John Wayne Can’t Save You

burrowers 80.jpgThis month we’re mixing it up at the Gutter with each editor writing about something outside their usual domain. This week Carol Borden writes about movies. She can normally be found here.

Blood Red Earth has been on FEARnet for weeks now. A horror movie set in the Old West with a Native American cast? All in Lakota? It’s hard to imagine much more awesome than that. I’d been anticipating and dreading it. Its predecessor, The Burrowers, is harrowing and I wasn’t in a hurry to be a little shaky, a little pale again. So I circled round and round. (Spoilers down below)

But I went on faith and watched Blood Red Earth because The Burrowers is a good movie. Blood Red Earth is too and now I’m filled with terror and pity. In 1819, two brothers, Red Earth and Waiting Crow, go hunting and, after losing a healthy deer to a white trapper, bring home a deer that they had found buried alive to their poor, isolated family. As a promotional short, the movie doesn’t reveal much about the burrowers, but that works well in the film. Like The Burrowers, it’s well-made and well-researched enough to warm the geeky cockles of my heart. And like The Burrowers, there are also nature shots. But it’s a quieter film and the horror is grounded in grief and loss.

The Burrowers is set sixty years later, in 1879, in the Dakota Territory. A group of white men ride out with an Irish hand, Coffey, to rescue his presumably kidnapped love. People compare The Burrowers to The Searchers, a film about an ex-Confederate soldier leading a party to rescue a woman from the Comanche. John Wayne plays the soldier and gives depth to a xenophobic and increasingly unreliable character.

Blood-Red-Earth-Ax 250.jpgThe Burrowers is more desolate and more forgiving than The Searchers. Its presentation of racism, prejudice, blindness and cruelty hits me harder, more like Ravenous, another Western as much about Manifest Destiny as cannibalism with its two white windigo linking hunger, greed and the white man’s burden. Those films hit me hard because horror and Westerns have common elements. Both horror movies and Westerns are morality tales often criticized for simplistic, binary systems. And both horror and Westerns are often allegorical. Weird Westerns explore sin with monsters, but the sin here is not sex, as in a lot of North American horror movies. The original sin is xenophobia–genocide.

The Burrowers avoids two horror pitfalls, the rules and blaming characters, pitfalls which enable me at least to distance myself. Characters can’t know what’s happening because they can barely communicate. The only white character who speaks Lakota, isn’t fluent and has an overriding ulterior motive. The Lakota man was willing to talk until he was tortured. Maryanne speaks Lakota but not English or Ute. The Ute don’t speak Lakota or English, but they do speak French, which Coffey also speaks. But the Ute have their own ulterior motive. By the time everyone understands what’s happening, it’s too late. And in Blood Red Earth, while the Lakota family can share information, they have limited resources. It’s hard to blame the father when he falls asleep on watch. He never thought he’d live to see the burrowers.

While the burrowers’ paralyzing and burying prey alive makes me queasy, the films’ nature shots reinforce that burrowers are animals, creepy cicadas on a sixty-year cycle. They are opportunistic rather than malevolent. It makes the horror more visceral for me. I have seen something like the paralyzed deer’s labored breathing. But the burrowers’ usual prey isn’t human; they’re driven to it by displacement—buffalo-hunting in one film, desperation in the other. People commit the most disturbing, gory violence—a Crow scout torturing the Lakota man on the orders of a crazed calvary officer, a lynching. In The Burrowers, it’s clear what the biggest threat is.

But these movies are also compassionate. At the screening I attended, director J.T. Petty said he likes that Clancy Brown‘s Clay, “the John Wayne character,” doesn’t save everyone. It’s up to the “immigrants and the Black people” and the Lakota and the Ute and the poor. I like that, too. I like that the young Lakota man trying to pull his wounded friend out of Coffey and Coffey’s friends’ line of fire clearly feels exactly what Coffey and his friends do. It’s apparent in the film that everyone short of Clay kills out of terror and panic. Well, all except one hateful character. Their fears reflect and amplify each other, driving characters to kill but also to try to talk. In Blood Red Earth, violence arises from rage and grief, but the short’s horror depends on empathy. It’s nice—especially since a white guy mediates any connection to Native American characters in so many movies. (Even ones in Cheyenne). I like that I understand what’s going on with people speaking Lakota or without anyone saying anything. The Burrowers feels more like a George Romero movie with a final revelation about human horror. At the same time, in both movies, traditional enemies, Ute, Lakota, wasichu, a former slave, people who have reason to hate each other, help each other.

I like that in a seemingly misanthropic film behind all the cruelty and blinding prejudice, the terror and inability to communicate, there is still a desire to communicate and even friendship. It might not be enough to save everyone, but it’s something.


This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness blog.  Maybe Carol Borden can’t save you, but she sure will try.

4 replies »

  1. Hi Carol,
    I haven’t seen Blood Red Earth, ’cause of the jibblie-jibblies, but I did see The Burrowers. So. Damn. Good. I agree with you; one of the things I really appreciated about it (it’s hard to say “liked” for such a squicksome film), aside from the smartness, was that the monsters were just animals – no malevolent intelligence out to torture humans (stupid velociraptors, anyone?), but just critters doing the horrible things critters do. I love that Petty based them on naked mole rats, too, since those are some wierd-ass, but basically benign, oddities. Go mole rats!


  2. Not sure if your reference to “a woman who turns out to be happy where she is” is from the original story, but, in the film Debbie is very happy to be saved. She only tells Ethan and Martin to “go” and “these are my people” to save them.


  3. actually, i’m not sure either. i only re-watched the Searchers a few months ago and if I were writing about it, I would’ve watched again. but i didn’t, so i’m entirely willing to believe you are correct and i conflated it with some other captivity narrative i was reading and mixed in my memory of debbie’s terror in the face of ethan and how she didn’t look as happy as she might to be back home. i did watch blood red earth twice and relied on my original notes and story for the burrowers. i apologize for the inaccuracy and thanks for catching it!


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