When I write about Native Americans, this is my starting point. A lot of people think of Indians as the Plains variety, all buckskins and feathered bonnets.  If you don’t even know there are some five hundred different tribes of Indians each with their own individual and distinct cultures, this should be yours. The color keyed map at the front showing the general stomping grounds of the various nations both prior to after white encroachment is worth the price alone, but then you get an alphabetical listing of tribes, detailing their languages and some of their customs.

 Saloons Of The Old West, by Richard Erdoes – Another of my favorites, detailing the evolution of the saloon from colonial times onward. There are some great anecdotes about Oscar Wilde’s forays in LeadvilleColoradoas well as information on hurdy-gurdy gals, dance halls, the prices of the spirits and what they were called.

The Encyclopedia Of Civil War Usage, by Webb Garrison – Like the Dictionary of The American West, but focusing on the War Between The States, invaluable if you’re writing about the time directly after, when the gunfighter first started making his mark.

 Age Of The Gunfighter, by Richard Collins – I cherish this book not for the general text on the more famous gunfighters like Billy The Kid and their theaters, but for the awesome annotated photographs of period firearms taken from theAutryMuseumand various private collections.

The People Called Apache/Mystic Warriors Of The Plains, by Thomas E. Mails – If you’re writing about either of these tribes, these books are indispensible. Mails writes indepth about everyday life and customs and includes brilliantly detailed illustrations of even the smallest ornamental items.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown – The greatest, most accessible history of white and Native American conflict ever written.

Black Red And Deadly, by Art T. Burton – A fascinating history of African American and Indian gunfighters on both sides of the law in Oklahoma/Indian Territory.

The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative Of The Negro Cavalry In The West, by William H. Leckie – THE book on the African American cavalrymen.

We live in a visual era, and the way the West comes alive for most people is through film. If you want to get an inspiring look at the West, I’d also recommend these pictures…

The Searchers

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

The Long Riders

Unforgiven

The Wild Bunch

Dances With Wolves

OpenRange

The Missing

Bad Company

The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Wyatt Earp

Tom Horn

The Culpepper Cattle Company

The Shootist

Of course if you want to be inspired creatively, you can always take a look at the spaghettis, but I’d confine myself to Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, and Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence. They have a look that although not always entirely accurate, is all their own.

I’d also recommend perusing the works of some western artists to get you int. Charles M. Russel, Frederic Remington are the two tops, but James Bama does some great western character studies, and I personally like Charles Schreyvogel.

Frederic Remington

Happy Trails.

Published in: on September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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To Hell And Back: Yuma, AZ And Beyond The Infinite

 Well True Believers, I’ve returned from my research excursion into sunny Yuma, AZ and the old Territorial Prison.

Yuma Territorial Prison. A nice place to visit....

Getting a jump on the perennial LA traffic my intrepid partners and I sallied forth in the early hours, talking shop most of the ride. Somewhere at the edge of the San Diego County Line I watched one of those birds that divebombs in front of cars speeding down highway smack into the windshield of the SUV in front, blooming from a dingy brown into a puff of white down feathers, as if it had been some kind of ethereal creme-filled confection blown apart by a gust of wind.

Ploughing through the feathers and ignoring the bad omen, we continued on to Yuma, AZ, called ‘The It Town’ by the Arizona Star, according to a billboard.

Had a great lunch at the historic Yuma Landing Bar and Grill, named not after the steamship landing as I’d thought, but actually the first airplane landing in all of Arizona, around 1911 or so. Pictures of antique aircraft decorated the walls, along with some very interesting photographs of old Yuma itself, even a few sketches of the old, old days (1880’s). The house speakers were cycling through some classic country – Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton. Plus they made a great burger. It was a pleasant dining experience made all the more pleasant by its affordability.

Yuma prison in its heyday.

