Since you’re barely five minutes into The Searchers when it’s firmly established that John Wayne hates people of color and wishes they were all dead, and he’s the hero of the film, I’ll just assume that its safe to call Ford’s opus politically “questionable.” But beyond glorifying racially charged violence, the film is also interestingly obsessed with discipline. During a Comanche raid, Ma keeps the children in line through ignorance–not telling them about the impending Indian attack, because they won‘t be able to handle it–and then violence, slapping the older daughter when she finds out and can’t handle it. As she visibly struggles to keep her own fear in check, it is necessary for her husband to discipline her, and as he‘s rushing to their rescue John Wayne kicks Mose in the rear for being a figure from the minstrel tradition and leaves Martin in the dust for being impetuous and getting his horse killed, or something. In fact, on a meta-level, even the badness of the acting actually adds to the movies often-misogynist disciplinary project: when an actress screams in the face of an Indian attack, for example, and John Wayne slaps her for her histrionics, we feel a sense of relief, for as her excessiveness is punished (as all excesses should be) we find that we, too, are being brought to agree.
So there’s all that. But what occurred to me as I was watching the film is how it fits into a comparison I’ve been thinking about between Heart of Darkness and A Few Good Men. Bear with me for a minute here.
Chinua Achebe famously called Heart of Darkness a racist novel, and there’s almost nothing he says in that essay that I don’t basically agree with. But that kind of sweeping indictment does surprisingly little to actually explain the kind of work the book is doing. “Racism,” after all, simply isn’t a helpful description, here, the same way words like “fascist” or “capitalism” or “empire” tend more to obscure than clearly explicate. A Few Good Men, it is safe to say, is not exactly “racist,” but that doesn‘t really get us anywhere: saying the movie is not racist does exactly as little for you as saying Heart of Darkness is.
What The Searchers, Heart of Darkness, and A Few Good Men all do have in common is an intense concern with discipline “out there”: when “our” people go “out there,” they sometimes go a little crazy and need to be checked up on. Most Americans didn’t know as much about Guantanamo when A Few Good Men was made as we do now, of course (nor was there as much to know), but the problem of Jessup is that he’s been standing on that very wall in Cuba a little too long, been a little too deep in the cold war trenches, and has gone a little bit troppo. Kurtz, similarly, had lost sight of the ideals of which he was once a shining example, and when he builds a brutal fiefdom in central Africa, doing things like putting skulls on posts and having sex with black people, the dilemma is how to haul him back, which the Apocalypse Now version makes explicit.
Yet one of the more subtly disturbing things about Heart of Darkness is that it is not precisely a anti-colonial text, full stop, but a very specifically polemic against the Belgian Congo. In that sense, Conrad was squarely in the middle of a well established network of London based activists who very successfully made King Leopold‘s Congo a watchword for bad colonial management, as opposed to good colonial governments in the parts of the map painted British red (places where, as Marlowe puts it, “you knew real work was being done”). A rule of thumb for comparative colonialisms is that the weaker the colonial power, the more brutal they had to be to enforce their rule. Great Britain, Germany, and France, for example, could build schools and roads because they had enough liquid capital to make long-term infrastructural investment profitable. Portugal, Italy, and Belgium, however, did not, so instead of using modernization as a carrot to draw Africans in, they had to use a variety of “sticks” to prevent African labor from opting out. The Belgians, for example, made piles of human hands when rubber production quotas weren’t met, and the pictures of these enormous mounds (which London based activists made sure were widely publicized) is clearly in the back of Conrad’s mind when he illustrates Kurtz’s “methods” in the Congo. So, because it’s a specifically Belgian method that’s being critiqued in the book (“no method at all,” as Marlowe puts it), only the kinds of brutality that weak colonialisms resorted to are really under attack.
