Indian Identity: Case Studies of Three John Ford Narrative Western Films

Open Access
Graff, Peter Alan
Graduate Program:
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • Charles Dowell Youmans, Thesis Advisor
  • John Ford
  • Musicology
  • Race
  • Westerns
  • Iron Horse
  • Stagecoach
  • Searchers
Music in John Ford’s Westerns reveals increasingly complex and sympathetic depictions of Native Americans throughout his filmography. While other directors of the genre tend to showcase a one-dimensional “brutal savage” archetype (especially in the early sound era), Ford resisted this tendency in favor of multidimensional depictions. As a director, Ford was particularly opinionated about music and wielded ultimate control over the types of songs used in his films. The resulting artworks, visual and aural, were therefore the vision of one creator. To investigate the participation of music in Ford’s approach, I have investigated three archetypal products of the Western’s three early periods: The Iron Horse (1924), Stagecoach (1939), and The Searchers (1956). In The Iron Horse, an Indian duality is visually present with the incorporation of friendly Pawnees and destructive Cheyennes. My recent recovery of the score, however, reveals a more complicated reading due to thematic borrowing that identifies white characters as the source of Indian aggression. Stagecoach builds upon this duality by adding a third morally ambiguous Indian character, Yakima. This addition and the links drawn musically between white and Indian societies challenge the traditional reading of Apache villainy. The Searchers fully integrates this concept of cultural parallels, resulting in a story centered on issues of tribe rather than race. The pairing of Anglo and Indian cultures that are fully realized both visually and aurally thereby deconstructs the concept of virtue determined by race alone. Ford’s use of music brings to light his constantly evolving portrayal of Native Americans, allowing him to transcend the demeaning stereotypes of contemporaneous Westerns.