Afterwards we headed over to the prison itself. Situated on one of two rocky hills which flank the Colorado River, the prison was erected in 1876 as the brainchild of a pair of local entrepreneurs seeking to draw revenue to the area. The place was planned out not by an architect, but a local contest winner, who got a $150.00 prize for his efforts. The laborers weren’t contractors, but the inaugural seven inmates, who were put to work building a plank wall on the north and east sides of the site to contain them, and some adobe cells. The iron doors were shipped in later via steamboat and unloaded by the growing prison population, who also hauled the sternwheelers into drydock, built the stone water reservoir and guard towers, and dug the stone and clay building materials out of Prison Hill itself. Initial temporary buildings notwithstanding, security was never a problem for Yuma (dubbed the Hell-Hole by its inhabitants) Prison. If one managed to escape the guards and scale the walls, there just wasn’t anywhere to go. The closest town was miles across the surrounding desert, much of it trackless Sahara-style dunes, and a group of local Quechan Indian line riders were kept on retainer to chase down escapees. 

In its 35 years of operation only 26 prisoners ever escaped, most of them during the supervised work details. 111 died of various causes, from tuberculosis (the most common way out of Yuma) to gunshots.  While there were no executions, punishments (other than daily sharing a cell in 110 degree heat with five other prisoners who only washed one day a week) occured, both confirmed and legendary. Would-be escapees were fitted with ball and chain, ‘incorrigibles’ were chained to an iron link in the floor of their cell, or flung into the Dark Cell, a black-as-the-pit stone room with a single narrow pipe in the ceiling for ventilation and light and an iron cage in the center.

Looking up the pipe and possible snake entry of the Dark Cell

Rumored punitive measures include tales of guards dropping rattlesnakes down that pipe, or filling the cemetary of stone pile unmarked graves outside the east wall.

I brave the Dark Cell.

The inmates of the prison varied in their criminal activity, from the man convicted of  ‘seduction under the pretense of marriage (which moral grounds aside, also translated to a concrete theft of property if you think about the dowries young women brought with them into matrimony in those days), to gunman Buckskin Frank Leslie, who rode with Wyatt Earp. In later years, female prisoners were incarcerated at Yuma, like would-be stagecoach robber Pearl Hart, and Elena Estrada, who, spurned by her lover, cut out his heart and flung the bloody thing in his face.

Prisoner's eye view out the Dark Cell

The prison population represented an interesting cross-section of America. Though the majority of inmates were white (and Catholic), the prison housed Mexican, Apache (including at one point Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl, the infamous Apache Kid – who coincidentally enough also spent time at Alcatraz, and was one of the aforementioned succesful 26 escapees, overpowering three guards and disappearing into a snowstorm with two other prisoners), Chinese, European, African American, and even African individuals. A placard at the prison breaking down the demographics of its some 3,000 inmates even claims to have included a single Buddhist.

The Sallyport: Main entrance to the old prison.

As stated, only a fraction of the original structures remain. The adobe wall is mostly gone, though the imposing Sallyport which served as the main entrance remains. Pieces of the wall are devoid of plaster and have been melted down by years of weather, though its a bit of thrill to see the bits of straw and stone in the old mud bricks which must have been packed by the prisoners’ own hands. You can walk in one of the cells, though the roof of the main cell block (atop which a hospital sat at one point) is now open air. The original guard tower over the stone water tower remains, and you can still walk into the Dark Cell and see the banded iron in the floor. Spiders are the only inhabitants now, and birds nest in the crumbling padlocked cells, the walls of which are scrawled with grafitti dating back to 1929.

Looking west at the prison from amid the unmarked prisoners' graves.

A very interesting excursion, which should prove fruitful in the Yuma-centered segment of the forthcoming Merkabah Rider installment, ‘Have Glyphs Will Travel.’

From the prison we attempted to find a series of old petroglyphs to the east of town, using only my buddy’s internet phone (I am in no way a technophile -I’m sure there’s a proper term and I’m probably mucking it up) as a guide. That proved fruitless, so we headed back to Yuma and took in the site of historic Main Street while we waited for the six ‘o clock showing of Thor.