The British model of colonial development, unexamined and left offscreen, shines by (non)comparison. And in A Few Good Men, the glamorous Army lawyer Tom Cruise serves to distinguish the good American imperialists from the bad ones, reminding us that the military isn’t all a bunch of crazy cold warriors and that today’s Armed Forces can be glamorous and exciting and moral and racially integrated. Together, the film proclaims, we can all learn a valuable lesson about standing up for the weak, in this case, a “weak” character who just happens to be the brownest character in the movie (and the most dead). Jack Nicholas repeats over and over again that lack of vigilance will cost lives, but he’s not so much wrong as he is outdated; the cold war is over, and a new kind of American power beckons, a Top Gun where no one needs to die. The real problem is how to teach valuable lessons, how to make brown people like the deceased into soldiers and how to make black people respect their white superiors (watch the movie’s last scene, where Tom Cruise gets his salute, and tell me I’m wrong).
This commitment to an attractive kind of imperialism is the key, for both Heart of Darkness and A Few Good Men: regulate the bad apples, they say, and then we’ll get down to business of ruling the world, to make it a place where “real work” can be done. But while The Searchers is the most blatantly racialist of the three, you have to acknowledge that Ford did not think John Wayne was the wave of the future. Instead, Wayne’s Ethan is a cranky old un-reconstructed ex-confederate who kills people, and you’re nice to him mainly because he might kill you if you’re not. So even he drives the film with his charisma, his violent baggage also becomes the film’s main problem: what the heck do you do with this guy?
Ostensibly, the plot is about John Wayne’s niece being abducted by Indians (“Comanch” as the Duke puts it), and his long search to recover her. But the movie gets interesting after a few years of searching have passed, and you realize that the search is no longer about getting her back again. By now, everyone in the film silently realizes, somewhere off screen, the young niece has come of age and the unspeakable has happened. And so, with the threat of miscegenation silently become fact, the mission changes: instead of rescuing her, Ethan (John Wayne) wants to kill her. Because of this Ethan becomes the problem that the film has to solve, and just as the film has to figure out a way to re-incorporate him, it has to figure out a way to incorporate Indians, to figure out a kind of metaphorical miscegenation we can accept.
This is, in other words, a different kind of imperialism than the blood-obsessed white supremacy that Ethan carries back with him from the confederacy; it’s not about exclusion but about inclusion. So, the movie’s romantic “hero” is Martin, the rescued child of a miscegenous union, who over the course of the proves himself to be “white” (and is thus allowed to breed with the film’s other heroine) even if he isn’t quite “white.” At first, Ethan is incredibly hostile to him, and he contemptuously says things like “that’s the injun in ya” when Martin thinks they’re being followed. But in that case they actually are being followed, and in the end, Ethan not only makes Martin his heir but he abstains from killing Natalie Wood for the crime of having been raped. What a guy!
And maybe this is where The Searchers is a little different than Heart of Darkness or A Few Good Men: while Jessup and Kurtz both dominate their respective texts, they are, ultimately, the things that have to be put aside, in order to make way for the good imperialisms. Kurtz has to die, so that Marlowe’s can be how to remember and misremember him. Jessup has to be put out to pasture so that Tom Cruise’s triumph can bring to completion the movie’s quasi-oedipal generational story, where Cruise takes the place of his real father (who was a famous careerist or something) by defeating the “old man” Jessup. Kurtz put heads on fence-posts to boost production while Jessup ran “code-reds” that left Private Santiago dead, and so, for the good of the empire, they had to be pulled back. This is a problematic thing in its own right. But I’m unable to put The Searchers aside, just yet: John Ford may have a long history of quasi-confederate sympathies, but here, he can’t put John Ford, and the legacy of racism he represents, aside. He wants to reform him, to change him, and to update him. I’m not sure if this is better, of course, but it is different. Heart of Darkness and A Few Good Men hold out the possibility of a clean, pressed, and civilized empire, the possibility that empire can start from scratch having discarded the bad old days. By making Wayne both the hero and a very impartially reconstructed confederate, Ford at least seems to recognize that not much can really change; you can try to reform him, but he’s still John Wayne.