The western is colossal landscapes. Valleys, plateaus, and outsized canyons that overwhelmed the settlers of America and us, moviegoers who love a genre that many have wanted to kill before, ignoring that the myth is immortal. John Ford is one of the directors who have shot that horizon like no other elevating the use of the CinemaScope to the absolute beauties. But sometimes the weather and its inclement weather prevented him from exercising the cinematographic trade.
It is said that one of those days with miserable weather conditions a Ford collaborator asked him desperately Mr. Ford, what can we shoot here? And Ford replied What can we roll? The most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world a human face. That passion for the beauty of a face is that of a humanist filmmaker. John Ford bets on us, delving into both misery and human greatness a balance evident in Ethan Edwards, one of the best characters in his entire filmography.
As Genara Castillo summarizes in his text entitled Comments on Humanism by John Ford: He presents us with a vision of human life in tension in search of something that quenches his thirst for infinity. This vital plot highlights heroism passion and strength for the truth, for the authentic, for the good. Ethan Edwards who plays John Wayne in Desert Centaurs is a veteran who returns to his brother’s home in Texas three years after the Civil War in which he fought for the Confederates. A man forced to surrender who hates the Yankees less than he hates the Indians.
When Comanche Indians kill his family and kidnap his niece Ethan goes on a journey of hate, a furious crawl that will take years. In a tired look that of a loser, the actor and the director draw the contempt of a man and his fear of a bitter destiny. John Wayne’s gaze meets the gaze that Paul Greengrass photographed Tom Hanks in the role of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the protagonist of Big
Captain Jefferson is, like Ethan, a veteran of the same war, and who also like him, had to surrender to the victory of the Yankees of the northern states. Since then Kidd has spent five years traveling from city to city reading news that occurs in other corners of the country to small merchants, peasants miners, settlers, and entire families who either cannot read or have no time for it. One day on the plains of Texas Kidd meets Johanna, a ten-year-old girl raised for six by the Kiowa tribe. Raised as an Indian she does not know how to speak English, she does not know what a fork or spoon is and after the death of her indigenous family, she must be taken to her legal guardians the last remaining relatives, who are her uncles.
Kidd will have to accept the commission and both will undertake a journey of hundreds of kilometers across the inhospitable landscape of a country that is beginning to build its national identity although it is still wild and very dangerous. Gunmen, landowners, and indigenous people is the best chapter of the lucid essay I shit on Godard! that Pedro Vallín dedicated to American cinema, and in it is repaired an injustice committed by film critics who denied the genre by calling it a chronicle of the genocide of the indigenous population.
Among many reasons and arguments, it is interesting to read Vallín explaining how the Native American really occupies a secondary and alien role in these cinematographic stories. They respond to the philosophical concept of otherness, otherness the strange and alien. They function only as a metaphor for the inclement of the environment their threat is not different from that of the landscape itself, its flora and fauna. That is the imperialist sin.
However, when Frank Nugent, writer of Fort Apache or Desert Centaurs, came to the Hollywood industry (he had previously been a critic in the Times) things began to change. Already commissioned by John Ford to adopt the Fort Apache novel, Nugent altered the visceral hatred of the Indians from the material he adapted to make them victims of criminal exploitation that was already sanctioned by the government.
In addition to that gave them an identity, at Fort Apache, there is a stark contrast between the young hot-blooded warrior and the wisest veteran. A characteristic that was standardized in the western and has even survived to this day. In the intense plot of Rockstar’s video game, Red Dead Redemption 2, Sudden Rain and Flying Eagle, father and son respectively, suffer several confrontations with which the benevolent protagonist of the video game, Arthur Morgan, must deal with.
In Desert Centaurs, the Indians are also something more than alterity. Ethan’s niece is kidnapped and the terror of her presence ravages many moments of the film. The chief of the tribe has his own name Scar and is played by German actor Henry Brandon. On the other hand, Ethan’s destiny is closely linked to his niece more Indian every hour, every day, every month, and every year that Ethan can’t find her.
In Big World News, however, the Indians do work the same way a sandstorm works in the middle of the desert. Even the fact that the young Johanna was educated by the Indians does not have much relevance in the plot if instead of the Kiowa tribe she had been educated by the wolves, the film would hardly undergo any important change.
It is in that sense the Greengrass film is a western from the early Hollywood age. A perfect adventure about two human beings crossing a continent country in the middle of the construction of immense and dangerous nation traffickers of women a town of farmers dominated by an authoritarian and despicable criminal, storms, Indians, liars, and thieves. Tom Hanks’ character vents the problem of the Indians in one sentence The settlers kill the Indians for their land and the Indians kill the settlers to get it back.
Desert Centaurs begin with a door opening a porch, and an entire family watching the hero ride his horse from the horizon of the American West in the distance. During the search for his niece Ethan, who hates Indians for their savagery he finds himself very close to that brutality, that fury from which he barely manages to escape. Isn’t their uprooting from the world, their nomadism, and lack of commitment to American law the same as that of the Indians?
And when it all ends at the end of a story full of strength, lyricism, rawness, and also a good sense of humor, Ethan stands in front of a door that closes and leaves him out. In very few westerns there is room for the gunman. For General Castillo, John Ford manages to turn his film into a reflection on emotional ties belonging to a community, and a common history. The world is changing, it is the 1950s and new political concerns are beginning to flourish in the United States.
And 65 years after the premiere of Centaurs of the desert Paul Greengrass delegates the weight of a story set in the American West which does not deconstruct the genre, but quite the opposite to the civilized and anonymous hero who, as we all know has the face by Tom Hanks. Captain Kidd begins this story by reading the news to those who want to hear it and for just two cents. He is, a priori, no pale horseman, no nameless preacher, no gunman. He is a man with a kind look who has understood after surrendering that at some point he will have to stop fighting.
As the story progresses and events crowd one after another in the straight line that wagon travels, Kidd learns to love that little girl as he begins to understand that a nation is being forged around her. in which it is necessary to defend democratic values also liberal, community and forgiveness. Greengrass and Hanks want America to stop burning, they want to fight the savage polarization that threatens their nation and so they return to the founding genre that helped forge the myth of the most powerful country in the world.
By the time the film ends Kidd no longer reads logistical news about train tracks under construction famine or disease, he reads stories because he knows there is nothing better than stories that cannot be skewed or refuted to unify the feeling of a now cracked country. Tom Hanks is the Ethan of the new world he is not a cowboy, he is not the messianic hero of John Wayne who could not cross the threshold of the door at the end of his adventure. There is room for the modest hero of Tom Hanks. In fact, we need you here with us and as soon as possible.