The fall of Islamic State gives fresh relevance to John Wayne’s classic Western
by Gordon Campbell
We like to think of children as almost infinitely malleable. For sure, children can be very resilient. They abide and they endure, as Lillian Gish once famously said. Yet the experiences they internalise at a certain age can also stay with them for decades, if not forever. Currently, there are thousands of children in Iraq and Syria who were abducted by ISIS, or born into its ranks.
Those children now face a highly uncertain future. Even if their fathers are still alive – which may be true for only a minority of them – their mothers face harsh retribution from what passes for a justice system in Iraq, in particular. Across Europe and elsewhere, many countries remain reluctant to allow the families of ISIS recruits to return home. At last count, there are an estimated 3,000 children born to ISIS families of foreign nationality now living in refugee camps in north-eastern Syria under what the UN calls “extremely dire conditions”.
For the orphaned ISIS children – and even for abducted women and the children they bore after being raped by ISIS fighters – compassion seems to be in short supply, and the path to recovery for these women and children looks extremely grim:
One Yazidi woman who was kept as a slave and had two children by a Daesh fighter did not want to keep them once she was freed,” said Sukayna Mohammed Ali Younes, the head of the [Mosul] local government’s Office of Women and Children, who oversees the running of the orphanage.“Her husband, a Yazidi, would not allow them into the house. She was made to feel great shame for what had happened, and felt she had no choice but to give them away…”
Moreover, the child fighters recruited into ISIS ranks face a legal system in Iraq that (a) is reportedly doling out death sentences to their mothers after token ten minute ‘trials” in Baghdad and (b) which also reportedly regards children as being criminally responsible from the minimum age of nine.
Currently, the Kurds seem to be the only regional forces offering their ISIS captives even the slightest semblance of proper legal process. The Syrian Kurds have for instance, outlawed the death penalty for ISIS captives regardless of their past crimes. As long ago as 2014, the Kurds had begun to raise the need for the global community to establish an internationally-endorsed tribunal, so that ISIS war criminals could be fairly tried for their crimes against humanity. This call by the Kurds was repeated in 2016. And also again in 2018 as reported in this Haaretz article.
This year, the Kurds have once again raised the same need for an independent tribunal, given the sudden influx of captured ISIS fighters and their families.
In a statement, the Kurdish administration called for "a special international tribunal in north-east Syria to prosecute terrorists" to ensure that trials are "conducted fairly and in accordance with international law and human rights covenants and charters". Speaking to the BBC, the administration's head of foreign affairs, Abdul Karim Omar, said the fact so few nations had repatriated their citizens who joined IS has added to their problems.
The failure of the global community to engage with the Kurds’ call for an international jural response, and/or for a repatriation effort of their citizens has been true of New Zealand as well. So far, the New Zealand government has provided no information about (and shown little interest in) the fate of the reportedly small number of ISIS brides from this country, let alone about the fate of any children they might have borne during their time in the Syrian/Iraqi war zones. Luckily for the Kiwi jihadist Mark Taylor, he seems to be among the roughly 1,000 or so foreign ISIS fighters currently being held by the Kurds. So far, our government has been reluctant to make any realistic effort to repatriate him.
We really are shirking our responsibility. Given the humanitarian needs in the wake of the Syrian civil war, we shouldn’t be dumping onto the Kurds the costly problem of humanely prosecuting and imprisoning a New Zealand national. Making a genuine effort to bring Taylor home to face justice here seems the very least that we can do for the Kurds.
Abductions Past and Present
It may seem odd to draw comparisons between the children of the modern Syrian war and The Searchers, which was a 1956 film about a quest to recover a child abducted by a Comanche raiding party. Clearly, it is a stretch. Yet the histories of the European children forcibly recruited into Native American tribal life during the 19th century do offer some useful parallels, if only to remind us of just how difficult the social re-integration of the children of ISIS is likely to be.
To be specific, what can life on the 19th century American frontier possibly tell us about the current abductees? On the evidence gathered by Scott Zesch in his book The Captured it was the frontier children abducted before puberty (ages 6-12) who most completely internalized the worldview of their captors, even in some cases after a captivity as short as six to nine months. Cynthia Ann Parker, a nine year old child abducted in 1836, never re-adjusted after being repatriated in adult life. While in captivity, she became the mother of the last free Comanche chief Quanah Parker, and it was her life story that inspired Alan LeMay to write the novel on which The Searchers film was based. As one historian later wrote of Parker, “the white people did more harm by [subsequently] keeping her away from them, than the Indians did by taking her at first.”
