The Last Frontier

Film still for The Last Frontier

Like John Ford's The Searchers, Ron Howard's The Missing has a teenage girl kidnapped by native Americans. And there's still no visible sex or talk between the races! David Thomson considers why.

There it is at the start of Ron Howard's new Western The Missing : a house surrounded by space. More or less, it's the same place we remember from John Ford's The Searchers , nearly 50 years ago. That old place, the Edwards house, was square and cosy - it's what a pioneer would have put up, if he'd had the construction crew from a major studio ready to do it for him. (Like those houses, it was larger inside than the outside promised.) It had bricks of stone cut to size somewhere, and lengths of timber from trees that don't actually grow in those parts. If you really meant to build in Monument Valley, which is where the house in The Searchers stands, then you'd need to know the art of adobe, and more likely than not you'd need Navajo to teach you. If they were prepared to let you build in the Valley. Of course in The Searchers , the story says it is Texas, in 1868, with Comanche in the offing - the kind of people you wouldn't dare to ask. So the house in The Searchers is a sweet cabin from dreamland. But that doesn't matter so much if it has that emblematic door - the first and last page - ready to open and shut. Actually, the doors come from different houses, but they're pages in the same book. We are in Allegory Territory, which is still not quite admitted to the Union.

In The Missing the homestead is in New Mexico, near enough to the foothills for there to be snow, and wood for building. It's nearly 20 years after The Searchers ' time, but the house is not as tidy or cosy. Art direction has gone some way to catching up with the real history of the West, where building was untutored and the weather relentless. This is a house in trouble, more dilapidated than idealism would like. It's a place where Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett) is hanging on, trying to look after a few cattle, with two hands to help her, two daughters, and a sideline of treating the sick and the damaged. When Maggie spends a night on the porch waiting for her loved ones to get home, a fox breaks in.

Still, the homestead rests there alone on its land, and a question mark hangs over it - what is it waiting for? For savages to make a decisive raid, or for Los Alamos and Las Vegas to come along and make the West peppy? The older child, the teenage Lily, is certainly asking why? And how long? And her mother has no answers beyond the survivors' creed of hanging on and getting through another winter. The ?rst interesting thing about The Missing is the undercurrent of dissent Lily presents to Maggie's pioneering commitment. Which is more than Lucy or Debbie Edwards ever manage in The Searchers , a film where the isolated homestead has no visible means of support (America was already a cash economy, where people had to eat) and the kids have not yet heard of Radio City Music Hall.

I do not mean to be facetious about Ford's legendary place. But you can't make movies without employing appearance; and you can't cut all the ties between appearance and inner meaning. So Debbie Edwards in The Searchers will turn into Natalie Wood, and no matter how hard her life is supposed to have been with that cruel Comanche chief Scar, somehow, after five years roaming the south-west, she has a hairdresser, false eyelashes, a very urban modern look and that knockout robe, in the dark, dusky pink. Somehow, somewhere, Scar is picking up Seventeen magazine for her. Olive Oatman, a real settler, was captured by Mojave Indians in the 1850s when she was 13. She was away five years, and when found her lower face was tattooed so it looked like a beard, to signify her slave status.

If you find such contrasts off-putting, remember the circumstances of filming in Monument Valley (still a far haul from Los Angeles, with only Goulding's Lodge to serve as a hotel), where Natalie Wood, a hot 17 and lately passed around as a sexual prize during the making of Rebel without a Cause , caused offence among the Navajo (the people who owned Monument Valley) by sun-bathing in a bikini when she wasn't in the pink robe in front of the camera. Well, sure, she was only a kid from show business, and she didn't mean to upset anyone. But we're talking about American children who have enough sense of manifest destiny to find the pioneering life a little dull. So I like the pouty look on the face of The Missing 's Lily Gilkeson, who wants to go to the nearby 'town' and its 'fair'. No one could tell that kid that she was living in old times - especially in America, everyone insists on being on the forward edge of the breaking wave. Lily wants her chance at life, and why should she not want boys? Her mother has two men, hands, on the ranch, but one of them is her own bed-fellow and the other is Mexican.

