Almost five decades ago John Ford created The Searchers, his masterpiece about a cowboy on a compulsive quest for a girl kidnapped by Comanche warriors. The 1956 Western influenced successive generations of filmmakers drawn to its theme of loss and redemption. Director Ron Howard has now fashioned his own, similar 19th-century saga, The Missing, in which Apaches snatch an adolescent.
These two white maidens -- played by Natalie Wood in The Searchers and Evan Rachel Wood in The Missing -- provide a curious sexual and racial subtext in an otherwise rather prim genre. Both face deflowering by ogres of color.
The classic film stars John Wayne as Ethan, a Texan hunting for his abducted niece after her parents are massacred. Yet the bitter, taciturn and overtly bigoted character vows to kill her because she has become a "squaw." He spends several years pursuing the elusive tribe through the forbidding mesas and buttes of Monument Valley.
In the 2003 cinematic venture, which opened nationwide over the Thanksgiving weekend, it seems to take the protagonists only minutes to locate the enemy by traversing the ruggedly beautiful New Mexico landscape. Tommy Lee Jones appears as Jones, a grizzled desert rat who has "gone native." He joins forces with his long-estranged daughter (Cate Blanchett) to rescue her child. Held by a band of renegade Indians, Lilly is among several young female captives about to be sold across the Mexican border as enslaved concubines.
Blanchett portrays Maggie Gilkeson, a flinty single mom who supports her two kids with a rudimentary healing practice. She's an uptight version of television's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Lilly is rebellious, but not nearly as much as the self-destructive vixen she plays in Thirteen. This frontier gal yearns to experience the world beyond their remote cabin; the kidnapping is her comeuppance.
A stubborn little sister named Dot (Jenna Boyd) insists on going along for the dangerous ride to rescue Lilly, but the special bond she supposedly forms with Grandpa is hinted at but never fully developed. Jones is too busy trying to win over Maggie, who remains furious that he abandoned the family 20 years earlier to learn the ways of indigenous people -- whom she thoroughly distrusts.
In the older film, John Ford gives Ethan a formidable nemesis: a Comanche chief known as Scar. Ron Howard presents Jones and Maggie with an even more demonized bête noir: Pesh-Chidin, a horribly scarred and brutal Apache brujo, or witch. As the enigmatic villain, Eric Schweig taps into the hideous aggression of movie monsters such as Freddy Kruger or Jason of Friday the 13th fame.
Pesh-Chidin's supernatural powers have their limits, however. While he's able to cast a nasty spell over Maggie, the guy has to ride a horse like everybody else while traveling through the mountainous terrain.
Instead of innovative magic, the picture opts for plentiful violence that's often downright gratuitous. This bloodletting eclipses any real perspective on the period. Unlike the post-Civil War era of The Searchers, in the mid-1880s of The Missing America was already fomenting the Industrial Revolution.
Don't blink or you'll miss a brief flirtation with the idea of an Old West in flux. When Maggie asks for help from the sheriff of a nearby town, he sends out a newfangled telegraph message to the U.S. Army and tells her "the modern age" has arrived. The Cavalry, on the other hand, doesn't.
A bit later, a rogue lieutenant (a cameo by Val Kilmer) declines to assist her, as his soldiers loot a home where the owners have been killed by "savages." That's about it for social commentary.
With Jones and Blanchett acting up a storm, The Missing primarily seeks the emotional wallop of personal reconciliation. John Wayne's Ethan is a man of few words, but for some reason what he doesn't say resonates more powerfully than the chatter of talented contemporary thespians hoping to tug at the heartstrings.
These days some people wonder if it's our democracy that's gone missing. Among them is Robert Greenwald, who visited the Green Mountain State in 1988 to shoot the Don Johnson-Susan Sarandon romantic yarn Sweet Hearts Dance. The director has turned his attention to political issues with Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, a documentary screening for free at Montpelier's Savoy Theater this Saturday, December 6, at 11 a.m.
Greenwald also produced Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, a hit at last year's Vermont International Film Festival. His latest effort surveys about 25 diplomats, government officials, CIA experts and weapons inspectors for insights on this country's preemptive, lethal mess in the Persian Gulf.