Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cemetery Scenes: The Presence of the Dead in John Ford’s Westerns


The great Westerns strike a balance between the opposing experiences that define life on the frontier; they understand that the thrill of adventure comes hand in hand with the very real threat of death. Cowboys and cavalry fire their guns and gallop across the open land like eternal mythic heroes, but all around them we see evidence of mortality and feel the burden shouldered by survivors. Nowhere is this memento mori sensibility more present than in the Westerns of John Ford, where dead characters frequently function as mute participants in the lives of the protagonists, watching and listening from the grave while those still living struggle to make sense of the events that unfold. In three of Ford’s best known films, My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956), cemetery scenes highlight the relationships between the living and the dead and remind us of the human cost of settling the Western frontier.

In My Darling Clementine, Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is a quiet, reflective character, and his visits to the lonely grave of his youngest brother, James, remind us that Wyatt has already paid dearly for his life on the range. Only briefly alive in the film, James is the sacrificial lamb whose murder roots his brothers in Tombstone and spurs them to action against the corrupt Clanton family. Ironically, Wyatt seems to talk more to his dead brother than he does to the two who are still alive, perhaps because James is no longer bound by the masculine code of behavior that normally governs men’s relationships. The graveside chats with James allow Wyatt to reveal a more sensitive, communicative side of himself, one that must be carefully guarded in the world of living men, where stoicism and action are highly prized. James’ persistent presence, symbolized by his grave, also reminds the audience why Wyatt and his remaining brothers are in this fight, not because they enjoy killing but because justice demands it. 

The humanizing element of the cemetery scene is particularly important in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in which John Wayne’s aging Captain Nathan Brittles frequently visits the graves of his wife and daughters. We never learn the exact cause of their deaths, although the graves indicate that all three died more or less at the same time, suggesting either an Indian attack or some terrible accident. While the younger men vie for the attentions of Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), Brittles clearly considers himself still married to his dead wife, making reports to her about events at the fort and his own reflections on them. Other reminders of the dead family appear throughout the film. Photographs of Mrs. Brittles and the two daughters repeatedly turn up in important shots, and the frame that holds them is decorated with a yellow ribbon that connects them to Olivia and the other women of the fort. It’s clear from the way that the film treats the Brittles family relationship that Olivia functions as a surrogate daughter to Nathan; she is about the same age that his daughters would be had they lived. Bittersweet and tender, these moments in the film soften Wayne’s character and suggest the importance of love and family even to career soldiers on the rugged frontier.

In The Searchers, the film’s critical cemetery scene takes place very early, when young Debbie Edwards (Lana Wood) is kidnapped by the Indian raiding party led by Scar (Henry Brandon). The grave in question belongs to Debbie’s grandmother, the mother of Wayne’s troubled protagonist, Ethan Edwards. The grave suggests the way in which the Edwards’ tragic frontier story repeats itself, with the elder Mrs. Edwards also a victim of Indian attack. Just before her entire family is murdered by the Comanche raiders, Debbie is sent to the grave to hide, but this time the dead can provide no consolation to the living. Mrs. Edwards serves only as a silent witness to her granddaughter’s fate. Driven almost to madness by these repeated losses at the hands of the Comanche, Ethan launches an obsessive search for his niece (who might actually be his daughter, but that’s a different thread of the film’s twisted plot). His goal is to kill Debbie and thus return her to the family circle symbolized by the Edwards cemetery plot, which will complete the connection between Debbie and her grandmother, even though Debbie actually survives the original attack. Although it offers no protection to the little girl, the grave does offer the audience a better understanding of the Edwards story and a glimpse into the true origin of Ethan’s hatred.

In each of these films, the cemetery represents the presence of the past in the lives of the protagonists. For Wyatt Earp, Nathan Brittles, and the Edwards clan, the cemetery holds family members who remain crucial to the stories of the surviving characters, reaching out beyond the grave to motivate, comfort, or bear witness. In their own ways, they are as important as any of the living characters in the films, reminding us that the dead are always with us. 

This post was originally published at the now defunct classic movie blog, The Cinementals.