When you can`t see them, you are looking at them

“When you can’t see them, you are looking at them” – The ethical failure of ‘going native’ in
Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957)
The curious thing about stereotypes is that they are always split between opposing images.
The genre of the western has usually represented the Indians as either primitive brutes or
noble savages. However, to add fascination to curiosity, these binary oppositions form a kind
of Moebius strip: as soon as we push their primitivism far enough, we encounter their
nobility, or vice versa. In particular, two westerns from the mid-fifties testify to this double
In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Ethan Edwards obsessively pursues a group of
Comanche warriors, who have killed his uncle’s family, and captured his niece Debbie. The
fact that he is an adequate reader of their customs and tactics, is a serious advantage during
the search. He knows how they treat horses, how they attach value to the eyes of a corpse, and
he recognizes their death song. Initially, he wants to release his niece from the Indians, but
when she expresses that she does not want to leave her people, he seems intent on actually
killing Debbie. This shift from saving his niece to a murderous lust towards her can be
explained with the concept of enjoyment. In itself, enjoyment is a strange nonexistent
“substance”, that can here refer to a specific ‘way of life’, unique to the Comanches. Nobody
possesses this “substance”, its mode of existence completely depends on one’s belief that the
other has access to it.
In the case of Ethan, we can say that his knowledge of their habits is proof of his
fascination for the Comanches. But he is also repelled by them, because as racial others their
enjoyment is barred to him, or rather, as a white man Indian jouissance should be kept at bay.
As a squaw of headman Scar, Ethan fears that his niece has come to share the excessive
enjoyment of the Indians: she lives among a ‘wild’ tribe that is in harmony with wild nature.
What troubles him, is that he is a man with a mission, and this mission is to rescue her from
the Indians. When she appears unwilling to abandon life as a squaw, Ethan’s attitude becomes
one of: ‘Debbie, I rescue you for your own benefit, for you do not belong among Indians who
killed your family, you belong to civizilation. Since you refuse to come with me, you harm
the values of civilization.’ Ethan’s search for Debbie can be considered as his yearning for a
morally good deed – as an act in the name of the common good. This moralistic stance is
perverted the moment she expresses the wish to stay among the Comanches. At this point, it
would accord with Lacanian ethics, if Ethan were to acknowledge Debbie’s pact with Scar,
even if, or rather, precisely because it is contrary to the service of the common good.
Speaking ethically, Ethan should have said to his niece: ‘My gift to you is that I allow you to
join the Indians’.
Her refusal to see his arrival as a liberation, however, enrages him so much that he
himself ends up at the other side of his self-declared divide between wilderness and
civilization. During a raid by Texas Rangers, the camp of Scar is attacked. After Ethan scalps
the headman in his own lodge, he catches Debbie, but instead of killing her, he puts her in his
arms and says: “Let’s go home, Debbie.” This scene should not be read as giving way to
sentimental passion, but as a moment of self-erasure. After cutting Scar’s scalp, this trophy
does not symbolize his final fictory, but the scalp becomes a signifier of Ethan’s
aggressiveness towards the other whom he, in fact, has become in imitating the most
stereotypical habit whites attribute to Indians. However, while an Indian usually takes a scalp
from his own victim, Ethan himself did not defeat the Comanche chief – it was his sidekick
Martin who had murdered Scar. If scalping is an act that stereotypically defines Indians as bad
savages, Ethan acts even worse: he scalps another man’s victim. By means of this excessively
violent act, Ethan has shown that he is “more like Comanche than Comanches.” He
encounters within himself the enjoyment that had raised his hatred: the other is the other
within himself. This encounter brings about his paralysis; he is too empty to act. By taking
Scar’s scalp, he has acted beyond the values he wanted to protect, and this recognition
explains his subsequent lethargy: he is not able to kill his niece, and he is doomed to wander
around as a ‘living dead’, judging from his inability to enter the house of the Jorgensens in the
famous end-shot.
In Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957), the confrontation between white and red
is addressed from a completely different angle. Not hatred of Indians’ excessive enjoyment is
at stake in this western, but a white man’s exotic admiration for the Sioux. In Fuller’s “white
man among the Indians”-western, however, the encounter between the two races is as strongly
distorted as in The Searchers. “Good” racial intentions are no guarantee of idyllic
Fuller’s western begins with the surrender of the South ending the Civil War.
Frustrated by the peace treaty, the white infantryman O’Meara expresses his discontent with
civilization. He wants to be an outsider (“I am a rebel because I want to be”), and decides to
go to the Far West, since the “savages have more pride than us.” The concept of a savage’s
“pride” is derived from the century-old myth of the “noble savage.” The Indian here plays the
benevolent role of the ignorant other, they are noble because they live in a world not yet
spoiled by corrupt civilization (Zizek, Enjoy 62).