In fact, many of the children taken by the Kiowa, Comanche or Apache refused or were unable to re-adjust to European life afterwards. Some quietly withdrew and withered away, like the “rescued” boy Temple Friend (1860-1875). Given the back-breaking struggle for survival faced by German migrant families out on the Texas frontier at the time, it is easy to see why the roaming life and tribal solidarity of a nomadic hunter band might have seemed preferable. As Zesch put it:“Frontier parents in central Texas, preoccupied with the necessities of life and their own daily toil, typically had little spare time to instruct their young.”
In sharp contrast to the harsh beatings routinely meted out to their children by the European pioneers, the Comanche did not believe in physically disciplining their children. The Comanche and Kiowa appear to have made no distinction between the captured European children, and the tribe’s own children. Many captives over-identified in fact, and strove to do their utmost at riding, shooting and fighting (and in some cases, at horse stealing and settler killing) in order to make their new ‘parents’ proud. “They felt a need,” Zesch writes, “to prove that they were worthy of their Indian parents’ investment in them.”
Zesch also reports that among the male children that managed to survive the initial shock of captivity, several of them internalized the gender divisions of a nomadic culture in which men did all the dangerously exciting stuff and enjoyed all the leisure. Women may have played a key role in the kinship and religious systems, but they were expected to do all the endless drudge work. As the boy captives returned to ‘civilisation’ and became men, Zesch writes, this aspect of their tribal indoctrination didn’t make them ideal marriage partners. Zesch’s own ‘rescued’ ancestor Adolph Korn eventually died alone in a Texas hill country cave, reportedly looking for the Comanche to return and liberate him from his inability to function in a culture from which he had been permanently estranged.
In several passages in her novel The Colour of Lightning, the Texas writer Paulette Jiles had empathised with a captive European girl who had been ‘rescued’ from the life she had made with her Kiowa captors:
…[She] was not afraid of going hungry or of starvation. She was afraid of the slow death of confinement. Of being trapped inside immovable houses and stiff clothing. Of the sky shuttered away from her sight, herself hidden from the operatic excitement of the constant wind and the high spirits that came when they struck out like cheerful vagabonds across the wide earth, with all of life in front of them and unfolding and perpetually new. And now herself shut in a wooden cave. She could not go out at dawn alone and sing, she would not be seen and known by the rising sun…
Ironically, this lifestyle was vanishing for Native Americans at the same time that some of their captured European children were learning to embrace it. Similarly today… unless the reconstruction of Iraq and Syria can offer something more than the restoration of the old social order, many of the children ‘rescued’ from ISIS will continue to believe that ISIS could have been right all along to take up arms against it. A recent account along those lines from among the Yazidi suggests as much:
Murad said he is certain his nephew, and all the boys, were given military training by IS, and he believes many young men are returning to the community harbouring sympathies for the extremists. "Yes, in truth, we're afraid they'll do something. Their mindset is Daesh. I mean it's been five years they've been training with them."Murad said another nephew of his, aged 16, spurned his pleas to come home, choosing to stay with IS until the end. "He replied: 'You are all infidels,'" Murad said, recalling the boy's response. He hasn't heard from him in months.
As the essay below points out, one of the main flaws of The Searchers is that there is no scene in the film where Debbie, the captured child (now a teenager) is depicted alone with the Comanche chief, Scar. Such a scene would have indicated what she feels about her captors, and about her ‘rescue’. Instead, her internal emotional life is treated as completely non-existent. Yet, if the children of jihad are to be fully rescued, we need to know (a) what they now believe, and (b) what they’ve retained from the experience, and (c) why some may still feel connected to their past life. Children are malleable, but the risk with the ISIS returnees would be in denying the sense they have made of their experiences. If recovery is to be genuine and successful, it needs to be allowed to be the product of choices freely made.
Footnote: Obviously, I’m not equating the murderous aggression of ISIS with the situation faced by Native Americans in the second half of the 19th century. From what little we know, life under ISIS also seems to have lacked the emotional richness of 19th century tribal life. With that in mind… here’s how The Searchers dealt with its story of abduction, which was inspired – as mentioned – by the life of Cynthia Ann Parker. The following essay by Gordon Campbell about The Searchers was originally published on February 15, 2011. It has been lightly edited.
