In his review of Cowboys and Aliens (2011) for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman declares: “the gifted director Jon Favreau stages a kind of mini-Rio Bravo set in a dusty mining town full of cowards and bullies.” Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) is not the John Wayne Western that first comes to mind. That honor instead goes to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), what critic Noel Carroll calls “the ur-text of the New Hollywood,” seeing as it serves as the source text for films ranging from Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) to The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994).
In its mash-up of the Western and science fiction traditions, Cowboys & Aliens is able to solve one of the fundamental problems with these American Westerns, their attachment to the racist captivity narrative. In texts such as A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson (1682), the most widely read piece of American literature in 17th century America, white people hysterically fear being ripped from civilization by barbaric Native Americans.
The Searchers is perhaps the most complex classical Hollywood articulation of the captivity narrative, in which the Indian hunter Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) maniacally hunts his niece Debbie’s captor, the Comanche chief Scar, successfully returning her to white homesteaders in Monument Valley. By the early 1970s, New Left ideology would begin to question the superiority of white civilization, resulting in Hollywood Renaissance Westerns such as A Man Called Horse (Eliot Silverstein, 1970) and Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), films wherein the captivity turns out to redeem, not terrorize, the white captives.
Much earlier, The Searchers began to render ironic the foundations of the captivity narrative. In the last shot of the film, an unseen foot kicks the door shut as Ethan turns his back to civilization after he has delivered Debbie home. The film demands that such a barbarian be doomed to wander the dusty trails of the Wild West forever, no longer welcome into the society he has saved. Nonetheless, there’s little else in The Searchers to indicate that we are supposed to see the rescue of Debbie from the Comanche as anything other than a happy ending.
The American Western has never solved the central problem of the captivity narrative. As complex a film as The Searchers is, it nonetheless maintains the racist dynamic that to be captured by Native Americans is a fate worse than death. For their part, the liberal Westerns of the 1970s and 1980s, typified by Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990), an inexplicably popular film, merely expresses hand-wringing by white liberals at the treatment of Native peoples, while such behavior continues unabated. Having declared the post-9/11 Western to have fallen into a right-wing pit, as witnessed in Ron Howard’s The Missing (2003), if anything a more racist film than The Searchers, I found myself in awe of the power of genre hybridity in Cowboys and Aliens to solve the problem of the American Western. By making aliens, against whom we can discriminate at will, the captors in the narrative, Favreau’s film can reference The Searchers and unite the white homesteaders and the Native American sidekicks in a battle for the future of humanity.
Cowboys & Aliens features a central protagonist, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), familiar to the American Western since the 1950s. He is an ambiguous hero, quick to violence, with a troubled past, akin to Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, the most familiar anti-hero in American cinema. After aliens kidnap townspeople, including the son of ranch magnate Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), already familiar from his anti-social grumbling as yet another Ethan Edwards analogue. They are assisted by Nat, an adopted Native American who is reminiscent of Ethan’s partner in the search for Debbie, Martin Pawley.
Central to The Searchers is Ethan Edwards’ racist refusal to consider the “half-breed” Martin as a member of his family. As Brian Henderson explains in his elegant essay, “The Searchers: An American Dilemma,” Ethan is an allegorical modern Southerner. Alan LeMay’s novel on which the film was based was published in 1952, while the film adaptation was released in 1956, with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision directly intervening. Ethan believes only in “kinship by blood” while all of the other characters (save Scar, the Comanche warrior antagonist) believe in “kinship by adoption,” welcoming Martin into the fold of the white families homesteading Monument Valley.
By the end of Cowboys and Aliens, Dolarhyde, unlike Ethan before him, will come to his senses and realize that he has it completely backwards: kinship by blood has gotten him a ne’er-do-well drunk for a son, while kinship by adoption has resulted in him having a glorious surrogate son, worthy of his love. Nat is greatly skilled, tracking the aliens through rainstorms, thoughtful and kind, while Dolarhyde’s biological son, Percy is mean-spirited and cowardly.
At the climax of Cowboys and Aliens, as the white men attack the alien spaceship which contains the kidnapped relatives, Dolarhyde cradles the dying Nat, who tells his surrogate father: “I always wanted to ride into battle with you.” Dolarhyde finally acknowledges his intimate status: “I always wanted to have a son like you.” This completely reworks the ending of The Searchers. Ethan’s racism is never redeemed, only his love for Debbie: he is left to wander the desert, unwelcome in white civilization built on a structure of kinship by adoption.
Dolarhyde’s racism is fully redeemed. Indeed, once the rancher accepts kinship by adoption, Cowboys and Aliens exorcises The Searchers as its intertext, fragmenting into the endings of yet two more classical Hollywood Westerns. Despite losing Nat in the battle, Dolarhyde’s victory results in the rescuing of the captives, restoring his kin by blood, Percy, who apologizes to his father: “I’m sorry, I don’t remember much.” The aliens’ captivity has resulted in Percy’s moral rebirth. He and his father can begin their relationship anew, building modernity out of the violent Wild West. This moment comes straight out of Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), another film foregrounding kinship by adoption via John Wayne’s star persona: after fighting Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) over control of a cattle drive for the entire film, Tom Dunson (John Wayne) agrees to run the ranch as a partnership, drawing a new symbiotic brand in the sand to celebrate their adoptive union. At the end of Cowboys and Aliens, Dolarhyde celebrates his son’s moral rebirth with the drawing up of new checks which read “Dolarhyde and Son,” using the rescued alien gold to prepare the town for the arrival of the new transcontinental railroad being built.
Because Dolarhyde’s plot line allows for the redemption of the old west, to make way for modernity, Lonergan is able to follow a different path, that of the traditional Westerner. The sheriff lies to the legal authorities, testifying that he saw Lonergan die during the assault on the alien spaceship, thus protecting the redeemed thief’s rebirth. As the Westerner rides out of town alone on his horse, the camera cranes up to elegize his exit from the community. This is less the banishment that Ethan Edwards suffers in The Searchers than the consecration of the redemptive Westerner that ends Shane (George Stevens, 1953). In that film, after having killed the evil gunfighter hired to displace the settlers, the mortally wounded Shane (Alan Ladd) rides out of town into the mountains, to die a mythical hero. Far from merely a “mini-Rio Bravo,” Cowboys and Aliens offers an maximally intensive articulation of the American film Western in order to undo its foundations in the racist captivity narrative, yet preserving the dual endings of the classical western. The film celebrates both the establishment of modern America out of the discarding of violence, while simultaneously celebrating the lone Westerner who made such progress possible.
– Walter Metz