Spinning a Popular American Image

John Wayne, the New Economy and the American Male Worker

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.
– D.H. Lawrence

The moderate conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a column titled “Men on the Threshold” employing a famous image of John Wayne in the 1956 film The Searchers as a symbol of the American male worker facing a growing crisis of unemployment.

Brooks certainly has the right to do what he likes with such mythic imagery. And he writes, “Classics can be interpreted in different ways.” But in this instance, in the name of truth and justice, he should be brought up on charges of premeditated and aggravated misuse of myth.

David Brooks and Ethan Edwards "on the threshold"David Brooks and Ethan Edwards "on the threshold"

Ethan Edwards is considered Wayne’s best acting role. There’s none of the usual John Wayne swaggering big-man nonsense with sidekicks like Dean Martin or Fabian. Here, he’s a mean and cruel sonuvabitch who sets out with a younger man across the barren Texas plains to find a girl kidnapped by Indians whose family they had massacred. The search lasts seven years. We learn he intends to kill the girl (Natalie Wood) once he finds her, since she has been ruined by becoming the sexual mate of an Indian.

In the end, Edwards softens enough to return the girl to her family. In the famous scene at the end, Edwards stands silhouetted in the doorway of a rough home with the dusty Texas plains behind him. While the family is rejoicing and welcoming its lost daughter back into the fold of civilization, Edwards stands alone, apparently unable to enter. As the popular interpretation goes, his hard cold-bloodedness was what brought the girl back to civilization, but that same violent temperament won’t permit him to fit into the domestic scene inside. He turns and walks off, presumably to find other frontiers.

No argument, this is a powerful image of American history and Manifest Destiny from a truly magnificent classic film. But, let’s not kid ourselves and New York Times readers, it has nothing to do with the plight of American male workers in 2013. It’s a case of expropriating a classic, tough masculine image from popular culture to represent a theme Brooks wants to emphasize. At best, it’s facile; at worst, cynically opportunistic.

First off, Brooks passes over, or willfully ignores, the unpleasant historic reality that no one disputes is symbolized by what he calls the Ethan Edwards character’s “pre-political virtues.” Those virtues include violent cruelty and the capacity “to mete out justice on his own” — plus a considerable dose of racism.

What Brooks and many glorifiers of Manifest Destiny and the “taming of the west” conveniently leave out is the fact Ethan Edwards’ cruelty and violence were needed to pacify and, too often, massacre the human beings who had lived on those Texas plains for thousands of years — ie. the savages in the movie who massacred Natalie Wood’s family and soiled her womanhood.

We should all be very familiar with this historic line in the culture and how it tends to ignore the pain of others. It’s not necessarily noble but it’s understandable that Americans like to celebrate in their entertainment and art Manifest Destiny and the bringing of civilization to the western lands. It’s what conquerors and winners do. But in 2013, when America faces economic competition from places like China, India and Brazil, what we might call a new synthesis is needed so that America might better face the future. It doesn’t help in this process for cushy commentators like Brooks to twist and manipulate our western expansion myths. It’s a case of glib, redirected reality to suggest Ethan Edwards represents, in Brooks’ words, “millions of men [who] have been caught on the wrong side of a historic transition, unable to cross the threshold into the new economy.”

In Brooks’ mythic spin, the warm scene of the returned child being reunited with her family and civilization represents “the new economy” of a globalized corporate America, and Edwards is the American male worker historically instrumental in making the nation what it is, now left out in the dust with no place at the warm hearth of industry. Linking the stressed male worker with John Wayne flatters him, but the reason he’s the odd man out in the new economy is his fault: He can’t keep up with the times.

This is certainly tragic enough. But the problem with Brooks’ spin is that it fails to incorporate the powerful force in American history that the Ethan Edwards character is clearly intended to represent. By 1956, the film’s director, John Ford, was a conservative Republican. In an interesting footnote, as a young man, he had played a hooded klansman in D.W. Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation.

John Wayne as Ethan EdwardsJohn Wayne as Ethan Edwards

A more meaningful and accurate spin on Ethan Edwards’ image in The Searchers would be to see him representing the relentless forces of western conquest. To bring that image up to today, one can easily see that, once “civilization” was established on those plains, aggressive conquerors like Edwards moved on to become barons of enterprise, part of the great upward drive of US industry, extending from railroads and telegraph to today’s oil and technology empires. US industry produced men no less determined, mean and cruel than Ethan Edwards. They now rule from penthouse offices on Wall Street and extract wealth from the land like financial miners working the percentages. Ethan Edwards’ aggressiveness in conquering Indian lands has evolved into an aggressiveness directed at empire-building and extracting profit from American and world populations.

In this mythic spin, Edwards is the prototype for today’s corporate marauder, a man equally as “hard, confrontational, raw and tough to control,” his empires grown huge and “too big to fail.” Here, the American male worker “on the wrong side of history” is represented in The Searchers’ mythic narrative by the Indians — more specifically, the Native Americans now living in poor, depressed places like the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

One of Aaron Huey's images from Pine RidgeOne of Aaron Huey's images from Pine Ridge

The American worker of today “unable to cross the threshold into the new economy” shares with the residents of places like Pine Ridge the fact of being superfluous human beings. They don’t fit into Brooks’ new economy. Their dignity has been, or is being, sucked from them by a historic process out of their control. Native Americans were crushed and cheated by a relentless onslaught of determined Europeans. No less disturbing, American workers’ unions have been crushed and cheated by a no less relentless onslaught of wealth-based power and social Darwinism. The American worker, like the American Indian, has been conquered and left to fend for himself.

(Here’s a link to see the incredible collection of photographs from Pine Ridge by Aaron Huey.)

In a 2011 study published in The American Sociological Review, academics Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld concluded that “deunionization” — in popular terms, the death of unions — has caused a significant increase in wage and wealth inequality.

“In the early 1970s, unions were important for delivering middle class incomes to working class families, and they enlivened politics by speaking out against inequality.” Western says. “These days, there just aren’t big institutional actors who are making the case for greater economic equality in America.”

When looking at The Searchers as mythic metaphor, the mean SOB Ethan Edwards better symbolizes the relentless and ruthless nature of conquest-oriented movements than he does the American male worker made superfluous by one such movement. The manifest destiny of technological advancement in conjunction with corporate greed can destroy human dignity as sure as Brooks suggests civilization abandoned Ethan Edwards.

Edwards’ famous stand in the doorway is in the end ambiguous. No one can be sure why he turns and leaves. That’s the beauty of great art.

I’d suggest he turns away not because he’s unwelcome inside the warm house; he turns away because conquest is in his blood and he wants to continue fighting and killing all the way to the Pacific, and on to the Philippines and Vietnam and, ultimately, into the corporate boardrooms and executive jets of a globalized empire.

Historically, there’s nothing more American than that.