A movie’s magic is finding something new in every screening. 1,819 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Professor Daggett sits inside a local coffee haunt in Silverlake chatting with his colleague, Avery Dortch, who teaches cinematography at USC. Dortch, a short balding man with glasses and a love of Shakespeare, cups his hands around a caramel latte.
“Story doesn’t mean shit anymore, Avery. It’s all bells and whistles and car crashes and explosions.”
“I’ll grant you that we’re raising a generation of pre-diabetic androids who’ve never heard of Titus Andronicus.” Dortch lifts his head and closes his eyelids and recites, “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head…”
“Yes, yes, I know. But what do we do about it, Avery? Nuance means nothing anymore. Everything must be spelled out. The trailers give away the whole plot. Moviegoers now expect it.”
Dortch returns to earth. “I had a student once who said the cornfield scene in North By Northwest is way overrated.”
“You see? Proves my point.”
“When I asked him why, you know what he said? That Hitchcock should have had another plane appear. Then they could have had a big air duel in the sky over the cornstalks.”
Daggett lowers his head and stares at his drink. “I had an epiphany, Avery. It has to do with The Searchers. I assigned it to my film class this week.”
“The Western? And what’s your epiphany, pray tell?”
“I was walking to campus when it just hit me out of the blue. The answer to a question that’s been ping-ponging around in my noggin for years.”
Daggett looks up at his colleague, suddenly animated. “You know how the movie opens, right?”
“She steps out onto the porch and sees John Wayne riding up.”
“No, just before that. The door swings open. And she’s this silhouette. And all around her, it’s dead black. Why?”
“Because it’s in the interior of the farm house in shadows.”
“Yes. But the same thing happens again at the end of the movie. When Debbie is returned to join the Jorgensens. And they walk inside. They turn into silhouettes just like Martha was in the opening scene. And then comes Laurie, the Jorgensens’ daughter, and then Marty. The lovebirds. But Ethan doesn’t enter the house.”
“Right. He turns and walks away. A very distinctive walk by John Wayne, by the way. Ethan can’t join them. It’s a classic ending. So much to think about there, I grant you.”
“There’s another scene where there’s just this darkened interior looking out to the bright daylight.”
“Where is that?”
“The cave scene.”
“You mean where Ethan rides up and is about to kill Debbie but then changes his mind?”
“Yeah. She cowers and he lifts her up and she raises her fists to protect herself from this maniac who she is convinced is about to murder her.”
“So what is your epiphany?”
“This is going to sound totally insane, Avery. I’m probably all wrong.”
“You probably are. Go ahead. I’m all ears.”
Back on campus, the athlete shoots through the air, his legs scissoring for a split second. Feels like forever. Takeoff. Soar. Landing. Any glitch, any hint of uncertainty, can send him crashing and the hurdles toppling.
Sweat pours from Levi Sims as he leans forward and crosses the finish line and hears his coach call out the time. “Won’t cut it,” the coach grumbles, hands on hips. “Have to do better than that or you won’t qualify for Nationals.”
But Sims can’t concentrate. His mind is crowded. Confederates. Racists. Ethan Edwards. Comanche Chief Scar. All caught up in a dark whirlpool of The Searthers for Professor Daggert’s class. I hate who’s fucking with my head, the athlete says to himself. But he’s not talking about Professor Daggett or even the film’s director John Ford.
No, Sims is railing against whomever left all the unanswered questions in the movie. Like who is Martin’s mother? Who is his father? Why are there so many racists in this film? There’s Ethan. And maybe Scar. They loathe each other but their hatred isn’t new. It extends way back beyond the film’s opening scene. Audiences are left to make up the backstory. Fill in the blanks. But there isn’t enough information to do that. So frustrating!
The athlete mops his face with a towel as his coach tells him to try again. “You can do better,” the coach says. “You’ve just got to concentrate. It’s all up here in your head.”
“Let me rest a sec, coach,” the athlete pleads as he sits down on the grass and crosses his legs to think. He begins talking to himself. “He found Martin as a baby. The scalp that’s on Star’s lance. It’s not Aunt Martha’s or Lucy’s. It’s the scalp of Martin’s mother.” Levi picks up a few blades of grass and watches them slip through his fingers. “Ethan, if I had been there, I would have slit your throat,” the athlete mutters. “I’m not Martin Pawley.”
“So want anything else from me about The Searchers?” Mr. Mylar asks his daughter Skylar as they turn off the movie.
She sighs, “Dad, if I was kidnapped, would you come looking for me?”
“To kill you, you mean?” he chuckles.
“You’d accept me for whomever I would want to become?”
“No matter what?”
“No matter what.”
“And you wouldn’t be disappointed in me?”
