Constance Alexander: Classic western cinema offers escape from current state of domestic affairs

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With the current death toll from the coronavirus nearing 400,000 and projections that the total will reach a half-million by the end of next month, states are scrambling to secure enough doses of vaccine to inoculate first responders and other vulnerable populations. Moreover, after the Trump administration revealed there was no stockpile of vaccine, public health professionals are grappling with shortages as more contagious strains of the virus emerge.

Unemployment is up; the economy is toppling; kids are failing in school, and families are going hungry. Life expectancy in the U.S. has declined for the second time in three years, with suicides and drug overdose deaths leading the list of causes. In Kentucky, the legislature wants to limit the executive powers the governor can exercise in emergency situations, at the same time there is a movement afoot to impeach him.

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The FBI continues to investigate last week’s insurgency and is making arrests that include current and former military service members. Speculation abounds regarding unauthorized reconnaissance tours hosted by members of Congress the day before the Capitol attack, perhaps familiarizing groups with the finer points of the Capitol’s complicated floorplan.

With all that happening – and we’ve barely scratched the surface — who wouldn’t want to get away, find a bit of escapism between the January 6 domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol Building and the inauguration of President-Elect Joseph Biden and VP Kamala Harris?

TCM came to the rescue this past weekend, with a screening of the 1956 classic “The Searchers,” starring John Wayne. It brought me back to my childhood in some ways, while providing relevance to the present.

When I was little, I loved westerns, especially those that featured cowboys and Indians. There were clear delineations between “us” and “them,” often defined in living color. The hero was a good guy – white, strong, laconic, with deadeye aim. His dedication to doing the right thing was impressive, as long as he made the rules. Wayne was the quintessential cowboy, head and shoulders above the rest, a man among men. THE man.

Women played supporting roles. Pioneer mothers wore aprons and flouncy long skirts. They stood by their men and kept silent and steadfast in the midst of peril. They read from the Bible and said grace. When company showed up, the lady of the house brought out precious china teacups she’d lugged over harsh landscapes and across raging rivers to bring some remnant of civilized society to the wilderness.

Native people were portrayed pretty much as savages. Men were steeley-eyed, rum-soaked, or caterwauling, depending on the action of the scene. Typically, these roles were cast with white people who were slathered in beige makeup and expected to speak in truncated sentences, punctuated with grunts and stiff hand gestures. The leitmotif accompanying their entrances and exits was the BOOM, boom, boom, boom, BOOM, boom, boom boom of the stereotypical Indian drum.

The first time I saw “The Searchers” I was ten. I remember being confused about some aspects of the story. I didn’t understand what John Wayne’s character was so uptight about and wondered why he was so hostile to the young man, one-eighth Comanche, who’d been adopted by Ethan’s brother and family. When Ehtan’s brother’s farm was attacked by Comanche Indians, the men were killed, the two daughters abducted, and the stalwart wife had been defiled, a nuance of the plot that escaped me then.

Nothing in the story explained that the land had been wrested from Comanches, but what did I know as a ten-year-old?

Seeing the movie now, I was struck by John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, and his resemblance to one of the mob that tried to take over the Capitol Building on January 6. Absolutely certain he was right, he refused to acknowledge that Confederates lost the Civil War. He was determined to find her, even if it took ten years, not to save her but to kill her because she had become, “the leavin’s of a Comanche buck.”

He learned Comanche language and customs, not out of respect but out of spite. For example, when Ethan and his search party find a Comanche buried under a rock, he shoots out the dead man’s eyes and explains, “Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds.”

Ethan is racist without apology, and stubborn. “I won’t be wronged,” he argues. “I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on.”

Tomorrow, as the nation anxiously awaits the inauguration of the 46th president, I can’t help thinking about the mostly men (and mostly white people) who marauded in D.C. earlier this month. That wild bunch wishes their dreams of the old days will come true. They are heroes in their own minds, searchers, who don’t believe in surrender. Ever.

Let us pray that peace will prevail, and the handoff will take place without incident. After that, who knows?

A review of “The Searchers” by Martin Scorsese is available at

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