In turning his back on society, O’Meara tells the old army scout Walking Coyote that
he really wants te become one of the Sioux. With the scout’s help, O’Meara quickly learns
some of the tribe’s customs. But when, while reading a track, he tells Walking Coyote that he
cannot see any Indians, the scout responds: “When you can’t see them, they are looking at
This phrase can be read against the background of Hans Holbein’s famous painting
The Ambassadors. The two ambassadors are surrounded by tokens of wealth and objects of
art. At their feet, there is a strange, amorphous spot. If we were to look at this spot awry –
with a curved glass, e.g. – we would be able to detect the clear contours of a skull. However,
when seeing the skull in sharp focus, the rest of the picture immediately becomes blurred. In
other words, all the symbolic trophies of the ambassadors would be rendered null and void.
One way to read this painting, is to claim that our symbolic order functions as a protective
shield against the lurking threat that this amorphous spot embodies. Walking Coyote’s phrase
indicates that our look is always distorted, because our visual field is always riven by
symbolic values. By contrast, the sight of Indians is considered superior, for they are
presumed to live in an uncorrupted community. So, what is “in a Sioux more than Sioux” is
the alignment between eye and gaze. The eye designates the point from where “I” as a
particular subject see, but the gaze is strictly imaginary, beyond symbolization: it ‘lights’ up
the visual field. Although no eye approximates the gaze, the unique feature attributed to the
Sioux is that they constitute the exception. There is a crucial restriction, however. Indians
only see perfectly within the wide open spaces, their own territory and ground.
After Walking Coyote uttered his phrase, he and O’Meara are immediately caught by
surprise from behind, as if to illustrate the actual supremacy of the sight of the Indians. The
scout knows that their fate is sealed. There is only one impossible way out. Walking Coyote
challenges the Sioux to try the “run of the arrow” on them. This run is a barefoot race against
a group of chasing Sioux that one is bound to lose. The two prisoners face a forced choice.
Either they will be tortured to death or they must participate in a game that holds only the
slimmest theoretical promise of escape. In practice, they will die either way. Walking
Coyote’s physical conditon is so terrible that he in fact does die during the run. But O’Meara
is the first in living memory to survive the race with the help of an Indian woman, who hides
him from the Sioux warriors. He is then accepted as a member of the tribe by chief Blue
Buffalo (Charles Bronson). In a conversaton with the chief, O’Meara says he considers his
heart and nation Sioux. He himself regards it as ultimate proof of his acceptance that some
time later the Sioux appoint him as their scout. Commissioned by the Sioux, O’Meara will
accompany white soldiers to a place within Sioux territory where the soldiers can build a fort.
Events take an unexpected turn when his former war enemy liteutenant Driscoll
(Ralph Meeker) commands the designated area be changed. While the soldiers are building
the fort, O’Meara shows up with a white flag as the representative of the Sioux. He attempts
to negotiate with Driscoll and his men and warns them of an Indian attack. O’Meara tells
them that the Sioux have already assembled for battle. Driscoll is not impressed since his
look-out says that there are no Indians within sight – to which O’Meara responds: “When you
can’t see them, you are looking at them.”
This quotation, a slight variation upon Walking Coyote’s phrase, highlights the blurred
vision of the soldiers, to whom the Indians appear as vague spots, impossible to see. Driscoll
is unaware of the limitations of his vision and arrogantly ignores O’Meara’s negotiation. The
Sioux then in fact attack, and a heated battle results. The Sioux win and make Driscoll their
captive. They want to skin the lieutenant alive, but O’Meara intervenes and shoots him in the
head to save him from further torture. O’Meara’s premature execution of Driscoll reveals
what the Sioux themselves already knew: he is not a Sioux for he was not born one. The only
option for the white man is to return to the tribe of “stars and stripes”.
What interests me about this film in particular, is the poignancy of a specific
subjective shot. Knocked unconscious, O’Meara tries to get up, but then we see a shot which
coincides exactly with his perspective: the camera swings unsteadily and produces blurry
contours.1 A fight is going on, and the Indians will prove their physical superiority over the
whites. They brutally slaughter the whites. What is significant, is the fact that O’Meara’s sight
fails while the Sioux show off their sheer bruteness. O’Meara had wanted to join the Sioux
insofar as they fitted into his fantasy frame of the ‘noble savage’. The Sioux in turn
encompass this frame by proving both their physical superiority in battle and their sadistic
brutality towards prisoners. He cannot see beyond his own predetermined frame, or in
Lacanian terms, he cannot ‘go through the fantasy’. He pursued to become a Sioux by
grasping their particularity – he wanted to attain what is “in a Sioux more than Sioux”, that is,
the alignment between eye and gaze. In his fantasy frame he would succeed as an Indian the
moment he had attained a God’s eye perspective within the wilderness. That would require
him to shed the symbolic burden of looking – to see with plain eyes, unprejudiced. In other
words, he yearned for ‘objectifying’ his look. Such a perspective would be a clear token that
he has really ‘gone native’. However, the obverse happens. Instead of ‘objectifying the look’
he comes to ‘subjectify the gaze’ during his black-out: the world is out of focus the moment
the Sioux behave contrary to his expectations.
