As every discerning person knows, “The Searchers” is the greatest movie ever made. It is loosely based on the real story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted from her East Texas home in 1836 when she was 9 years old by Comanche raiders, who then raised her and kept her for 24 years.
John Ford’s 1956 movie focuses not on the abducted girl but on her uncle and adopted brother, who, in that telling, spend seven years tracking her and her abductors down.
The center of the movie is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne. He is as morally ambiguous a figure as movies can produce, at once brave, loyal, caring and honest, but also vengeful, hateful, dangerous and tainted by racism. As Glenn Frankel notes in “The Searchers,” his recent book on the movie, Ethan spends much of the film in pursuit of an old-fashioned honor killing. At least at first, he doesn’t want to rescue his niece; he wants to find her and kill her to enforce his brand of racial and sexual purity.
Classics can be interpreted in different ways. These days, “The Searchers” can be profitably seen as a story about men who are caught on the wrong side of a historical transition.
The movie’s West was a wild, lawless place, requiring a certain sort of person to tame it. As University of Virginia literary critic Paul Cantor has pointed out, that person had prepolitical virtues, a willingness to seek revenge, to mete out justice on his own.
That kind of person, the hero of most Westerns, is hard, confrontational, raw and tough to control.
But, as this sort of classic Western hero tames the West, he makes himself obsolete. Once the western towns have been pacified, there’s no need for his capacity for violence, nor his righteous fury.
As Cantor notes, “The Searchers” is about this moment of transition. Civilization is coming. New sorts of people are bringing education, refinement, marriage and institutionalized justice. Crimes are no longer to be punished by the righteous gunfighter but by law.
Ethan Edwards made this world possible, but he is unfit to live in it. At the end of the movie, after seven years of effort, he brings the abducted young woman home. The girl is ushered inside, but, in one of the iconic images in Hollywood history, Edwards can’t cross the threshold. Because he is tainted by violence, he can’t be part of domestic joy he made possible. He is framed by the doorway and eventually walks away.
That image of the man outside the doorway is germane today, in a different and even more tragic manner. During the past few decades, millions of men have been caught on the wrong side of a historic transition, unable to cross the threshold into the new economy.
Their plight is captured in the labor statistics. Male labor force participation has been in steady decline for generations. In addition, as a recent New York Times report noted, all the private sector jobs lost by women during the Great Recession have been recaptured, but men still have a long way to go.
In 1954, 96 percent of American men between 25 and 54 years old worked. Today, 80 percent do. One-fifth of men in their prime working ages are out of the labor force.
As Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, has put it, “The situation here is basically a disaster, a crisis far worse than most commentators and policymakers seem to recognize, and with no clear prospects for appreciable improvement over the near-term horizon.”
The definitive explanation for this catastrophe has yet to be written. Some of the problem clearly has to do with changes in family structure. Work by David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that men raised in fatherless homes, without as many immediate masculine role models, do worse in the labor force. Some of the problem probably has to do between a mismatch between boy culture and school culture, especially in the early years.
But, surely, there has been some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity. Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues. Now, thanks to a communications economy, they find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues.
Surely, part of the situation is that many men simply do not want to put themselves in positions they find humiliating. A high school student doesn’t want to persist in a school where he feels looked down on. A guy in his 50s doesn’t want to find work in a place where he’ll be told what to do by savvy young things.
There are millions of men on the threshold. They can see through the doorway to what’s inside. But they’re unable or unwilling to come across.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.