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When Hollywood Westerns Fought Racism

03/12/2015 12:47 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Now when Hollywood is reeling from a much-deserved diversity scandal, it's a good time to remember the historical role of Hollywood in civil rights. Hollywood was ahead of the country as a whole during the civil rights era of the 1950s. This was especially evident in the unlikely genre of the western, where a frontal assault on American racism involved some of the biggest names in Hollywood history such as John Ford, John Huston, and others as familiar.

But before the 1950s, the Confederacy ruled the heart of Hollywood. The influential first movie epic, Birth of a Nation, is having its centenary this year. Directed by D.W. Griffith, Kentucky-born son of a Confederate colonel, the film featured the heroic KKK saving white women from animalistic black rapists. This helped catapult a near-defunct Klan to the status of minor political party in the 1920s with membership in the millions, electing governors and senators.

Birth of a Nation was the biggest grossing film until another Southern white-suffering epic, Gone with the Wind (1939), which is the top-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, according to the website Box Office Mojo. GWTW established the movies' and the nation's dominant version of the Civil War: invaded white Southerners who were benign slaveholders with content loyal slaves.

This version began to change during the civil rights era of the 1950s, which was also the golden age of the Western movie. In the moral atmosphere created by the civil rights movement, and in the aftermath of the unimaginable racist atrocities of World War II, some of the best Hollywood directors were compelled to take on American racism in their Westerns. At a time when the subject was far too controversial to address directly, filmmakers had Native Americans stand in for African Americans as the targets of racism.

John Ford's The Searchers (1956) was named the Greatest American Western of all time by the American Film Institute, and it is 12th on the AFI list of the 100 best American movies. John Wayne plays an anti-heroic ex-Confederate searching for his teenage niece who has been kidnapped by Indians. When he realizes she has been taken as an Indian wife, he continues searching for her not to rescue her, but to kill her, because she is now racially polluted.

John Huston used the western in a similar way in his The Unforgiven(1960), in which a settler family is shunned by their community because one member is an adopted Indian, and she is even referred to as a "red-hide nigger." Huston enhanced the analogy with Southern racism by adding a hint of incest to the recipe.

The classic The Magnificent Seven(1960), based on Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, begins with an ingenious scene in which two of the heroes meet for the first time while confronting an armed racist mob that is trying to prevent the burial of an Indian in a frontier cemetery.

There is only one western of the classic period that directly takes-on racism against African Americans, and that is John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge (1960) about a black cavalry soldier accused of the rape and murder of a white girl.

This is not to say that any of the other movies mentioned were not also about anti-Indian racism. Indeed, John Ford ended his career with Cheyenne Autumn (1964) in which he drew an explicit parallel between Indians and Jews under the Nazis.

In Cheyenne Autumn, a German-immigrant army officer, who loves and studies Indians, is willing to send a group of captured Cheyenne into the certain death of a forced march in the dead of winter. When repeatedly challenged, he counters each time, in a thick German accent, with a variation on the famous defense used by Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust: "I was just following orders." The same year that the script was written, 1962, Eichmann was tried on international television. The German-American officer is last seen in Cheyenne Autumn staggering in a daze through the strewn corpses of soldiers and Indians including mothers with babies wailing beside them.

When the dust settles from this current diversity crisis, it's historically likely that Hollywood will eventually do the right thing.