“That’s an interesting theory, Levi.”
Professor Daggett sits on a high stool before the class.
“Racism is raw and very real in our society and certainly was back in the 1800s. You have to remember there was a war about slavery and then in the real West there were battles between the settlers and certain defiant tribes. Taking scalps really happened. Many Indians were mercilessly slaughtered. And remember, this film is loosely based on a true story. About a young child who was abducted — Cynthia Ann Parker — by Comanche warriors back in 1836. She refused to return to her real family. She remained with the Indians for nearly a quarter-century. A military raid finally freed her. But by then she had children of her own. She tried to escape back to the tribe several times. It’s quite a story.”
Sims raises his hand. “I suppose the film takes liberties with that story.”
“It’s a work of fiction, Levi.”
“But it got me to thinking. What happened that Martin’s mom had him in the first place? His father was likely an Indian, no?”
“It’s unclear. In the film, Martin thinks he’s quarter Cherokee along with European stock. He obviously has not been told the real story of his mom’s death. But people around him know. Ethan knows. Reverend Clayton knows. What do you think?”
“I think they’re one messed-up family.”
Laughter ripples through the classroom.
“They are that,” Daggett agrees. “Did you do any research, Levi?"
“I found out that John Huston made a Western as sort of a leftist political response to The Searchers.”
“Yes, The Unforgiven. It starred Burt Lancaster with Audrey Hepburn playing an adopted Indian daughter.”
“She was a Kiowa, wasn’t she?”
“That’s right. It may interest you to know that both films were based on books authored by Alan Le May.”
“So, about The Searchers. There seem to be things only hinted at in the film about what binds the Edwards’ family and Chief Scar. Am I right?”
“Look at the raid on Aaron Edwards’ farm. It was a meant to scald out either Ethan’s brother or the Jorgensens place. It turned out to be Aaron’s. This was Scar’s doing. He must have had his reasons. This wasn’t to run off cattle. Remember, the Jorgensens’ prized bull was slaughtered just to lure the Rangers away. Scar is seeking vengeance. Skylar, you raised you hand earlier.”
Skylar shifts uncomfortably in her chair. “I was more interested in Martha and Ethan.”
“I mean, it’s obvious they’re in love with each other. She’s pressing his Johnny Reb coat like she cherishes it more than anything. Maybe she recalls when he wore it and they kissed?”
“Yes, that’s possible.”
“And Reverend Clayton knows a lot.”
“Yes, he does.”
“Well, I might as well come right out and say it. I just think that Debbie is Martha’s daughter by Ethan.”
Groans are followed by nodding heads and fill the classroom.
“Interesting theory,” Daggett says. “Some have certainly speculated about this before. Why do you think that?”
“Lots of reasons,” Skylar explains. “One being that they’re still in love. And they haven’t seen each other in years. And Martha looks out the door at the very start of the movie and she can see Ethan riding up when even people in the audience can’t see him at first. It’s instinctive. She can sense him nearby. That’s love. True love.”
“Okay. What else?”
“So, if Debbie is their daughter, then it figures that Ethan has even more incentive to want to find the girl no matter how long it takes.”
“But why kill her?”
“Don’t you see? He doesn’t kill her. He has a change of heart once he gets to see more of her.”
Daggett pauses a moment, then addresses the entire class. “The other day, I had what I thought was an epiphany. It happened on my way to class. Now, I want to warn you, it’s probably wrong. I mean, 100-percent wrong. And I don’t want to put any crazy ideas into your heads about John Ford and his intentions. I mean, he made what is widely considered a great Western although the late Roger Ebert said the film is a flawed vision of racism which was an issue invisible to audiences back in the 1950s. Anyway, I was thinking—“
The professor stops, then shakes his head while staring at the floor. Daggett looks up. “Let’s say that Skylar is right. Let’s say that Debbie is the child of Ethan and Martha. And throughout the film, at important junctures — at the beginning and twice at the end — we have these darkened interior shots. I was thinking it’s almost like a birth canal, in a way. Particularly the cave scene.”
“What?” Sims bursts out laughing, then stops and grows serious.
Daggett resumes. “Life was given. Life was threatened. Life was saved. That’s all I’m saying. If the truth had been known that Debbie was really Ethan’s child, then the family would have been scandalized. Especially Martha. She kept the true identity of the girl from her husband. She looks scared in some of her scenes.”
“So the cave scene is Ethan finally coming to terms with Debbie being his own child and having a sudden change of heart?”
“I’m not sure,” Daggett says. “All I know is that Ethan cradles her in his arms—”
“And he says, ‘Let’s go home, Debbie.’”
“Then in the closing scene, he walks away. And she survives.”