Jack Nilan            EMail : jacknilan@yahoo.com
John Ford and the Indians

John Ford directed three really good movies in 1939, Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk. In the latter two he has been criticized for his portrayal of Native Americans. Indians were used in these two movies as forces of nature. They were something, like the wilderness, that stood in the way of civilization.

In Stagecoach we are just presented with screaming savages, led by Gerinimo, who were out for blood. We never learn why they are on the war path. In Drums Along the Mohawk the Indians are either drunk, comic charicatures or blood thirsty savages being led by the British. In both movies we do not get to see the Indians side of the story. They are obstacles in the way of our heroes.

In 1948, John Ford made a movie called Fort Apache. It was to be the first in the "Calvary Trilogy", followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) andRio Grande (1950). In Fort Apache John Ford presents a much more balanced portrayal of the Indian. In the movie Col. Thursday, played by Henry Fonda, doesn't think much of the Indians that are in this part of the country. Captain York, played by John Wayne disagrees.

Col. Thursday : "We here have little chance for glory or advancement. While some of our brother officers are leading their well publicized campaigns against the great Indian nations, the Sioux and the Cheyennes, we are asked to ward off the gnat stings and flea bites of a few cowardly digger Indians.
Captain York : "You would hardly call Apaches digger Indians, sir."
Col. Thursday : "You'd scarcely compare then with the Sioux, Captain."
Captain York : "No I don't. The Sioux once raided into Apache territory. Old Timers told me you could follow the lines of their retreated by the bones of their dead."
Col. Thursday : "I would suggest that the Apache has deteriorated since then, judging by a few of the specimens I've seen on my way out here".

The movie is one of the first to give a positive portrayal to Native Americans. Cochise is portrayed as a proud, intelligent and merciful leader. He clearly outclasses the arrogrant, ignorant Col. Thursday in all areas.

In 1956 Mr. Ford made one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time, The Searchers. More than anything, The Searchers, is a story of redemption and healing. Ethan Edwards, whose mother had been killed by Comanche Indians, is a cazed ex-Confederate racist. The movie was made in 1956, at the beginning of the civil rights struggle in America. Instead of addressing the issue directly, John Ford used a Western to comment on the current situation. It was a very daring movie to make. Having a hero who was a genocidal racist and shoots people in the back was different role for John Wayne and a different kind of movie for John Ford.

The antagonist in the movie, Scar was the mirror image of Ethan. His family had also been slaughtered by his enemies, the whites. The movie shows atrocities committed by both sides. The Comanches slaughter and rape. Ethan murders and scalps. The US Army massacres women and children. John Ford shows a world where both sides are caught up in a cycle of violence that they can't escape from.

At the end of the movie, however, Ford makes it very clear that there is no room in the American homestead for the racist Ethan. He very clearly welcomes in Martin, the "half-breed" and Debbie, the "leavin's of Comanche bucks" sending a not so subtle message to the racists and segregationists in 1956 America.

In 1964 John Ford made his last western, Cheyenne Autumn. I don't think it was one of Ford's better movies but it was an attempt by Ford to apologize to Native Americans for his portrayal of them in some of his earlier pictures. Ford said :

"I had wanted to make it for a long time. I've killed more Indians than Custer, Beecher and Chivington put together, and people in Europe always want to know about the Indians. There are two sides to every story, but I wanted to show their point of view for a change. Let's face it, we've treated them very badly- it's a blot on our shield; we've cheated and robbed, killed, murdered, massacred and everything else, but they kill one white man and, God, out come the troops."
One thing I didn't enjoy was having Hispanics Sal Mineo, Gilbert Roland, Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Montalban portray Cheyenne. I never really believed in their characters.

The movie set in 1878, chronicles the true story of the Northern Cheyenne Indians, unhappy with life on the reservation, travel 1,500 miles from Oklahoma back to their ancestral lands in the Dakotas. The movie, though epic in proportion and scope, doesn't involve the audience as much as it could have.

Even though Ford's Indian movies didn't really end on a high note, I think it is still important to recognize the effort he put in to right his earlier wrongs. John Ford was a man who was not afraid to admit he made a mistake. Fort Apache was one of the earliest positive portrayals of Native Americans on film. Although he didn't have a huge role, Cochise came off as a heroic character. In The Searchers Ford showed there was no place for racism in America. In Cheyenne Autumn he showed how badly Native Americans had been treated by the government. John Ford, who was famous for directing westerns, understood the importance of rectifying his earlier portrayals of Native Americans.