Picturing Justice, The On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

John Denvir
John Denvir


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Ethan thinks that he can eradicate the evil by killing Debbie, but the viewer recognizes that the evil against which Ethan fights lies partly within his own tortured mind.






My take

Evil That Lurks Within

by John Denvir

The New York Times reported recently that the interim government in Afghanistan recently released more than 320 Taliban fighters. Hamid Kazhai, the leader of the government, dismissed his former enemies with the statement, "Go home, and lead peaceful lives." I am struck by the strong contrast between Mr. Kazhai's actions and those of the American government towards John Walker Lindh, the Marin teen-ager who went to Afghanistan and eventually fought with the Taliban. While the Afghanistan government is wishing its former enemies good luck, we are hoping to imprison young Mr.Lindh for what might be 60 or 70 years.

I think John Ford's great Western The Searchers can shed some light on America's harsh treatment of young Mr. Lindh. The movie centers around the charismatic but troubled character of Ethan Edwards, played by that American icon of maleness, John Wayne.

Ethan is a loner who returns to his family in Texas after serving as an officer in the confederate army. We are immediately drawn to Ethan because he embodies many of the virtues we value in the American character. He is smart, tough, and loyal. He's more a man of action than words, but we sense that he dearly loves his family.

Shortly after Ethan's return to Texas, his family is killed by a Commanche war party. The only survivor appears to be his little niece Debbie who the Commanches take with them. Accompanied only by the family's adopted part-Indian son Martin Pawley, Ethan begins the long search to save Debbie and take revenge on the savages who killed his family.

We learn a good deal about Ethan during the search, which goes on over five years. We see that he is the epitome of the resourceful American frontier hero, relentless in pursuit of his goal. He's convinced he will succeed because while Commanches will eventually stop, he never will.

But slowly our respect for his perseverance starts to diminish. His need for revenge seems more and more an obsession like that of the mad Captain Ahab with his whale. Once it becomes clear that Debbie has become a wife to a Commanche chief, the goal of rescue mutates into the need to kill her. Martin, who started the trek to save Debbie from the Commanches, ends it by saving her from her uncle's fury.

I think we can see some parallels between Mr. Walker's plight and that of Debbie. It's true that Walker was not abducted; he went to Afghanistan of his own will. But he went on a religious quest to study Islam, not to attack America. He had no connection to Osama bin Laden or the September 11 bombings. It was America's bombing which precipitated his involvement in the war. He saw the Taliban as victims of American aggression. Like Debbie, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think the character of Ethan has relevance to our government's treatment of Mr. Walker. Something went wrong in Ethan when he found out that Debbie was not just a captive, but she was a squaw. A man who started out on a courageous quest to save a little girl finished it trying to kill her. Ethan felt that Debbie's cohabiting with a Native American infected her with evil. Ethan thinks that he can eradicate the evil by killing Debbie, but the viewer recognizes that the evil against which Ethan fights lies partly within his own tortured mind.

I should point out that at the end of the movie Ford has Ethan relent and even finally save Debbie. It's not a very satisfactory ending, probably motivated more by John Wayne's star image than the logic of the plot. But we can always hope.

Posted February 25, 2002

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