So what, you ask. But then you're imposing your own political correctness on every bit of natural reaction and bigotry that hardens a breaking wave. What I'm trying to assert is that, at all moments in human history, and in every remote location, most people have felt they were on the cutting edge of their own emotional life, and that nothing else was more important. They wanted their rights, one of which is a shot at happiness. So, yes, it's all very well to say that pioneer people wanted to build a shelter and hold it up against the storm, that they wanted to farm the land and make a little money, that they wanted to find gold and obtain statehood for the raw Western territories. But they wanted to get their rocks off, too. So why not add to all the reasons why the Western has gone into its famous decline the way the genre has steadily ignored the emotional lives of its characters? In doing so, we may pause to wonder what kind of spartan, male attitude has sought to smother this tumult.

In outline The Missing seems very promising in that Maggie is 'missing' her own father long before the kidnapping of Lily. Indeed, this is a movie that hints at the disruptive opportunities the West offered to that vagrant impulse restless at stability. 'Moving on' could be a generative force that condoned infidelity, promiscuity and polygamy, a Western condition that's far from simply Mormon. So Maggie's father (Tommy Lee Jones) went away a long time ago, and ended up living with the Apache. We never quite know why - and that's fair enough, because it's the uncertainty that afflicts Maggie, and it's also a sin for which the father doesn't ask or expect forgiveness. But Maggie has been a bit of a sexual adventuress herself. Her two daughters have different fathers, and she's ready to fuck her hand Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart) in breathless silence so as not to wake the children - privacy didn't come easily in those Western huts. Is that another reason why the father went away?

But then The Missing falls back on crude notions, ones that wipe out its own promise. For Lily is routinely kidnapped by a band of rogue Apaches led by Chidin (Eric Schweig), a figure of iconic hideousness and evil. Indeed, he's a far more oppressive figure than Henry Brandon's Scar from The Searchers. Scar was handsome, noble and just a touch Teutonic (Brandon's real name was Heinrich von Kleinbach); Chidin is gross, unkempt, unwashed, dentally disadvantaged, with blackened fingernails that are either broken or epicenely over-long. He does not fight fair. He is likely to blow a puff of bad-magic dust in your eyes and leave you blinded. He is a witch, a black witch, and a man who brings the very opposite of Maggie's healing. Director Ron Howard is too kind or too chaste to rub our noses in it, but who can doubt that Chidin rapes his captives - a string of white girls - before he sells them into wicked Mexican slavery?

Once that set-up is spelled out, then the film's destiny is clear: Maggie and her father are reconciled in their attempt to save daughter and grand-daughter; and the race is on to catch the slavers before they reach the Mexican border. So it is in The Searchers that we take for granted the veracity of Ethan Edwards' assumption that Scar has "wounded" or raped his niece, just as he has slaughtered the rest of the family (including the mother who was the object of Ethan's illicit and unspoken love). It is often remarked in commentaries on The Searchers that Ethan is a racist and a fascist who means to kill Scar and Debbie as a way of expunging the loathsome miscegenation that has occurred. But he is also propelled by the guilt he feels at having loved his sister-in-law - without ever possessing her. His famous refusal to apologise is a model for surviving in the West, maybe, but it is also an attitude to sin full of private meaning. So it's proper, I think, to see Ford struggling with his own racism (and puritanism) in The Searchers , and disturbing to see how little we've progressed in 50 years with The Missing .

Which brings me to the idea of a conversation that American movies have yet to embrace. It would have been beyond plausibility, in 1956, for Ford to provide a scene that shows the 'marriage' of Scar and Debbie Edwards. But how hard it is to watch the film now without thinking of that - especially when Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) finds that he has acquired a ridiculous "squaw" (the character of Look), someone he can mock, abuse and abandon to her fate. After all, Debbie has not grown up with visible 'scars' from her marriage. Doesn't she look terrific? I raise this matter cautiously in a Ford film, but doesn't she look as if she might have been sexually satisfied? Of course Ethan is right to think that she would have been taken by the Com-anche chief - but suppose she was also gratified by the union. Suppose she likes Scar, and finds a depth of feeling in him that goes beyond what she could expect from the white boys of her circle.

