As I also asked previously in an article I wrote about the Lone Ranger (HERE), is John Ford’s classic western “The Searchers” yet another example of black history “lost, stolen or betrayed” as they used to say?
First of all, let me say that I love all movies – all kinds – but westerns just might be my favorite genre. I suppose I got my love of them from my father who loved westerns to death, and I’m convinced he saw maybe every western ever made, even small obscure B westerns, and could tell you the theater he first saw the film in.
And there are so many great westerns that I love, like “The Good and The Bad and The Ugly,” “For a Few Dollars More,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Wild Bunch,” “El Dorado,” “Dodge City,” “One Eyed Jacks,” “Last Train from Gun Hill,” “The Long Riders,” “Chato’s Land,” “The Professionals,” “Ulzana’s Raid,” “Duel at Diablo,” “Django Unchained” and countless others. And I’m discovering old ones for the first time, all the time..
And needless to say, while most of you are waiting for that new “Star Wars” film in December, the two films on the top of my “Must See Now” list this Christmas are Alejandro Inarritu’s, reportedly nearly three hour long, pioneer western “The Revenant” with Leonardo DiCaprio which is basically another retelling of the 1971 western “Man in the Wilderness” with Richard Harris (Like I told you. I know my westerns); And there’s Quentin Tarantino’s also rumored nearly three hour long “The Hateful 8” in its 70MM Ultra Panavision glory, and will be presented with an overture, intermission and exit music just like those reserved seat/road show epic moves of the 1960’s. And then there’s that remake of “The Magnificent Seven” directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington coming out next Sept. Despite the western being declared dead more than once, it’s somehow still alive and kicking.
But “The Searchers,” which was first released in 1956, is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest westerns of all time. The thing is though, just between you and me and these four walls, it isn’t. Like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” I’ve always found “The Searchers” a colossal bore with a meandering script that spends nearly two hours going nowhere in no particular hurry.
In case you’ve never seen it, it tells a simple story, stretched out to an interminable length, of a ex-Confederate Civil War solider Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne) who returns home to his brother’s family after years of wandering, trying to get over the fact that his side lost. However, shortly afterwards, his brother’s family is killed by a Comanche raiding party, taking Edwards’ niece, Debbie, hostage.
So Wayne, along with Debbie’s adopted brother, go on a years-long search to find her and bring her back home. However, Edwards is crazed with hatred for Indians in general, and intends to kill those who’ve taken Debbie hostage when he finds her, since she has been basically defiled by those “heathen Indians.” Of course, eventually Edwards finds her, swoops her in his arms and takes her back home. End of story.
And no doubt there will be some who will say that I’m out of mind and that “The Searchers” is a masterpiece. You believe what you want, but you’ll never convince me. I’ve seen it several times (at least those times when I haven’t fallen asleep while watching it) and I stand by what i said. Though one day I do have to wrote about Ford’s 1960 Warners film “Sergeant Rutledge” starring Woody Strode as a black Army cavalry officer on trial for raping and killing a white woman – one of Ford’s most fascinating films and pretty daring stuff considering when it was made.
But what’s more interesting is the backstory of “The Searchers.” A story that actually would make a more interesting film. And to answer the question I posed at the beginning, it’s yes. “The Searchers” is actually based on the real adventures of a now mostly forgotten black man.
Just like Bass Reeves was the original inspiration for the Lone Ranger, the character of Ethan Edwards in Ford’s film is based on a real black man named Brit Johnson.
Believed to be originally from Kentucky, Johnson was a slave, taken to Texas by his owner, Moses Johnson, who intended to free him once they got there. Unfortunately for Brit, his owner sort of changed his mind (funny how those things happen), but did work out an arrangement with Brit that allowed him some more freedoms than the typical slave, and was allowed to travel about, working as Moses’s ranch foreman in Elm Creek, Texas.
However, in the fall of 1864, Brit Johnson went on a trip to another town with some other ranchers and farmers to stock up on winter supplies. While they were gone, a Comanche raiding party of 700 invaded Elm Creek, raping and killing people, stealing horses and burning down houses. Among those the Comanche kidnapped and took as hostages, were a white woman named Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, her son, Joseph, daughter, Susan Durgan, along with Susan’s children, Charlotte and Millie Jane.
However, the Comanche also kidnapped Brit Johnson’s wife, Mary, and their two children; though a third child, a son, was killed during the raid. On his return to Elm Creek and discovering what happened, Johnson immediately set off to find his family, but soon eventually found the white women, Fitzpatrick, and with the help of a Comanche Chief named Asa-Havie, who negotiated for her release, returned back to Elm Creek with her.
Determined to go back to find his wife and children, and with Fitzpatrick personally financing his search for her children and his family, Johnson made three more trips with no luck. But then finally on his fourth attempt, Johnson found out from Chief Asa-Havie that the Kiowa were rumoured to be holding some black captives.
Once again, using the chief as his negotiator, not only did Johnson find his family, but also the children of Fitzpatrick except for her granddaughter Millie Jane, who was never found, but was later discovered to have lived the rest of her life as the adopted daughter of a chief.
After his exploits, Johnson became of a local legend, and by the time the Civil War was over, he was officially a free man. He went on to become a successful businessman by using wagon teams to haul freight across the state since.government contracts went to his company, because it was a government policy to favor business contracts with black freedmen at that time.
Unfortunately, it ended rather brutally for Johnson a few years later. In 1871, while leading a wagon train delivering supplies, they were attacked by a Kiowa raiding party. Johnson and the rest of the men put up a brave fight, killing their horses to use them as cover, but they were eventually overwhelmed, tortured, killed and scalped by the Kiowa. An inglorious end to a brave man.
However, many years later, the story of Johnson and his search for his family, and the other captives, became the basis of Alan LeMay’s 1954 novel “The Searchers,” which in turn became the movie starring John Wayne and directed by Ford.
But don’t you think Johnson’s real story would make a really fascinating movie? At least, without him getting tortured and dying a gruesome death in the end.
It could’ve been when, in 2010 author Paulette Jiles’ “The Color of Lightning,” which is based on the real-life story of Brit Johnson, was optioned for Sir Ridley Scott to direct at 20th Century Fox, and the Oscar-winning screenwriters of “Brokeback Mountain” had been hired to adapt Jiles’ novel.
According to Amazon.com, “The Color of Lightning” is… “a lively exploration of revenge, dedication and betrayal set mainly in Kentucky and Texas near the end of the Civil War. Britt Johnson is a free black man traveling with a larger band of white settlers in search of a better life for his wife, Mary, and their children, despite the many perils of the journey itself. After a war party of 700 Comanche and Kiowa scalp, rape and murder many of the whites, Mary and her children get separated from Britt and become the property of a Native named Gonkon. Britt must wait through the winter before he can set out to rescue and reclaim his wife and children, only to discover that not only does he not have enough money to bargain with the Indians but also that his own family’s fate has as much to do with land disputes and treaties as it does with his determination to get revenge.”
The project was never produced, and there’s no word on if it’s even still in the works. Although you’d think that with what seems like a resurgence of the Western, now would maybe be a good time to revive it.
By the way, there does exist a plaque in Texas commemorating Johnson and his heroic endeavors, he is mainly forgotten now, with his real story radically changed and distorted to become the book and the movie “The Searchers.”
But this is not unusual to say the least. There are so many great stories of black men and women who accomplished great things that have been distorted to remove any traces of our earthshaking contributions to the country’s and the world’s history. It’s our duty to bring those stories back to life and not rely on anyone else to do it for us.