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November 2, 2010

Reel Injuns on the Big Screen

Documentary, airing tonight on PBS, explores Hollywood treatment of Native Americans


I've never seen John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), but after watching Reel Injun, a PBS documentary airing tonight, I'm pretty sure I don't ever want to.

Reel Injun, part of PBS's stellar Independent Lens series, explores Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans through almost a century of film -- a period in which American Indians slowly evolved from the reviled savages who must be killed to the fascinating natives that they are. The documentary, directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, looks at how the myth of “the Injun” has influenced the world’s understanding – and misunderstanding – of Natives.It includes interviews with Clint Eastwood, Jim Jarmusch, Sacheen Littlefeather, and others.

During the extended Indians-as-bad-guys segment, a clip from The Searchers, directed by John Ford, is shown. In the movie, Wayne plays a man whose niece is kidnapped by Comanches who murder her family and burn their ranch house. It's certainly reason for righteous anger, perhaps even revenge. But a scene where Wayne and his comrades dig up a freshly buried Indian is especially troubling. After desecrating the grave, one of the white men lifts a huge rock and smashes the dead Indian's face; the blow itself isn't shown, but implied.

Then Wayne's character, on horseback, says, "Why don't you finish the job?" He pulls out a pistol and fires two shots into the dead Indian's face, then says, "Ain't got no eyes, he can't enter the spirit world. He has to wander forever between the winds." Oh. My. Goodness. I was aghast.

Critics have pondered whether audiences saw the act -- and Wayne's character overall in the film -- as racist, but as Roger Ebert noted in his 2001 review, "Is the film intended to endorse their attitudes, or to dramatize and regret them? Today we see it through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians."

Today, we can watch this documentary through enlightened eyes as well. And it's an eye-opener. But it's not all bad; the film acknowledges such films sensitive to Native Americans as Dances With Wolves and others since 1990.

And there's even humor. The filmmakers snicker at the notion of white people playing Natives (see Chuck Connors as Geronimo, top left). And in an interview with an old Navajo couple that had once played extras in some old Westerns, the filmmaker learned that many Natives would go "off script" when interacting with their white counterparts in a film. "No one ever bothered to translate," says the narrator, with a pregnant pause, "until now."

A clip is shown from 1964's A Distant Trumpet in which a U.S. Calvary Lieutenant is questioning an Indian chief.

"If I do not return," the white man says, "General Quaint will find you. And you will be dead, and all your people."

The stoic chief answers in his native tongue -- and in 1964, there were no subtitled translations. But now there are: "Just like a snake," he says, "you'll be crawling in your own s***."

Responds the lieutenant without blinking, "No, he is NOT a fool. You are!"

Check out the trailer here:


Please don't judge The Searchers without viewing the entire film. The scene in question is there to show Wayne's hatred of the Indians. It makes his ultimate actions at the end that much more powerful.

I'd encourage you to watch the wonderful documentary "Directed by John Ford." He was anything but anti Native American. He employed many of them and was one of the first to cast actual Native Americans in his films.

The Searchers is one of the finest westerns ever made. It's so much more than a mindless revenge film.

Let's not romanticize the Native Americans either. The Comanche tribe was one of the most brutal cultures known to man. They regularly raped, kidnapped, tortured and murdered their enemies. They essentially committed genocide on whole tribes of Native Americans. This a very complex history, so please don't fall victim to the Dances With Wolves, noble savage, view of history. There was plenty of savagery to go around. In our fallen world, history is ugly, brutal and never black and white. I think that's what the Searchers is trying to say. Check out Empire of the Summer Moon http://www.amazon.com/Empire-Summer-Moon-Comanches-Powerful/dp/1416591052/ref=pd_sim_b_2

Josh Daws is right on the money! "The Searchers" is a landmark Western that ranks #12 on AFI's 2008 100 Years, 100 Movies list. Incidentally, the highest ranked Western on the list. I sure hope this "critic" has seen it!