The Search Goes On
by Graham Fuller
Dir. Thomas Bidegain, France, Cohen Media Group
Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys depicts the quest of Alain Balland (François Damiens), a Rhône Valley family man and Country and Western enthusiast, to find his 16-year-old daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), following her 1994 elopement with her secret Muslim boyfriend Ahmed (Mounir Margoum). About six years have elapsed when her taciturn younger brother, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield), a.k.a. Kid, joins Alain on his search. By the time of 9/11, Kid is seeking Kelly on his own; his travels take him to Pakistan where an American trader-in-humans (John C. Reilly) takes him under his wing. Kid’s misadventures there don’t reunite him with Kelly but contrive to make him responsible for the defenseless Shazhana (Ellora Torchia), Ahmed’s latest wife.
Les Cowboys is the latest neo-noir to draw inspiration from John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers. As the Indian captivity myth (and specific cases of Comanche abductions of female settlers) inspired Alan Le May’s 1954 novel, Ford’s revered adaptation has spawned its own progeny. Its mythic stature grew during the “movie brat” years: Paul Schrader cowrote The Yakuza (1974), scripted Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and wrote and directed Hardcore (1979), the latter a virtual Searchers remake; John Milius wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion (1975); and George Lucas enfolded in Star Wars (1977) the destruction of a galactic frontier homestead (named for The Searchers’ Lars Jorgensen) and a girl’s kidnapping (Princess Leia’s). From the previous generation of directors, Arthur Penn weighed in with Night Moves (1975), a “female rescue” noir much less lurid than Taxi Driver but as resonant.
Two Searchers derivatives—revenge quests for young women already dead—arrived in 1999: Joel Schumacher’s 8mm was an updated Hardcore without the context of repressive faith; Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey was nostalgic for Terence Stamp’s iconic gangster persona in Poor Cow (1967), which it visually quoted, and The Hit (1984). Lucas drew on The Searchers again for Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (2002). Ron Howard’s New Mexico Western The Missing (2003) was adapted from Thomas Eidson’s novel The Last Ride but is essentially The Searchers remade as a rugged, sexless, and simplistic family drama with added mysticism. Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984)—which used the Mojave Desert as a psychological backdrop as Ford used Monument Valley in The Searchers—is the only modern classic about the search for a missing woman to recognize the tragic implications of the West’s civilization project. Wenders was too generous—or too sentimental—to consign runaway wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) to a future in the Houston sex industry (these films’ contemporary equivalent of marriage to an Indian). Schrader, in contrast, hedged his bets in Hardcore. As Ethan rescues Debbie and Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) liberates Jane, Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott), a fish out of water in metropolitan California’s red-light districts, saves his corrupted teenaged daughter Kristen from her porn friends (and a snuff movie fate), but the time he has spent talking to his paid helper Niki (Season Hubley), an adult actress and hooker-with-a-heart, has merely made him question his Calvinistic puritanism, which alienated Kristen and her mother before her. Jake’s failure to honor his promise to extricate Niki from her degrading life—beyond feebly offering her money—shows the meanness of his Midwestern, middle-class, religion-based value system.
Les Cowboys is the first feature directed by Bidegain, cowriter of the last three Jacques Audiard films and thus a fair judge of violence’s galvanizing effect. The screenwriter Lauren Abitboll had alerted Bidegain to the C&W communities of the Rhône Valley, via Yann Gross’s photo book Horizonville, and as they conceived a quest drama they suggested he draw thematically on The Searchers. When Bidegain developed the screenplay with Noé Débré, his and Audiard’s collaborator on Dheepan, they apparently analogized Islam’s official position on modern Western culture’s sexual mores with Jake’s in Hardcore. That element fell away. Instead, Bidegain and Débré foregrounded Alain’s bullish Islamophobia and the sexual paranoia aroused in him by Kelly’s miscegenation, feelings that echo the racist hatred of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) for the Comanche who have raped and murdered his sister-in-law (whom he had illicitly desired) and his eldest niece, and who have abducted and despoiled her sister, Debbie (Lana Wood/Natalie Wood), the object of his conflicted search.
Alain’s bullishness and obduracy echoes Ethan’s. Kid’s tempered attitude to Kelly’s mixed-race marriage echoes the growing tolerance of Ethan’s “one-eight Cherokee” fellow searcher and surrogate son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who laments the Cavalry’s killing of his unwittingly purchased Comanche bride, Look (Beulah Archuletta), despite his having kicked her from the marital bed earlier on. The Searchers and Les Cowboys are rhythmically similar, though Les Cowboys is the more consistently serious. The Searchers may be Ford’s most powerful Western but it was marred by its knockabout humor. Also, in terms of Ford’s increasing regret over the whites’ slaughter of the Indians and the robbing of their land, it was a transitional work that anticipated Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his flawed apologia. Though unsympathetic to Ahmed, a non-active Jihadi, Les Cowboys recognizes the need for a rapprochement between the modern Western world and Islam, and it embodies one narratively.
Bidegain is discreet in his borrowings from The Searchers. The equivalent of the Civil War medal that Ethan gave the child Debbie is Kelly’s red and white bandanna, which Alain discovers being worn by a young Muslim girl living in a trailer park in Charleville in the Ardennes; his interloping there draws attention to the squalid living conditions endured by Middle Eastern immigrants in the Eurozone. The film’s strongest quote from The Searchers is silent. After a bleak sea journey to Antwerp, Alain and Kid drive through unnamed streets to a rendezvous with a thirtyish Muslim leader, seemingly Yemenese, and his two aides. As Alain begins bargaining belligerently to buy Kelly’s release from her voluntary marriage, the camera pans slightly to the right and Kid’s sightline takes in the figures of two chador-clad women conversing at a desk behind the man on the leader’s left. One woman, her face uncovered, is sitting; the other, who is standing with her back to the camera, partially obscures her; the composition suggests the latter might be Kelly. The mysteriousness of the shot—and the effect on Kid, fleetingly ruffled by the thought that his long missing sister may be a few feet from him—evokes Ford’s elliptical shot of Debbie wearing a velvety brown squaw’s dress in Chief Scar’s tepee and Ethan and Martin’s subsequent realization they are seeing her, a Comanche wife of 15, for the first time in seven years. With these mirroring images, Bidegain and Ford get to the heart of the “otherness”—as absorbed by a sexually mature white woman—that challenges the sanity of the racist aggressors Alain and Ethan but which younger (symbolically progressive) men like Kid and Martin are emotionally equipped to integrate.
A more muted film than The Searchers, Les Cowboys does not close on a shot as indelible as that of the Jorgensens’ ranch door closing on Ethan as he turns away into the Texas desert. It does conclude, however, with a final parting—another tellingly silent moment—that, though tinged with sorrow, shows how thoroughly Kid has rejected his father’s monomania and bigotry, if not his doggedness, and come to respect Kelly’s choices. He has become his own man. Though Kelly determined her course, too, it cannot be said for certain that she has ended up her own woman.