Rescuing The Searchers
For 30 years – from the 1960s until the late 1990s – The Searchers left a substantial mark on an entire generation of film-makers. Yet for all the overt love, it would be almost inconceivable for any current star – Ryan Gosling? George Clooney? – to choose the role of a bitter racist like Ethan Edwards, the cruel and obsessive loner that John Wayne dared to portray here.
Easy enough to trace the impact this film had on the likes of say… Martin Scorsese. The entire Jodie Foster subplot in Taxi Driver was a tribute to The Searchers, and Foster’s big city pimp even dressed like an Indian to make that point entirely clear. (In Mean Streets, Scorsese simply used a clip from Ford’s film.) In the first Star Wars movie, George Lucas has Luke Skywalker return in dismay to his burned out family home on Tattooine, just as John Wayne returns to his brother’s burned-out home after it has been hit by Chief Scar and his Comanches.
It goes on, and on. In O Brother Where Are Thou, the Coen brothers’ treatment of Holly Hunter’s sneaky suitor is very much how Jeffrey Hunter’s goofy romantic rival was portrayed in The Searchers. Even Steven Spielberg, who claimed not to have been influenced by The Searchers, looked as though he had been in Close Encounters – another film that features a child abduction, and a guy on a crazed quest who finds his answers amid scenery akin to Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. (Stuart Byron once compiled a list of the major Searchers homages in this New York magazine article.)
Beyond the movies, the German writer Peter Handke (he co-wrote Wings of Desire) published a novel in 1972 called Short Letter, Long Farewell* about a woman who pursues her estranged husband across the continental US with the intention of killing him, before the couple finally meet up and discuss their relationship with... John Ford himself. Finally and famously, Buddy Holly borrowed John Wayne’s growled epithet in this film (“That’ll be the day”) and turned it into a hit song.
Buddy Holly aside, greatness didn’t attach itself to The Searchers overnight. A decent enough box office hit at the time – it was the eleventh biggest box office success of 1956 – the film wasn’t showered with critical praise, and it took decades to be regarded as Ford’s masterpiece. By 1962, it was still nowhere to be seen on Britain’s influential Sight and Sound magazine’s list of the best films of all time.
By 1972 though it was #18, by 1982 it had reached #10, and in 1992 it peaked as the fifth best film of all time, before dropping out of the list again in 2002. The Americans took even longer to catch on. Rated only #96 in the American Film Institute’s Best Films list in 1997, The Searchers leapt to #12 in the AFI’s most recent countdown.
Oh, did I mention that the film is also something of a mess? As if alarmed by the disturbing content, Ford threw in what he clearly hoped were several episodes of comic relief. Without exception, the comic interludes are utterly terrible. The list of shame includes the Shakespearean halfwit played by Hank Worden, the yokel played by Ken Curtis and a Swedish neighbour who seems to have wandered in from an Elmer Fudd cartoon.
Worst of all is the ‘comical’ subplot involving a marriage-by-mistake between Jeffrey Hunter and an Indian squaw who is mocked and kicked down a hill (a) because she’s an Indian (b) because she’s a woman and (c) because she’s fat and unattractive. She finally gets slaughtered in a massacre. As film critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “Those who value The Searchers filter it [the comic relief] out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line.”
Right. Yet typically, even the worst part of The Searchers has been influential as well. The squaw marriage–by-mistake subplot turned up again a few years ago in Joss Whedon’s science fiction TV series Firefly, in a segment called ‘Our Mrs Reynolds’ – an episode which among other things, gave the world a memorable introduction to Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks.
So, how has The Searchers come to cast such a long shadow over American cinema? The plot is simple enough, in outline. After a brief homecoming by veteran Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards to his brother and family – long enough to establish without a word being said, that Ethan and his brother’s wife Martha are in love with each other – Scar and his Comanche raiding party manage to lure Ethan and a local posse off on a wild goose chase. The Comanches circle back and kill Martha, her husband and son, and abduct the two female children.
Eventually, it takes years of wandering for Ethan and his companion Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter) to locate the Comanche camp that contains the surviving girl, Debbie, who is now a teenager. Martin comes to realize that Ethan’s real motive is not to rescue Debbie but to kill her – for being sexually defiled by the same Indian who raped and killed his brother’s wife, the woman he secretly loved. The film’s depiction of racism, and its equation of racism with patriarchal sexual jealousy still packs a lot of power. It is a theme represented with malignant force by Wayne, but it is also echoed in a speech by Pawley’s long suffering sweetheart, played by Vera Miles – who is seething with resentment at what this insane expedition is doing to her own chances of happiness.