I’ve walked through a lot of offbeat towns, but even the weirdness of Quartzsite did not compare to the strange feeling one gets walking a mostly deserted business district at four in the afternoon. Shop after shop was boarded up or closed early, with some signs proclaiming ‘Be Back Next Week,’ and one memorable and somehow slightly disquieting bit of signage declaring ‘Gone Fishing For Souls.’

Gone Fishing....

 

Walking Main Street, Yuma I felt like I was passing through a Lovecraft story. Three quarters of the closed shops were hawking dusty, strange antiques. We saw a moldy quilt patterened with Egyptian hieroglyphs. There was a turnstyle display with little plastic/rubber demon headed puppets hanging limply on the pegs. Peering through one dusty glass door at a Zoltar fortune telling machine (yeah, like the one in ‘Big’ with Tom  Hanks), we saw a seven foot tall chicken statue.  Faces peered back at us from behind cracked and dusty glass frames, antique photos of people I didn’t recognize, except for one of Annie Oakley. We passed an art gallery which had a cheery ‘Grand Opening’ sign in the empty window, the curling purple and pink balloon ribbons still hanging from the corners, and I smoothed back the eviction notice taped outside. Very depressing.

The most impressive structure on the street was a high brownstone and pillared affair. It too was closed. The faded United State Post Office letters across the top could still be seen. They’d been replaced by a set of austere stone letters which gave the name of some company I’d never heard of. Inside everything was taken care of, but again, they were all long gone by four. Looking up the company name on my buddy’s phone, we read a vague, impressive sounding list of the company’s purpose. Whoever there were, they were big enough to buy out the Post Office. The high iron spiked fence protected a well-kept lawn (which as anyone who’s been through that part of Arizona knows is no light endeavor) and two plain sandstone dais (es?), on which I imagined some Innsmouth-like employees of this shadowy corporation enacting God knows what in the dead of night during the vernal equinox or some such (worshiping the giant chicken from the antique store maybe?). Chuckling about it all away (but I think, dreading to see what this area was like when the sun went down), we scooted off to a showing of Thor at the amazingly reasonable price of $6.50, my companions whispering that the price was probably so good so as to entice people in. Then the screen would start flashing a dancing silver pumpkin head or something. 

Something wierd about the theater too….in a case in the lobby, dozens of coffee mugs and tea cups, all of them different colors, shapes and styles, each and every one personalized ‘to Cassandra’ by Hollywood celebrities, ranging from Jerry O’Connel and the gal with the eye makeup on the Drew Carey show to A-listers like Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and a big old green teapot inscribed by John Travolta.

Odd.

Well, Thor was alright. A great big beautiful FX show with some amazing art design, charismatic actors, and neat-o little asides to us Marvel-lites, but not much in the way of a coherent or engaging story (surprising considering J. Michael Straszynski’s name was on it). Oh and spolier,  to those who haven’t sat past the end credits (and you ought to know better by now), looks like The Avengers will be puzzling over The Cosmic Cube in their much-anticipated team-up movie.

We purchased a ticket for the last showing of Priest (because at 6.50 a ticket how could you not?) and headed over first to the Coolest Bar Downtown (that was the name I think) for beers, and then an impromptu excursion to a local Italian eatery (and more beers).

Night on Main Street and there were no dark tendrils reaching at us out of the sidestreets, nor fish-eyed pale skinned residents rising out of the broken old shops to snatch us off to be giant chicken feed at the big corporate bash. Not entirely complete turnaround, but it was lively. The clubs and bars opened up, spewing out endless monotonous loops of Hispanic dance music, and a crowd of teenagers dressed to the nines for the local promp diddy-bopped up and down the ave.

Once we were full of beer and calzones we’d seen all there was to see and returned in time for the start of Priest. I was engaged even in my stupor for the first ten or fifteen minutes. As soon as the hordes of vampires attacked the homestead, killing off ma and pa and spriting off the daughter, inducing the enmity of the girl’s uncle, Paul Bettany, I recognized the plot as being ‘The Searchers,’ which I thought would be interesting. Also the opening info-dump set protrayed in kinetic Gennedy Tarktakovsky (the man responsible for the REAL Clone Wars cartoon) animation had me going. But pretty soon the needlessly digitial vampires started showing up (a la the needlessly digital plague victims in I Am Legend) and it turned into a literal snore-fest for me. The last movie I fell asleep in the theater to was Patriot Games.

