Prisoner of the Desert: Dark in Color

Prisoner of the desert Undoubtedly one of the most famous westerns (besides Leone), both its impact and its power have made it iconic. Like a mid-50s western color Johnny Guitar, but it remains the only connection between the two films. Because here the colors come not to sing the beauty of Joan Crawford, but to contrast with the violence and brutality of one of John Ford’s darkest films.

Synopsis: Ethan, a former Confederate soldier, returns home to his brother and family three years after the end of the Civil War. Shortly after his return, and while he was away, Comanche Indians attacked his brother’s family, killed the parents and son, and kidnapped their two daughters, Lucy and Debbie. Therefore, Ethan, accompanied by the family’s adopted son Martin, goes in search of his nieces.

End of an era

It’s funny how many times the western genre is “dead”. with Prisoner of the desertit is the image of the cowboy as the flawless hero who is buried. The man who shot Liberty Valance and Gunshots in the Sierra To somehow draw the veil of a bygone era, literally, this time he will come to bury the actors who made the legend of the genre. But later films were preceded by the famous “spaghetti westerns” that revived the figure of this inflexible and inspiring hero for a while. John McCabe Where Little Big Man The Great Western decides to close his book as a grand and flawless epic. Adding to this not nostalgia, but realism about a not so prosperous era.

So let’s go back Prisoner of the desertand more to his rejection of Manichaeism. If the representation of Indians is problematic for some, as we will see later, the representation of whites is not intended to set an example for them. Here, John Wayne leaves his usual role as John Wayne and plays Ethan, a violent and racist cowboy who doesn’t fit in with the world around him.


John Wayne never hid his blatant racism against Native Americans, the latter of whom, in his opinion, deserved to be massacred because they would refuse to share their land and become a threat. He didn’t like the blacks either, because they “weren’t trained enough to handle the responsibilities.” And then what about his analysis Midnight CowboysWhen talking about the “healthy” love that God has to give compared to the two stories, ” demons “. With such a leading actor and the bellicose and merciless attitude of the Indians in the film, the issue of racism may arise.

So there is uncertainty about the racism of John Ford’s film. This is not about simply asking questions, regardless of the form of hatred. In the film, Indians kidnap children to raise, women to marry, and men to kill. The story told in the film is also inspired by a true story that happened in Texas in 1836.

These behaviors can be found Little Big Man It was developed by Arthur Penn with the help of descendants of the Cheyenne and Stoney peoples. The film is even considered a turning point in the west, presenting Indians as victims of Western conquest rather than as savages who must (eventually) be completely saved.

However, the above behaviors are nuanced Little Big Man With a lighter introduction like the moment Jack finds his kidnapped wife who turns out to be an Indian wife. Ford’s film appears on its ideological side with this cattle-free farm representing a white America cowardly attacked by “red-skinned primates” (pictured). Here, unlike little big manIndians are only shown as aggressive.

Therefore, the problem would not be the experiences of Indians, but their representation. As such, they are seen as a threat to the white man’s well-being, a representation that would become rarer in the cinematic landscape due to the onset of general awareness of the horror experienced by the native. Indians will even start to stop being played by white people with foundation.

John Ford’s approach to the question was again very different from what would later be adopted, with a view that was contrary to what the public wanted, namely the killing of Indians. Ford, on the other hand, believes in respecting the dignity and culture of the Native American people, he could have changed the mentality of the time sooner than waiting another 20 years.

Therefore, the film would not be racist in my opinion, because the anti-hero is far from perfect and so far from the cowboy image of the time that Ford’s desire to do real good is added, confronting the audience. it certainly wouldn’t be ready.

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A desert sauce masterpiece

Even if the film is considered problematic by some today, how could it have been prevented? Prisoner of the desert is its form so glorious and shining with a thousand lights to be considered an absolute masterpiece?

The production perfectly transcribes this desert that imprisons our two explorers, including what we inevitably remember at the end of the preview, namely John Wayne facing the enormity of the desert within this door frame, which represents his future. this world he no longer rules. This is where Winton C. Hoch’s color photography excels, as it creates a constant contrast between the life of the colors and the death around them, between Ethan’s hope of finding Debbie and his desire to kill her. it is enough when he finds out that he is not white, but mixed race. It’s not an adventure, it’s a prop for the old man who gets his niece out of her hatred of Indians, lets the half-blood Martin find his betrothed, and then has to leave the world to those who know how. to be happy there.

Finally, about John Wayne, far from his cool cowboy figure, a bit macho and alcoholic, but only wanting the best for his neighbor. No, the figure here is dark and cold, perfectly embodied by Ethan, who is willing to kill his niece because, according to him, she is no longer white enough. Apart from the fear of mayhem, it’s also an era where a cowboy hero faces off against a band of bloodthirsty Indians. Some gossips will say that the role was tailor-made, while others will say that this is “Duke’s” best acting, finding a complex role that allows him to show off his tragic talent. We love you, bastard.

Prisoner of the desert – Trailer:

Prisoner of the desert – Technical sheet:

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent (based on the novel by Alan Le May)
Photography: Winton C. Hoch
Genre: Western
Starring: John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter
Country of origin: United States of America
Duration: 118 minutes
Release year: 1956

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