Masculinity in The Searchers and Midnight Cowboy

The Searchers, directed by John Ford and released in 1956 seems to have a clear message, but like most movies its message can be more complicated than originally received. It is considered one of the greatest movies of all-time, landing in the top ten of the American Film Institute’s greatest hundred movies list year after year. One would argue because of its direction and its epic scale. 13 years later, John Schlesinger would turn another novel into a movie a very different movie, sending a coded message into the pathos of Hollywood films with Midnight Cowboy. The Searchers is an example of classic Hollywood at its apex. Midnight Cowboy, also considered a Hollywood film, is more of an example of where art meets classic Hollywood. The Searchers is about as mainstream Hollywood as it gets. The movie was directed by one of the most influential Hollywood directors of all time, John Ford. It stars one of the most important actors in the history of Hollywood films, John Wayne. Midnight Cowboy had neither of these things, and yet, has carved out its place movie history as deep as Ford’s The Searchers has. When breaking these movies down you might not find a lot in common, cinematography, sound, and editing but their main themes and story are a little too similar to ignore. It may seem on the surface that these movies could not be more different however when juxtaposed the theme and character commonalities are similar as the production styles are different. Each of these movies is dealing with different statements about male sexuality and the tropes of a masculinist society. The Searchers was the culmination of the themes of the western, including a strong stance on masculinity. Midnight Cowboy is a response to the event depicted in The Searchers, trying to break down the myth of the masculine cowboys of the west using a very similar story of two men on a journey to find someone or something.    

If masculinity is the result of being anti-feminine: fatherly, restricted emotions, being the hard-working breadwinner for a family, pursuit of achievement and status, self-reliance, strength, aggression and homophobia then the viewpoint of Midnight Cowboy is a quest in depicting men in the newer, more modern terms of humanity, as genuinely flawed individuals rather than as archetypal masculine stereotypes. In The Searchers, however, masculinity is celebrated. The Searchers could be considered one of the most masculine driven movies of the western genre. John Wayne upholds the standards of “manliness” in a way many actors have aspired to, but never quite gotten near achieving. He was tall, rugged, strong and handsome. From these traits in the movie it is hard to separate him from the character of Ethan Edwards. This was a peak performance from a seasoned veteran actor. He knew exactly what Ford was trying to achieve with the character and the movie. They had worked together many times in the past, and had created this masculine persona for Wayne that he carried all the way through his career. Jon Voight isn’t known as masculine actor by any means. He is tall, but doesn’t fall into the rugged and strong categories. When it comes down to looks, he could be considered as a beautiful man more than a handsome one. His interpretation of Joe Buck comes off as mostly feminine, although the goal of his character is to be masculine. Voight was new to the Hollywood scene and didn’t necessarily carry around a well-known personality that the public at large was aware of. In this sense, Voight was perfect for exploring a role that is at odds with masculine illustration of men in westerns up to this point in film history.        

Ethan Edwards in The Searchers earns his masculine persona from the depictions of cowboys in the myths of the west. He is also hardened by war. His commitment and oath to the south is a testament to his manhood. Early in the film, the Reverend Clayton asks him to become a deputy, in order to find out what happened to Lars’ cattle, Ethan refuses. “You wanted for a crime?” Clayton inquires, and Ethan replies, “Figure a man’s good for only one oath at a time. I took mine to the Confederate States of America. So, did you, Sam.” His side has been defeated in the war and upholding his bravado is of the utmost importance to him. Ethan even refused to surrender, evading the idea that he has or will ever stop fighting. Showing this level of self-reliance and aggression are decidedly masculine character traits. He isn’t open to change or vulnerability. We move a little further into the film, Ethan returns to his brother’s home in flames and most his family dead. This is an opportunity for Ethan to lose his composure. The type of man Ethan is, this is a time for him to become emotional. His character could become unhinged at any time. This, of course, isn’t the case. He restricts his emotions, to an extent, and swears revenge for what happened to his family. Once again, showing any kind of vulnerability would undermine his bravado.   

In Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck takes a trip to New York City. He’s a country boy, born and raised in Texas, looking to get out of his boring and tragic existence as a low payed dishwasher. He fancies himself a gigolo, thinking his southern charm will land him in the arms of a rich woman who will pay for everything. These are immediate displays of anti-masculine behavior. We are mere minutes into the film and he is already backing out on self-reliance and being a hard-working bread winner of a family. His desire to leave his home in in contrast to Ethan, who after years away has finally come home. When Joe lands in the Big Apple, he instantly goes on the prowl and finds a woman with whom to sling his charming ways. Joe gets his opportunity, only to squander it away when the woman demands he pay her. The actions of Joe during this scene is truly the anthesis of the way a “man” would handle the situation. He can’t keep his emotions in check and this deficiency causes him to lose control over the situation. Joe’s main issue is his loss of control, something a “man” never does. Especially a western man, dressed the way he is. The official outfit of the cowboy, romanticized in almost every western to date, is what Joe dons as a signal of his masculinity. Unfortunately for him, at the time of this movie’s release the myth of the cowboys in the west was tapering off. Joe doesn’t realize this but the rest of the world does. He assumes that his outfit is interpreted by others as the uniform of a stallion or a stud, although this term does eventually become synonymous with male prostitution in American culture. Joe is actually shocked to find out from his new found friend Enrico Salvatore Rizzo “that great big dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody, except every Jackie on forty second street.” It is easy to see that this directly references the cowboy myths and Joe’s defensive attitude about the statement breaks down the new found femininity in the film. “John Wayne! Are you tryin’ to tell me he’s a fag?” “That’ll be the day.” 

What is interesting about both these films are the dynamic between the couples that take part in each other journey. Since the main cast of both films are mostly male, we miss out on opportunities to see the simple aspects of male/female movie culture on display. Men “do” (meaning their actions are what make their character who they are) and women “feel” (taking on the emotional weight of the man and his actions are the result of the outcomes.) In The Searchers, it is Martin who takes the female role. Ethan takes Martin along with him, whom he saved after his family was massacred, taking the role of a father and protector of him. He won’t even let him see the dead members of the family after the Comanche raid, wanting to spare him the pain. Now that Martins family is dead, Ethan assumes the role of progenitor. He is going to take care of Martin, even though it originally seemed he had no intention to. He must take responsibility for his adopted step-nephew. Ethan is in the lead the entire movie and Martin always in tow. Ethan takes the lead on the search for Debbie and Martin is left to show the emotional side of the quest. He cries out to Ethan at one point in the film, “I hope you die!” Ethan shrugs it off, responding with the causal and more than once used, “that’ll be the day.”  

In Midnight Cowboy we see Joe Buck start the movie with the idea that he will be the one leading the charge. After his first few meet ups with Rico, he realizes he is out of his league in the big city and need someone to help guide him along. Joe Buck begins as a doer and eventually succumbs to being a feeler. This is something that Ethan Edwards would never allow, his brazen masculinity always takes the lead, as his character does. Joe is lost his was and insists that if Rico were his management, he would then be able to accomplish his task. Joe Buck feels his identity is lost without being the image of the alpha male. He hoped to strike it rich in the new city as male prostitute, finding bored housewives who would be willing to pay for sex only to find out that his only hope is in homosexual males paying him for his services. This completely flips the masculine dominated cowboy image on its head as this is the most striking portion of femininity in the movie.  

When watching each one of these now considered classics it is easy to get wrapped up in the great storytelling that they offer. But most movies have always come with a message in the story that they tell. Sometimes the message is blatant. Even though it was well filmed and may have moved you, it may not have left you thinking about it for days, months, or even years. A movie may be out of time or come at a time when its message is too late or too early to inform. This is why it is important to dive deeper into the meanings and messages in the movies we watch today and the movies we watched over a century of film making. The Searchers gave the world a classic western with a classic western star and director. It was made at the end of a long line of movies of similar type and takes the entire genre into account in what it put into the cinema world. It doubles down on the viewpoint of masculinity as its main character is the embodiment of both the actor that portrays him and the genre that made him a star. Ethan Edwards is a man. A fatherly, bread-winning, aggressive, self-reliant and strong man who takes control of movie and dominates the plot set around him. Midnight Cowboy put another thoughtful movie into the world. Subtly addressing the masculine message, The Searchers gave the movie going audience. From the jab at it’s racism by calling the main character Buck, as opposed to the bad Indians being referred to as bucks, all the way down to calling John Wayne a fag by one of its main characters, it breaks down the manly cowboy myth to the core.  Joe Buck isn’t any of the things the Ethan Edwards is. Whether these messages and what we conclude from them were intentional or not does not matter. What matters is that the interpretation is there. It is one of the more freeing things about movies. The ability for the viewer to try to gleam what a movie is trying to tell them. We go on a journey in both movies with two men and end up with very different outcomes and messages. 

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