John Ford's Post World War II Westerns

My Darling Clementine

The film poster for My Darling Clementine (1946), John Ford's first post World War II Western. 

My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948) 

John Ford's My Darling Clementine stars Henry Fonda as the famous Wyatt Earp during the period leading up to the gunfight at the OK Corral. The film takes place in 1882 as Earp and his brothers ride into Tombstone, leaving brother James in charge of their cattle herd. Upon their return, they find the cattle stolen and their brother dead. Earp takes the job as Tombstones' town marshal vowing to stay until he has avenged his brother. The film's title comes from Earp's romance with teacher Clementine played by Cathy Downs. The films ends with their tearful goodbye, Clementine remains in Tombstone to teach. By the film's end, Wyatt Earp has not only avenged his brother but, his presence in Tombstone has ushered the town from darkness into light. 

It is the nuanced treatment of minorities that makes this Ford film so prevalent to victory culture. Ford's treatment of Indians in the late 1940s had not changed since Stagecoach. They still served as silent motivators to the plot. One of Wyatt Earp's first actions in Tombstones' marshal is expelling a drunken Indian from a saloon. After knocking him over the head, Earp indignantly askes "What kind of a town is this anyway, sellin' liquor to Indians." Earp represents the subtle racism that was becoming more and more acceptable. Coyne, "the excerpts of dialogue cited...clearly indicated how quickly and how instinctively Earp invokes race." This subtle racism created a balance of the white hero, who was able to use racism to his advantage. 

The next addition to Ford’s western filmography was Fort Apache in 1948, which exemplifies Ford’s mistreatment of Native peoples the dichotomy of “us” against “them”.  Fort Apache is known as Ford’s valentine to the U.S. cavalry and part of trilogy that combines war films and westerns. Henry Fonda stars as Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday and John Wayne as respected veteran Captain Kirby York. Fonda’s Thursday represents the typical “Easterner”, arrogant, incompetent and unable to deal with the surrounding Apache due to his own racist viewpoints. Wayne’s York, in contrast is a sympathizer to the Apache and has experience in the West. The audience is supposed to agree with Yorke, his sympathies for the Apache are supposed to make him the better person yet at the end of the film, the tribe is massacred along with York’s sympathies of them. Ford’s disregard for Native peoples is most evident Fort Apache, Tom Engelhardt states that for non-whites in westerns “their impulse was quite literally to throw their lives away. When fighting such people, there was no alternative to slaughter. It was their nature to wish to be exterminated. “Both Fort Apache and My Darling Clementine constructed the “us” vs. “them” narrative that was a lens with which victory culture used.


Fort Apache Film Poster

The film poster for Fort Apache (1948) directed by John Ford 

"US vs. THEM" 

Ford’s films and the genre in general further developed the “us” vs. “them” narrative. Whites were forever in their “home” (be it a stagecoach, fort or even a town) while the outside was a “hell” that might someday become an unwanted home. The “us” part of the dichotomy became defined as human, and the “them” an undefined mass of humanity. In Ford’s film the “us” was not always in the morally right, many of the characters, like the Ringo Kid, Wyatt Earp or even Colonel Owen Thursday, are mean spirited, greedy and offhand. In Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture states “The whites portrayed in westerns or adventure films were romanticized flotsam and jetsam of Western society- mercenaries, prostitutes, con artists, opportunists, thieves and killers. Yet no matter what their characteristics or hostilities toward one another, in reaction to the enemy, they stood as one.” The “us” versus “them” narrative created unity among white Americans during and after World War II. While nonwhites were an afterthought, victory culture implied that “as a repository for evil nonwhite momentarily triumph. Whether an Indian chief, a Mexican bandit leader, or an Oriental despot, his essence was the same.” Through Ford’s film and victory culture in general asserted that America was inclusive for those not resistant to it, although non-whites in Hollywood usually had no choice. 

The Searchers

A still from The Searchers (1956) pictured left to right, John Wayne, Beulah Acrchuletta, and Jeffery Hunter

The Searchers (1956)

John Ford’s last western of the 1950s, and considered his finest, is The Searchers (1956). As the golden age of westerns entered its last stage, this stage brought about self-reflection, especially for John Ford. The Searchers is one of Ford’s more introspective and nuanced films. The film was one of the most successful Ford films, it took in $4,900,000 at the box office and remained the sixteenth most successful Western in 1981.Based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, the film is set during the Texas-Indian Wars, the film stars John Wayne as a Civil War veteran named Ethan Edwards. Edwards spends years looking for his abducted niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), and accompanied by his adoptive nephew Martin (Jeffery Hunter). When Edwards and Martin find Debbie, she is living with a Comanche chief named Scar as one of his wives. Debbie, who has spent years in captivity, claims to be Comanche and wants to remain with the tribe. Edwards is deeply disturbed by his niece and her desire to stay, tries to kill her but is stopped by Martin.The film ends with Debbie’s safe return to her family, and in the iconic closing scene Edwards departs from his family’s homestead – alone – the cabin door slowly closing on his receding image. Edwards defining characteristic was his hardened racism. John Wayne portrays Edwards as a sadistic racist, his demons plainly evident, unable of any real redemption. Critic Roger Ebert declared that Ethan Edwards was “one of the most compelling characters from Ford and Wayne.” And most film historians can agree that Ethan Edwards is Ford’s most complex and problematic hero, this single character stood for later victory culture.

The themes presented in these anti-hero westerns were extremely important to American society in the post-World War II era. As World War II veterans dealt with post dramatic stress disorder, Ethan too disrupted “the delicate, deficient familial balances which exist before they arrive.” Just as soldiers returned home to almost alien environments, unable to relate to their surroundings just like Edwards. The Searchers also represent the all to present “us versus them” narrative that Ford had long worked to perfect. The Comanche chief Scar played by Henry Brandon is in many ways the mirroring of Edwards character both are driven by the “wilderness”, Scar is everything that Edwards hates about himself. Film scholar and John Ford biographer Tag Gallagher asserts that The Searchers is filled with clear and intentional examples of “racist distortions and demonization” of the “other”. Although other film scholars viewed this blatant racism in the film as a mirror for the movie-going audiences, that questions their own racist views. American society who still socially accepted Jim Crow and racial discrimination of all kinds readily accepted The Searchers form of historic racism unable to realize that victory culture was still creating the “us versus them” narrative

John Ford's Post World War II Westerns