Oedipus at Colonus (401 B.C.)
The image accompanying this post, from John Ford’s
classic 1956 western The Searchers, comes about as close as I can
think of to embodying the power of that word “love.”
In the scenes just preceding this, John Wayne’s Ethan
Edwards has come across, after five years of fruitless searching, the niece seized
in a Comanche attack that has left the rest of her family dead. Edwards is so revolted
by the thought that she has become one of the wives of the fierce Indian chief Scar--and, implicitly, of the possibility of miscegenation from that union--that he vows to kill her. Now, as he sweeps the smaller, powerless Debbie (played
by Natalie Wood) up in his arms, he has his chance.
But, in the end, Edwards—a bitter, bigoted loner—can’t
go through with the act. Family ties—love—overcome the vengefulness and growing
madness of this frontier Ahab.
“Let's go home, Debbie,” he says softly and invitingly.
Is Ethan freed of “all the weight and pain of life”? As we see him step away from the doorway of the homestead and walk alone into the distance, the answer is clearly no. But his reconciliation with his niece is a profoundly redemptive act, one that ensures the climax of his search will not be the kind of cascading family bloodshed at the heart of Sophocles and so many other Greek tragedians.
At least partly for that reason, this moment is one of my favorites in the entire history of American film.