Well, we spent the night at a Travel Lodge and departed in the morning. The boys returned to Yuma Landing and I tried out a Mexican lunch counter serving Chivo Birria (Goat Stew). A little bit too boney.

We headed west and decided to pull over and take a look at the amazing dunes that comprise the north edge of the Sonoran desert.

Waiting for Shai-Hulud

We scaled a couple big ones, cracking wise about Arrakis and Lawrence of Arabia. I took a brief call from the wife atop a sandpile and that short exposure to the blowing grit filled my phone with so much Mexico it still grinds everytime I open it. The blow is pretty harsh, and literally gets into everything. I don’t know how the Bedou do it without goggles, but I could barely see when I got back in the driver’s seat, and had to flush out my eyes with Evian (which is all I’d use Evian for anyhow).

We drove on, and passing through the rockpile mountains outside of Jacumba on I-8, I spotted a stone tower high up overlooking the winding pass, so we decided to make another impromptu stop.

Resting on the road to Alpha Centauri.

Stopping only once more on the road up to see a Gray slumped over the wheel of his flying saucer, we stepped out of the car in front of the Desert View Tower into a bracing cold we hadn’t expected after all our time in Yuma.

The three story turret is actually a reconstruction of a similar building erected in the 1870’s to assist in ox-hauling freight. The current one was apparently constructed in the 1920’s.

Vaughn's Desert Tower

The caretaker got me with the rattlesnake eggs in an envelope gag, which was apparently an old one (but obviously not to me, because it scared the crap outta me). He then proceded to do the same to one of my companions and a boy who came in after us with his father.

Barbed wire skull on the wall

We scaled the winding staircase, observing various displays of folk art and taxidermy, cultural history, and gay love (yeah, it was some weird ascendancy thing. We went from mole skeletons and roaring boar heads, to celebrations of African and Indian Women In The West, to a pair of contruction workers suspended high over a concrete canyon deep mouth kissing), finally emerging to poke our heads out of the roof and be buffeted by hurricane force winds that swept over the rocky tops and down into the pass. It was like sticking your head out of a Southwest airlines flight.

After the tower, we explored the adjoining Boulder Park, with footpaths winding to heights higher than the tower and creeping underneath massive boulders, a good many of them handcarved and painted as if from sugar into whimsical animal shapes by artist W.T. Ratcliffe in the Depression.

Whimsy swiftly turned to horror.

We made our way up the switchback until we were overlooking the old tower, and spent a good forty minutes clowning in the buffeting wind, which you could literally lean against during the big blows.

"Be ye dumb rock or demon-born, I'll not be thy repast!"

It was a visceral, amazing sensation standing at those heights ‘surfing’ on a boulder, the wind flattening your clothes against your chest and legs, ballooning your jacket and trying to push you to your death.

Jeff lost his hat. A big surprise gust came and took the thing off and sent it turning into the wind, sailing down the mountainside. It was like one of those scenes in adventure movies, where they want you to get a sense of the danger by whipping a hat away and letting the camera follow it as it dwindled into the abyss.

Before The Hat Incident. We were innocent then.

We descended in a search pattern, building up the lost cap (a beige one at that) in each of our minds, thinking maybe if one of us actually found the thing we would be granted some unquantifiable boon for the remainder of the adventure, as if we’d pulled the sword from the stone or plucked up the Holy Grail or something.

But nada.

Lunch in Cardiff By The Sea at a beach cafe. I had fish tacos.

Then home.

Hasta pronto.

These guys were set up around the mouth of this drainage tunnel, but we dared not ascertain why.

 

Portrait of the artist as a hood.

Published in: on May 16, 2011 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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