One of the more notable lines in THE SEARCHERS is when Lars Jorgensen identifies “this land” as responsible for the death of his son. The exploration of this point is made further by Richard Huston, who writes “the buttes of Monument Valley are linked to madness” (Huston 97), much like how Robin Wood describes the New York of TAXI DRIVER as “the Excremental City”. All these scholars argue that the settings of the two films manifest and represent the psychological status of these protagonists. This existential threat created by the very landscape in which characters exist has its roots in American gothic literary norms and can also be seen in another work of a similar vein, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Though Travis Bickle rejects and vocalizes his loathing of the liberal sexual culture seen on the streets, “he is caught in a compulsive return of the repressed: even as he rails against ‘the animals’, his view of the sidewalk centres upon and follows a hotpants-clad woman” (Grist 166), returning again to the idea that Scar is Ethan’s scar and the psycho-sexual nature of his abhorrence of his niece.
One element that has not, to this writer’s knowledge, been properly teased out yet in previous academic literature is the racist origin of the Lone Star state. The nature of the secession of Texas from Mexico was informed by an American desire to preserve slavery while the Spanish government was seeking to abolish it. “Texicans”, to use Mrs. Jorgenson’s words, were pro-slavery militants who seceded from first Mexico and then the United States and joined the Confederacy so to preserve the “peculiar institution”. The fact the Reverend Clayton is also a Confederate veteran who is not discernibly ashamed or apologetic about his support for such racist efforts over several decades, for this writer, further indicates the racist nature of the Euro-American community Ethan returns Debbie to.
Kalinak has previously shown in her writing that the Confederate song Lorena is played on the soundtrack for both Martha and Debbie, making it effectively the film’s theme for idealized womanhood (Kalinak 123-125). I would argue that the use of Lorena also encodes racism and it serves as a marker of white supremacist patriarchy.
More about the connections between white femininity and white supremacy
- Washington State University American Literature webpage about captivity narratives
- Jone Johnson Lewis article about captivity narratives
- Interview with Elizabeth McRae, author of Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy on the New Books in American Studies podcast
The act of idealizing “white womanhood” has a covert element of white supremacy within it already. But on top of this is an extra layer of overt white supremacy inherent to colonialism.
There are further textual clues that indicate this point. Early in the film, Aaron, Ethan, and Martha sit around the fireplace of the homestead and discuss the “Todd place” and the Jamesons, who have gone back east to chop cotton, the staple crop of the Southern slave states and the Confederacy. The overwhelming point therefore would be that the Edwards family and their neighbors, such as the Jorgensons, are racist and that Ethan’s bigotry is not out of the ordinary as much as his anti-social behaviors, which can be attributed to his mental state as a veteran.
Coupled with this abhorrence is an understanding from TAXI DRIVER that can be applied to THE SEARCHERS with regards to weaponry.
The [oppressive male gaze] of their repressed protagonists leads to violence whose sexual reference is underlined by the characters’ phallic weaponry… In TAXI DRIVER this is reflected by Travis’s guns. When Easy Andy and Travis enter an anonymous hotel room, Travis immediately asks whether Andy has a .44 Magnum, the gun mentioned [earlier in the film] by the cuckolded fare. Not only is the pistol fetishized by a lingering tracking close-up, but Andy refers to his wares in lingering tracking close-up, but Andy refers to his wares in distinctly sexual terms (‘That’s a beauty’, ‘Isn’t that a little honey?’). The .44 Magnum is also the weapon intimately associated with ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan. Andy notes, racistly: ‘I could sell those guns to some jungle bunny in Harlem… But I just deal high quality goods to the right people’. Travis’s first fatal victim is in turn black, when he shoots a man holding up a supermarket. This consummates Travis’s awareness of menacing black masculinity (Grist 175).
Grist goes on to note how the black cabbie Charlie T. provides an important connection of racism and phallic violence to the gun by shooting Travis with his forefinger at the Belmore Cafeteria. Travis in turn mimics this gesture at the porno theater and while watching a black couple dancing on television. This and several other factors “renders critically apprehensible” the implicit racism of the Urban Western and also the wider Western genre (176).
This is striking when one understands the phallic and sexual nature of not just the gunfire in the Ford film but also how scalping takes on connotations of castration. Further, recall that Ethan kills the loathsome Jerem Futterman by shooting him in the back, a taboo in the Western honor code that now takes on a stronger set of implications with this phallic reading of the gun’s function.
The scene when Travis enters the Palantine campaign office and rebukes Betsy is instructive for one’s understanding of the thoughts in head of Ethan Edwards, saying “You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna die in a hell, just like the rest of ’em!” This notion of inter-ethnic coupling as a kind of damnation is a fascinating one to explore for several reasons. First, the resistance to such couplings was always couched in terms of Euro-American religion. Postwar Catholic schooling was a form of segregation, as was the use of ethnically-based churches located within blocks of each other. Euro-American Anglo Saxon Protestants like Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones, Jr. were adamant opponents of integration while the Ku Klux Klan couched their language and actions in the “defense” of Christian civilization. Second, African men were and are tainted by an ideological designation of ontological evil. The word “black” itself is loaded with diabolical connotations within white supremacist discourse.
But finally, consider this point. The Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton, the clerical figure of this story, was himself a Confederate soldier who “didn’t see you [Ethan] at the surrender”. Already it has been proposed that Ethan becomes an outcast due to his rejection of the homicidal white supremacist ideology. We can see Clayton as the high priest of this ideology, creating the theology of Laurie Jorgensons’s racist exclamation. Like Scorsese, John Ford’s Roman Catholicism informed how religion was portrayed on his screen, whether the religion in the picture is Catholicism or any variety of Protestant denominations. In this cosmology, we see Debbie, who indicates she has never been baptized early in the film, as not just a heretic but a kind of fallen angel, bearing the full implications of that designation that Lucifer carries. Grist describes this attitude as “misogynistic dualism which…structures female representation…and…the madonna-whore dichotomy” (177).
Speaking further to this issue, recall the riverfront shoot-out with the Comanches after the Edwards’ funeral. The Comanches sing a “death song” as Scar leads a charge that is meant, in Ethan’s words, to “save face” but which also has religious connotations. As they prepare for the attack, Mose Harper says a little prayer. Earlier, when told to make for the river, he tells Clayton “I’ve been baptized, Reverend!”