This is not to sentimentalise native Americans - but neither is it to settle for the automatic contempt that is unloaded on them in the Western. The father in The Missing has come to appreciate Apache powers of healing. When Chidin puts a voodoo spell on Maggie it is only the wearing of Apache necklaces - at the father's insistence - that saves her. The native Americans of the US were a mixed bunch, some as dire and cruel as Magua from The Last of the Mohicans , some as unrelenting as Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apache. There were Indians who slaughtered, raped and generally behaved in 'savage' ways. Yet the whites they encountered stole their land, plundered its wealth, broke the treaties, raped their women, introduced alcohol and disease and then shunted the wreckage off to the poorest lands, the reservations.

In the 1950s there was a concerted attempt by American movies to tell a different story. In Broken Arrow (1950) Jimmy Stewart is a veteran of the Civil War (damaged by white history) who falls in love with an Indian woman. Admittedly, she's Debra Paget - and then she dies, so Jimmy may resume his place in white society. But the notion is plain - that Indian civilisation may have ideas and resources the whites need. In Anthony Mann's Devil's Doorway (1950) the hero is a Shoshone who has served heroically in white wars only to be cheated by the white theft of Indian lands. The point is unrelenting, and not fatally damaged by Robert Taylor having to be the Shoshone. In Apache (1954) Burt Lancaster found another excuse to go shirtless and to fight brutal and corrupt authority. In Howard Hawks' The Big Sky (1952) Dewey Martin elects to live with the Indians to keep his marriage to an Indian princess, played by Elizabeth Threatt (who may have had Cherokee blood). In Douglas Sirk's Taza, Son of Cochise (1953) Jeff Chandler played Cochise and Rock Hudson Taza. Now, imagine that Taza had kidnapped Debbie Edwards, and surely you can make up their conversation, and the trembling intimations of romance.

Yes, it's notable that the romantic arrow points in one direction only, and it's lamentable that no native American actors got these roles. Yet never forget John Huston's The Unforgiven (1959), taken from an Alan Le May novel (Le May was the original author of The Searchers ), in which a white family on the prairie has taken in a Kiowa girl and had her live with them. Yes, she is Audrey Hepburn (which I'm sure was meant as a compliment to the Kiowa), and no she has not quite been married into white society. But surely Le May (brother to the Curtis Le May who ran the Strategic Air Command) had realised that the coin of race could come down heads or tails.

There are other instances worth recalling: Robert Mulligan's The Stalking Moon (1968) where the classically pale Eva Marie Saint has lived with the Apache and has a half-breed son, but needs Gregory Peck to protect her against the efforts of the father to reclaim what he regards as his. In Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) Robert Blake and Katharine Ross are lovers in the annals of forlorn Indian romance. Above all, remember the delightful surprise in Richard Brooks' The Professionals (1966) when the guys hired to retrieve a kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) discover that she can't get enough of her Mexican bandit (Jack Palance).

Again, I don't mean to make this a lamentation for the native Americans, though their condition in 2004 is usually the worst to be found in the greatest nation on earth (I quote our leader). I have spent some time on the reservations of the south-west (rather more, I suspect, than our leader), and I can attest to the poverty and hopelessness in many Indian lives. I want to insist on the enormous debt in the West in terms of resources simply stolen - and I must point to the belated recovery of some tribes in their decision to put up gambling casinos on their reservations. You may need to be a true _ironist to appreciate such places, but they are the first significant source of wealth for the tribes and they could have a profound social effect in a nation that's in no position now to condemn the vagaries of gambling.

But the allegory is broader, and it is racial. The reason why The Searchers now aches with the need for a scene in which Scar and Debbie talk is because of all the implications the situation has for black and white. Similarly, I think it's far too easy in The Missing for Chidin to murder Brake and the Mexican hand and then behave like a revolting sultan with a harem of white girls (all dressed up in white petticoats and garish lipstick for Mexican inspection). Suppose instead that Lily, with her wanderlust and her need for excitement, sees Chidin as a young, good-looking charmer. He does not need to be a saint or marriage material. He could be that slightly dangerous older (and darker) man who may be a young girl's dream. He might be the means of a kind of emotional education that New Mexico and her mother have not yet conjured up. And he could have many assets for her - he could have seen New York; he could do magic tricks; he could be a fine cook (some Indians are); he could be a devotee of the novels of Dickens - as well as a great lover. He could have a dangerous mind, if Ron Howard were up for that. He could be a Clyde to her Bonnie (they made a pretty endearing couple not so long ago).

