As Aristotle proscribed an ideal form for Greek Tragedy, so many distinct film genres have evolved after a pattern of effective storytelling. Few of these mirror Greek tragedy so closely as the Western. This appears, in part, to be due to shared values between these paradigms for plot over character, and for objectivity and emotional restraint.
The Western in its primitive form can be explored via The Great Train Robbery (1903). This is a narrative in which the momentum of the plot completely overwhelms any identity of characters participating in it. A problem is exposited, a question posed, and then completely solved at a clipping pace. As dialogue is not incorporated into the medium in this film, visual cues and Delsartian gestures are used to communicate action and move the plot forward toward its succinct end.
Over the following 50 years, the genre emerged and evolved and patterns and devices that proved effective came to be incorporated into the identity and expectation for the genre. It follows Classical narrative structure in the sense that it poses as an answer to a series of questions, maintaining an interesting pace while delaying the main answer to the main question until the end.
The characteristics that the cinematic Western came to share with the proscribed ideal for Greek Tragedy include objectivity valued over subjectivity, emotional restraint, systematic thinking, simplicity and clarity, universality, dignity, acceptance of established social standards, promotion of general welfare, and strict adherence to formal rules of composition.
John Ford’s 1956 Western “The Searchers,” appears on many levels to be complicit with the established norms and classical style of the Western, certainly enough so that audiences of the time would identify it as a fit within the genre, but the film also begins testing the limits of epistemological knowledge within a classical narrative style. Ford transformed it, largely by omitting expository dialogue from the original script, into an architecturally revisionist Western. (A subgenre largely associated with darker, more morally ambiguous Sergio Leone Westerns).
It tells the story of Ethan Edwards. He appears at his brother’s family farm in Texas after a prolonged absence. His brother’s family is massacred by Comanches, excepting the 9 year old daughter, Deborah/Debbie who is abducted. Ethan and his brother’s adopted son Martin spend the next 5+ years searching for Debbie, and at some point Ethan declares that his intention is to kill Debbie if he can find her. (Presumably because she’s old enough to have been almost certainly sexually active either complicitly or forcibly, and to Ethan that is a fate worse than death. Though even this is not explicitly explained.) Ultimately Debbie is found, the Chief we understand to be responsible for her abduction is killed, and Ethan chooses not to kill her. He returns her “home” to family friends and leaves.
Ford’s film differs from the classic Western form in its comfort with ambiguity. It asks far more questions than it even suggests an effort to answer. It creates an early example of an anti-hero in Ethan Edwards. It allows uncomfortable similarities between the main antagonist and the main protagonist, Scar. (Especially as Ethan is denied the opportunity to kill Scar, but still scalps his corpse.) It posits so many questions about identity and race (narratively and visually) that the parentage and detailed ethnicity of every character is called into question.
The Searchers includes all the elements of Aristotle’s Classic Tragedies: plot, character, thought, diction, and music. But it also subverts them. In opposition to Aristotle’s ideals, the characters in the film become far more important than the plot. The thought, or questions the film asks are largely more about the characters than about the plot. The primary question that is about the plot: “will Ethan find Debbie, and what will he do to her when he does?”, is the only question the film asks that it also seems to answer. The diction, or dialogue largely serve to ask more unanswerable questions, and the music within the film itself (From the theme song by Stan Jones, “What Makes a Man to Wander”, to the use of folk-song-based musical motifs) is used to create associations and ask questions that are never answered.
The film calls into question how much any character or audience can really know about events they have not actually seen. In this sense it is very reminiscent of Socrates’ allegory of the cave, from Plato. The verity of any explanation or assumption about the shadows of understanding are called into question. The process by which we come to trust the character of a protagonist is called into question. The consequences of Aristotelian storytelling with straightforward answers to direct questions are made plain. Ambiguity reigns. We begin to recognize many of our assumptions about the genre and it’s racial assumptions as shadows rather than as fleshed out reality.
Ethan Edwards, as an antihero prototype, rejects Aristotle’s ideal of a tragic hero being a morally or socially superior character. Ethan’s character is constantly called into question and found wanting. Unanswered, unflattering questions about him abound. Where had he been for the 3 years since the Civil War ended? Where did he get a large quantity of newly minted coins? What exactly was his relationship with Martha Edwards? Had he fathered any of Martha’s children? What was the catalyst of his fierce racism? How and why had he come to be so literate in the Native American cultures and languages of the area? Why did he think or say he wanted Debbie killed? Why didn’t he kill Debbie? Why did he have to leave after bringing Debbie to the Jorgensons? No answers, only suppositions for a viewer. Ethan defies Aristotle’s criteria for an appropriate protagonist. “Characters should be: good (nope) appropriate (nope) life-like (eh?) and consistent (nope, and that’s the crux.)”
Aristotle said all dialogue should move the plot forward. In this film a lot of the plot was moved forward by what was seen instead of what was said. And a lot of what was said served largely for character expository. Ultimately the character [of Ethan] became more important than the plot. The scope of this plot was very Homeric. The film in this sense became as much an epic as a tragedy or Western. But the plot remained unified. All parts of the story as told remained relevant to the whole, even if they didn’t answer the questions the narrative was asking.
Complexity of the plot was enhanced by both reversal and recognition, both methods of climax promoted by Aristotle. But despite the combination of both reversal and some sort of recognition in Ethan’s ultimate decision not to kill Debbie we still aren’t sure what happened. Still, The Searchers fulfills much of Aristotle’s proscriptions for an ideal plot. It does terrifying and pitiable in spades. It just doesn’t do answers. Aristotle said an ideal tragedy would develop the plot and solve it well. Was this plot solved? Yes, but so ambiguously that is kind of actually wasn’t.
Ford appears to have been maximizing ambiguity in this film, especially surrounding Ethan’s moral character, in order to explore the consequences of racism, hatred and violence, and the dead end of the story of the American West. The civilian horrors on both sides of the American Indian Wars and the desert landscape of Monument Valley frame this story, or rather this broad and reaching question, about a character as base and hateful as his enemy.
And so, as Aristotle unintentionally taught us, rules are made to be broken. But those best positioned to stretch and defy the rules are those who have mastered them first. Ford’s extensive experience with the Western Genre helped him develop a strong opinion about the most effective way for him to tell this particular story. But he does maintain one key classical element in his enigma of Ethan Edwards. Ethan is universal. He represents and brings to the surface a viewer’s personal demons. His story asks 119 minutes worth of questions about those demons, and then leaves the viewer on their own to answer them. It’s a terribly effective recipe for introspection, if not for Aristotle’s beloved catharsis.