The Gospel According to John Ford
The invented cowboy was a relatively late romantic creation. In terms of social content he represented the ideal of individualist freedom pushed into a sort of inescapable jail by the closing of the frontier. This archetype embodied by the likes of John Wayne was a noble, charismatic personification of Manifest Destiny. He was what America aspired to be. And in many ways, he still is the idealized talisman of American Exceptionalism.
However, like so many aspects of America’s history, the historical cowboy is a far cry from the romantic creation of film and literature. And like so many other aspects of our country’s history, this historical cowboy is a character that we have chosen to edit or ignore. Greed, violence and chicanery are historical realities of the American West. The atrocities committed during Westward Expansion are painfully apparent but they are still, for the most part, not welcome storylines in our national allegory, as they seem to undermine the heroic fabrication we have become accustomed to.
In this body of work I am editing and ignoring imagery from my source material in a manner similar to that of John Ford’s filmmaking or mythmaking in general. However, I am choosing to edit the narrative to be more fitting of the historical American West. By focusing on relatively minor portions of stills from John Ford’s film The Searchers, my version of the cowboy is transformed into a despondent individual encountering a bleak landscape and responding to this environment with fear, brutality and self-loathing.
Ultimately, by reinterpreting The Searchers as a tale of defeat and lost hope, I hope to raise questions about the principles and goals of Manifest Destiny, how the resulting ideology of American Excepetionalism has helped define a national identity and the how the role of the quintessential American hero, the cowboy, has defined masculinity and informed social norms within our culture.