I am talking allegory, of course, and I have indicated how uneasy our Union is about admitting its resonances. But isn't it extraordinary in 2004 that the Hollywood movie has hardly yet offered anything in the way of a conversation between a black man and a white woman? Yes, I know, there was a clear indication that Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston had sex (or was it just celebrity massage?) in The Bodyguard (1992), under the cloak of their characters - though, obviously, it wasn't going to work or hold in the long term. And, yes, there was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), as awful as it was brave. And...?

You may get Ashley Judd as a heroine with the fatherly Morgan Freeman helping her in Kiss the Girls (1997). Pulp Fiction (1994) says that Uma Thurman and Ving Rhames are married - it just doesn't have them meet or talk. In 1993's The Pelican Brief , finally, Denzel Washington gets to give Julia Roberts a fond peck on the cheek. And you can probably think of a few more awkward moments where the possibility is offered, but then withdrawn. I suggested to a friend the other day that there might be a television sitcom in which Lisa Kudrow plays a scatterbrained but lovable housewife who has dreams of becoming a performer, while her husband is Ving Rhames, an expert manager in show business. The friend - a liberal - fiinched and chuckled and we both agreed that this isn't going to happen.

Of course, the programme model I had in mind - that of I Love Lucy - is relevant because in 1952 it showed something nearly as perilous: the union (later with children) of a white woman and a Cuban man, both of whom were plainly interested in sex. You don't even have to quote the slowly rising incidence of mixed marriages in the US to support such a plan. You need only say that such things are now not only legal, but thoroughly American. Aren't they?

Well, not exactly. This is a racist society still, where primal ideas about property and ownership are intensified if race is also involved. Once upon a time Lena Horne got cut out of the show when it played in the south and the west. Today you couldn't get away with that drastic measure - so no one comes up with the dangerous material. Am I alone, in recent years, in recognising the tacit racism and deplorable taste in a whole tradition of black movies to which Eddie Murphy above all has given himself?

But wait a minute: here comes a mainstream Hollywood picture with big star names in which a black man fucks a white woman, and does so in some of the steamiest scenes in several seasons. They dance, they talk, they have a mingling until they slide together into an icy New England lake where death makes one accident out of them. This is Robert Benton's The Human Stain (2003), a bizarre yet touching movie, much abused by American critics. It's taken from a Philip Roth novel in which a distinguished classics professor resigns from his teaching position because he used the word 'spooks' in class. He meant ghosts, but the alertness in students for scandal (the one topic on which they concentrate, Roth seems to say) hears only a pernicious reference to blacks.

The irony in this persecution is that the professor, Coleman Silk, is actually a black man who has passed most of his life as white. Always light-skinned, he had a white girlfriend in his blissful youth who went to pieces when she realised he was black. So he lived up to his paleness, though he became brilliant and acerbic in compensation. Now he starts a dangerous affair with a white woman, the beautiful but damaged member of a once lofty family whose self-contempt shows in her menial jobs. They are Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, and both of them have been called miscasting. But such charges only expose the archaic conventions of casting and suitability. For if a white actor can play Othello or a black Hamlet, then Hopkins can be a secret black and Tommy Lee Jones can pass as an Apache, albeit one called "shit-for-luck".

The real lesson goes back to the racial radicalism of Sam Fuller's Run of the Arrow (1957) where Rod Steiger is an Irish Confederate malcontent, far more rebellious than the Rebels, who gives up white America to become a Comanche. He is actor enough to realise this essential American condition: that if we can be whatever we resolve to be, then we are actors all of us. But in that climate, how can any race survive, next to the great, shifty mass of pretenders? So many blacks now are ghosts or demons on the American screen. It is time to begin the conversation that films like The Searchers and The Missing have steadily dodged.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012