The fact that The Searchers is such a mixed bag of the great and the terrible has made it easy pickings for any hack wanting to take it down a peg. The more interesting point is that most of the great movies of the 1950s display a similar unevenness. It is part of what makes them such fever dreams of repression and obsession. Take Vertigo for instance. [Subsequently rated as the greatest film of all time.]
Vertigo, too, has an absurd storyline, plot-holes aplenty and some ridiculous over-acting… and yet ultimately, none of that matters at all. The same applies for with equally flawed/wonderful 1950s films such as Kiss Me Deadly, Rear Window and the Douglas Sirk melodramas. And it is very much the case with The Searchers.
To appreciate what Ford and Wayne managed to accomplish it is only necessary to turn to the Alan LeMay novel on which the film is based. In the novel, Edwards is not the main character. Martin Pawley is, and it is he who finishes the novel alone with Debbie, lost out on the plains between the warring worlds of white men and Indians. Ethan (in the novel he is called Amos) has been killed in the final raid on the Indian camp, when he rides down a squaw that he mistakenly thinks is Debbie, and she turns and shoots him.
In other words, Ford and his screenwriter Frank Nugent re-adjusted the story in ways that bring Ethan to the fore. The film adds Ethan’s thwarted love for his brother’s wife and his patriarchal fury at Scar for raping Martha and making Debbie his concubine – and this raging jealousy becomes the engine that drives the entire film. As others have pointed out, Ethan is something of a chronic loser. The Confederacy that he fought for lost the Civil War. He returns home to the woman that he lost to his brother and then unwittingly exposes them and their family to harm. And at the film’s end, he is shut out of civilization altogether in the famous closing shot that – literally – slams the family door on him.
As Paul Schrader once complained in the 1970s, the most sorely missed element in the film is that there is no scene between Scar and Debbie, alone – a scene that would have established what she truly feels about the Indians from whom she is about to be ‘rescued’ regardless. Such a scene would have clarified her feelings about Scar in particular, who is Ethan’s moral double.
The reason for this omission is pretty obvious. It would have capsized the entire film, and pointed it in directions that Ford (and movie audiences in 1956) did not really care to consider. Ford was never very interested in (or comfortable with) the inner lives of his female characters. As a result, the film completely ignores the life that Debbie has made with her Comanche family – while it sentimentalises the nuclear family that had locked Martha into marriage with the wrong brother, that was willing to marry off the Vera Miles character to a buffoon, and that shuts Ethan out at the end of the story.
That aside, there is still so much to admire. This is a beautiful looking film, shot amid some of the most stunning desert scenery in the world. Martin Scorsese – in the extras to the DVD – has also pinpointed a couple of the cinematic highlights. Near the end of the film, there’s a scene at the fort where Martin and Ethan meet up with a few deranged female captives who have just been rescued from Indian abduction. As the two searchers leave the room, Ford zeroes in on Wayne for a close-up. It is weirdly akin to the close-up that helped propel the young, amiable Wayne to stardom in Ford’s movie Stagecoach, nearly 20 years before. Yet this time, the look of disgusted hatred that Wayne summons up is bloodchilling.
Much has been made of the opening door that commences the film and the closing door that ends it. Note should be also made of the gesture – left hand grasping right elbow – that Wayne adopts in the final sequence, a mannerism associated with his old friend Harry Carey Snr and intended by Wayne as a gentle signal to Carey’s widow, Olive.
It is John Wayne’s greatest performance. In this film, he sacrificed his easy charm and likeability onscreen for something much darker and more formidable. For all of his hippie baiting and flag-waving during the 1960s and 1970s, Wayne is impossible to dismiss in The Searchers. Anti-heroes are seen as being a relatively recent convention – a few years ago a lot of people gushed over Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, hailing it as an anti-Western that de-mythologised the genre. Yet as Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown once said about the comparison, maybe they should take another look at this film’s anti-hero, and see what they make of John Wayne’s ‘terrible, terribly lonely rider.’
* Footnote: Hat tip to Georgia Brown again, for the Peter Handke reference and for her commentary on The Searchers in the Village Voice (May 18, 1993)