David Brooks completely misinterprets The Searchers

David Brooks was probably feeling very smart and intellectual and clever when he posted his most recent column. He links a great John Ford Western with a look at manhood today in America; he covers current unemployment stats, reflects on boy culture and school culture; he quotes the American Enterprise Institute along with lines from The Searchers. It's all in there.

The column is a muddled mess.

He opens with a rather vast claim: "As every discerning person knows, The Searchers is the greatest movie ever made."

Now I think we can say that discerning people know The Searchers is one of the greatest movies ever made. [I make that claim myself here.] But to assert as fact that it is the very greatest film ever made and to note that if you don't get that fact, you are not a discerning person - which is disdainful and argumentative - is perhaps not the best way to open this column.

He goes on to note that the close of the West has left American manhood in a perilous state:

"Classics can be interpreted in different ways. These days, The Searchers can be profitably seen as a story about men who are caught on the wrong side of a historical transition.
"The movie’s West was a wild, lawless place, requiring a certain sort of person to tame it. As the University of Virginia literary critic Paul Cantor has pointed out, that person had prepolitical virtues, a willingness to seek revenge, to mete out justice on his own. That kind of person, the hero of most westerns, is hard, confrontational, raw and tough to control.

"But, as this sort of classic western hero tames the West, he makes himself obsolete. Once the western towns have been pacified, there’s no need for his capacity for violence, nor his righteous fury."
[It seems Brooks has missed coverage of a high profile trial in Sanford, Florida - the trial that gave us a hotly debated verdict on Sunday. It appears that we in America remain fond of those "prepolitical virtues" - that "willingness to seek revenge, to mete out justice on (our) own." And why does Brooks say it can "be profitably seen...?" What does "profit" have to do with this movie review? Or does the conservative mind only value something within the context of "profit?"]

Edwards is a Confederate veteran. He accepts the Southern perspective that misegenation is a tragedy - that mixed blood is something that must be wiped out.

The late, great Roger Ebert notes in his review of The Searchers that:
"The film is about an obsessive quest. The niece of Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is kidnapped by Comanches who murder her family and burn their ranch house. Ethan spends five years on a lonely quest to hunt down the tribe that holds the girl Debbie (Natalie Wood)--not to rescue her, but to shoot her dead, because she has become “the leavin's of a Comanche buck.” Ford knew that his hero's hatred of Indians was wrong, but his glorification of Ethan's search invites admiration for a twisted man."
Of course Brooks, an American conservative, admires this twisted character. In the mind of Brooks, Ethan Edwards is morally ambiguous, but not necessarily "twisted." For Brooks, Ethan Edwards is a powerful symbol of the kind of man that made this nation great, a man whose work made his kind of man "obsolete."

And this brings us to the fact that we have this terrible male-focused unemployment problem in America. There's this shift in our culture:
"Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues. Now, thanks to a communications economy, they find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues."
And in a world that requires cooperation, men who aspire to be Ethan Edwards find themselves blocked from this brave, new world. As Brooks notes:
"There are millions of men on the threshold. They can see through the doorway to what’s inside. But they’re unable or unwilling to come across."
Brooks looks at Ethan Edwards and sees a hero. In his mind, clogged as it is by conservative mind-speak, Brooks fails to see as Ebert does that with The Searchers, "...Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide."

And quite frankly, the world is a better place when Ethan Edwards becomes obsolete. It's unfortunate that conservative thought-leaders do not realize this.


SJ Reidhead said…
It's a total mess because Cantor is a fool, and Brooks is an idiot for using his flawed work. "The Searchers" is a masterpiece. It is heart-breaking. It is also not intended to be social commentary. It was a good yarn that John Ford figured would make a profit. It's not even about genocide. It's a story. There are those who try to make base it on fact, on history, but Ford was quite good at mangling things. He did what he needed to do in order to make a better movie. For anyone to read social commentary into something where social commentary is just not needed is futile.

The worst of it is that Cantor's version of Ethan Edwards is wrong, flawed. He pictures a man, at the end, who cannot exist in the civilized world. That's a pile of you know what. These men did quite well, and were far less racist and less interested in genocide than their 'civilized' counterparts. Men like that had a tremendous amount of respect for their 'enemy'. The high-handedness and genocide against the Native Americans came from Washington, and promoted by incompetent political appointees who were horribly corrupt. Eventually, men like this, those who survived, became some of the greatest advocates for Native Americans, against the government and how they were being treated. Then again, some were barbarians. They were human - nothing more and nothing less. They were also far more enlightened that we are, today.

The Pink Flamingo
Wayne created a career defining that mythic Western man who needs no one and solves every problem, usually with a gun. What fascinates me about The Searchers is that in this movie, John Wayne portrays the anti-John Wayne hero.

Ethan Edwards is a man whose "rugged individualism" cripples him from being a true man. That's what Brooks fails to understand.

In The Searchers, it seems to me that Ford shows how flawed the American Western mythology really is. It's not an ideal to strive to reach; it's an extremely flawed way to live a life.

So to compare the threshold modern unemployed men of the 21st century are peeking over with the threshold Edwards refuses to cross is a bizarre narrative - one that fails completely to make a coherent point.

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