An exhausted, alienated Confederate veteran. A girl abducted and adopted by Native Americans. A long, treacherous road home through Texas.
These are the ingredients of the new Oscar-contending western “News of the World.” They’re also the components of one of the all-time great westerns, “The Searchers.”
“News of the World” is the inverse, optimistic version of John Ford’s masterpiece, with John Wayne’s psychotic racism exchanged for Tom Hanks’ sad, sympathetic eyes. “News” can be brutal, but it’s also conciliatory. And it suggests hope, not eternal loneliness.
So how did one of the year’s most prestigious films flip the script on a dark Hollywood classic?
“News of the World” director Paul Greengrass, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 9/11 film “United 93,” saw the similarities from the moment he read Paulette Jiles’ novel. “It did feel very much like the reverse of ‘The Searchers,’” he says by phone. “In ‘The Searchers,’ Wayne’s character goes out into the desert on a quest to find the girl. In this film, Hanks’ Captain Kidd finds the girl at the beginning, and it’s his quest to bring her home.”
It’s not as if the two movies are twins. But they play off each other in fascinating ways. “I didn’t think of ‘The Searchers’ that much when I saw ‘News of the World,’” says Peter Bogdanovich, the filmmaker and Ford scholar, by phone. “But it’s a good analogy.”
Both films are captivity narratives of sorts. Based on Alan Le May’s novel, which in turn was based on the real-life story of Cynthia Ann Parker, “The Searchers” finds Wayne digging into the darkness of man’s soul.
It’s 1868, and Wayne’s Ethan Edwards has spent the years since the Civil War wandering the Southwest. Shortly after the film begins, the family of Ethan’s brother is slaughtered by a Comanche war party, and the Comanche chief, Scar (German-born actor Henry Brandon), abducts Ethan’s niece, Debbie, and grooms her to be his wife.
To Ethan, the prospect of sex with a Native American is a fate worse than death. As he traverses the desert in search of Debbie, his mania mounting with each passing year, we’re not sure if he wants to rescue his niece (played by Natalie Wood when she gets older) or kill her.
“In ‘The Searchers,’ Wayne plays a rabidly prejudiced guy,” says Bogdanovich. “He’s definitely a racist. But I don’t find that racism enters into ‘News of the World’ at all.”
It certainly doesn’t come from Hanks’ Jefferson Kyle Kidd. A lonely, itinerant Confederate war veteran, like Ethan, Kidd travels through Texas in 1870, reading newspaper articles from town to town, passing the hat for modest payment. Passing through Wichita Falls, he comes upon 10-year-old Johanna (Helena Zengel), a Kiowa captive whose Native family has been slaughtered, just as her German immigrant family was killed by the Kiowa.
As one character puts it, Johanna is an orphan twice over. She speaks no English, only Kiowa. She’s never met her only living family. Kidd agrees to take her to them, hundreds of miles away. He just wants to make it to his own home, in San Antonio; Johanna’s kin are on the way.
Along the way they meet some scary customers, including a drifter and his “associates,” who try to take Johanna and groom her as a prostitute, and a power-mad bully who holds a town under his sway and asks Kidd to read some homespun propaganda. But Kidd is never a threat. He’s no Ethan. Nor are the Kiowa a menace. We brace for bloodshed when Johanna approaches a group of Kiowa amid an epic, terrifying dust storm. Instead, the Natives give her and Kidd a much-needed horse.
Greengrass had “The Searchers” on the brain by the time he made “News of the World”: In 2017, when Netflix adapted the Mark Harris book “Five Came Back,” about American filmmakers who served in World War II, Greengrass directed the material that focused on Ford. “I had re-watched all of Ford’s films and thought a lot about them,” Greengrass says.
He had also been living in the same fishbowl of pandemic and political anxiety as everyone else. Plus, he had just made a film, “22 July,” about a horrific, real-life right-wing terrorist attack in Norway.
He was looking for some hope, a quality that stands out even in the darkness of Jiles’ novel. He found himself asking questions: “What’s the road out of this division and bitterness and violence? What’s it look like? What story could I tell that could illuminate that? I’ve often found when you find yourself dwelling on a question, you find a story. When I look back now, I think those two things, the contemporary reality and ‘The Searchers,’ all came together in my mind.”
It’s hard to imagine Hanks playing a Wayne-like maniac, or really any kind of maniac. “He’s so brilliant, because he invests ordinariness with such heroism, but without it being grandiloquent,” Greengrass says. “He’s just the best of us.”
Then there’s the western genre itself, which has grown far more socially progressive in the years since “The Searchers.” Films such as “Little Big Man,” “Dances With Wolves” and even Ford’s own “Cheyenne Autumn” display a more fully developed portrait of Native American culture and history. This is what really sets “News of the World” apart from Ford’s famous captivity film. Though set only two years after “The Searchers,” “News” never presumes the superiority of the white man. And no one in the film argues that Native captivity is a fate worse than death. Kidd and Johanna are both lonely souls, on a level field. So is that Kiowa who ends up giving them the horse, in what Greengrass sees as a key moment in the film.
“There’s that enigmatic moment between Kidd and the Kiowa chief,” Greengrass says. “We see in a sense that both are lost in the endless rugged landscape.”
They’re searching as well — not for vengeance, but for something more valuable. Something that feels like grace.