In John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums the viewer is challenged to define what makes a family and what maintains it as a cohesive unit. These two films work in opposite ways to evolve our thinking; one beginning with a nuclear family unit that is torn apart by the ravages of battle and then alternately reformed, the other divided by a separation of time and distance at the films start and then brought back together by hardship. The key message of both films is that family is less blood than it is loyalty. The Searchers begins at the home of Ethan Edward’s brother’s family.
Ethan has returned from the war and has come to stay with the family. The Edward’s family represents a traditional unit of a mother, father, two daughters and a son. The film takes place during the unstable feuding times of the settlement of the West and the family is torn apart by an attack from a warring Comanche tribe. The family is all murdered with the exception of the youngest girl Debbie who is taken hostage by the Comanche. Ethan, who was not present at the time of the attack, dedicates the rest of the film to finding and rescuing his niece.
He is joined by Martin Pawley a friend of the family who was treated like a son and brother. Initially Ethan rejects Martin, partially because of his Indian bloodline and partially because he isn’t any type of true blood relation. Ethan views family according to bloodlines and is frustrated that Martin insists on helping in the search. The Royal Tenenbaums begins in a dramatically different fashion. The film starts with the children of the Tenenbaum household living their adult lives. There are flashbacks to what childhood was like in the household.
Like the Edwards, The Tenenbaums represented a nuclear family with mother, father, two sons and a daughter. Similar to Martin’s role in the Edwards family there is also a friend, Eli Cash, who serves as an additional family member of the Tenenbaums. The Tenenbaum children were unique and brilliant and the household was awkward and estranged within its four walls. As adults they have each gone their separate ways and barely communicate until each of their individual life dramas bring them back to their childhood home.
Even Royal, the head of household before he and his wife separated ends up back under the same roof by faking he is near death. Both Royal and Chas are struggling with their idea of family in the film. Chas in particular had recently lost his wife, and fearing it would destroy his own family unit he tries to unify the family by dressing them all in matching workout clothes, adhering to rigid safety drills and daily routines. Ethan’s character is similar to Chas in a lot of ways.
At first glance they appear vastly different not just in genre and physicality, but they seem to feel very different about the value of freedom. However it is how they relate to family that ultimately draws them together. Their actions both stem from a motivation of obligation. Ethan is essentially a drifter and a loner, his only real family ties were to his brother’s family who are killed early in the film. He has such a strong sense of loyalty to his blood kin, that he spends the next five years in search of his niece that by all accounts is likely dead or ‘converted’.
Chas acts in a similar manner. After the death of his wife his is also quite literally a loner, but has an obligation to his two boys and he revolves his life around their protection. Chas’ father was uninvolved and did not write or contact his children after he left the home, so Chas does not have the same respect for blood kin as Ethan. Chas expects more and it is this expectation that helps to transform his family unit. Ethan’s view of family being tied to bloodline is what he eventually must sacrifice to save what is left of his family so that they may continue on.
Ethan has a strong loathing for the Comanche people and when he finally finds Debbie and sees she has ‘converted’ he rejects her and even threatens to kill her. After being wounded by one of the Comanche men he writes a last will and testament which he gives to Martin. In it he decides to give everything to Martin as he says, “He has no other blood kin”. Martin becomes angry because Debbie is his niece and it he believes it is not right to reject her because she has accepted the Comanche way of life. The scene shows a transition point for Ethan.
He is willing to accept Martin as family, although he has no blood ties, based on loyalty alone and reject his blood kin because he feels betrayed by Debbie’s actions. When presented with the option to save Debbie or to take her life in the end, he chooses to save her, but not for reason of blood ties as it appears. Along the journey Ethan learns that it is loyalty that is of more value than blood ties. He does not choose to save Debbie because she is his niece, but because of his promise to her extended family, his loyalty to Martin. At the heart Ethan sacrifices his own ideals, misconceptions and prejudices to save the family.
Chas is also deeply motivated by his misconstrued ideas about family, so much so that he essentially imprisons his children in the name of ‘safety’. Chas has a similar intense connection to blood line. Chas does not believe Royal, but he still allows him to play his game. Chas rejects Henry Sherman because he is not family and refuses to call him Henry even though he has known him for over ten years. Chas questions Eli’s presence when he is not related to the family. As the film develops Chas learns the value of loyalty in spite of Royal’s lying and manipulation.
In a way it is the pretend illness that teaches him this lesson because he finally understands in a strange way his dedication to the cause of reconnecting with his family is a symbol of loyalty. In the end Chas accepts Royal not because of blood ties, but because of the loyalty he eventually shows. Royals presence also helps Chas to reconnect with his own children. In order to save his own family unit, Chas has to release the skewed sense of family he has created and let go of the prejudices surrounding isolating his children in the name of safety.
The Searchers and The Royal Tenenbaums are important films in reconstructing our views and values of family. They both accept the nuclear family as a starting point while rejecting it as the final product. These films both demonstrate how loyalty is a far more important quality to family inclusion than blood line and that in order to keep the family unit cohesive participants must sacrifice their own ideals and prejudices to benefit the whole.
Works Cited The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne. 1956. DVD. Warner Bros. 2006. The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. Wes Anderson. Touchstone Pictures. 2001.