It is tempting to compare the subjective shot in Run of the Arrow to the famous God’s
eye perspective in The Birds. While Bodega Bay is burning, we get an overview shot from
high above. The supposed neutrality of this perfectly immobile shot is problematized when
after a few seconds birds enter the frame as if from behind the camera. At that point the shot
is retroactively subjectivized – we realize we have been watching through the eyes of the
birds, a far from innocent look in this film, since the birds are the instigators of the disaster on
the ground. However, the shot is not fully subjectivized, since the perfectly immobile camera
never imitates the movements of birds. It shows how presumed objectivity always has a
subjective dimension. The subjective shot in Run of the Arrow is the flipside of the same coin.
We strictly see a point-of-view shot, judging from the wildly moving camera. However, the
shot also functions to hold op a mirror to the hero: ‘in my pursuit of capturing the secret
treasure of the Sioux, my eyes only see blurry contours, that is, I cannot see beyond my own
prejudices about Indians. Not just my vision is distorted, but what is distorted most of all, is
my place as a white Sioux: I see hardly anything, except that my foggy eye-sight reveals me
that I am out of place – I myself am a stain in the picture of this battle.’ In returning this
message to him, the sheer subjective shot turns out to have an objective dimension. On the
one hand, the shot shows the limitations of a man’s vision, on the other hand, the shot sends
back to him the utter impossibility of becoming a white Indian.
As soon as the Sioux announce that they will cruelly torture Driscoll, this punishment
seems explicitly staged for O’Meara to make him face once more this impossibility. When the
lieutenant is about to be skinned alive, O’Meara actually averts his eyes and shoots a bullet
through Driscoll’s head – this final gesture emphasizes O’Meara’s surrender. It would have
been an ethical decision had he not intervened. In not acting he would have recognized the
Sioux in their particularity – in what defines their uniqueness. Now he chooses to stick to his
standard of humanity instead of choosing their jouissance.
Within the tradition of the western, it is customary to kill an opponent in the service of
society. When the cowboy faces a bad guy, his murderous victory meets approval of the bystanders. In short, he shoots in the name of the Good. However, as Lacan teaches us in his The
Ethics of Psychoanalysis, “[d]oing things in the name of the good, and even more in the name
of the good of the other, is something that is far from protecting us not only from guilt but
also from (…) neurosis and its consequences.” (319) The fact that a cowboy never seems to
suffer from a complex of guilt or neurosis, is mainly due to his narrative positioning: usually,
he is not subjectivized, merely an object of focalisation. He only appears to us as a man of
action who seems only an instrument in the hands of the community. He is just a welcome
marionet, fulfilling a necessary duty. Kantian ethics instructs us to fulfill our duty, just for the
sake of duty itself, without pathological motivations. This empty formalism is too idealistic,
for a pure form without content is always the index of repressed content. Any act, done for the
sake of duty, is necessarily crisscrossed by certain desires – it can, as Zizek explains, provide
sadistic pleasure to obey the orders of a superior. This pleasure can unconsciously provoke
guilt, but in order to expel feelings of guilt, we had better not share the cowboy’s psyche:
therefore, a flashback told by a cowboy is a structural impossibility in the western. Since he
always acts untouched qua appearance, we can have the illusion that he is not troubled by his
The fate of O’Meara is worse: no-one supports his execution of Driscoll. It is done in
the service of an even more abstract standard than the good of the community, namely in
service of so-called humanity to end unendurable suffering of an enemy. Since his act lacks
approval, his killing is against all odds, and only means negatively: it shows him as a nonSioux. In order to protect symbolic standards, the consequence of his act is that his symbolic
identity disintegrates. He pursued the desire to be a rebel, but the execution is proof that he
has compromised his desire. His project of ‘going native’ ends in an ethical failure – he could
not bear to watch, but mistakenly believed he had to act at the expense of his identity.
Completely numb, he leaves the Sioux. Instead of defining himself as the best of both worlds,
as happens in Dances with Wolves (‘living among the Indians I have discovered my true
identity’), O’Meara is stuck in-between. Barred from sharing the other’s jouissance, he is
doomed to remain in-definite.
The hero’s point-of-view shot is very rare in a western, since a cowboy is traditionally positioned as an object
of focalisation. The cowboy is an empty screen of projection to whom other characters – usually, tenderfoots,
women, or children – attribute positive qualities from the very first time they catch sight of him. His heroism is
constituted in the eyes of admiring beholders, since. a look from “within” might break the spell of his apparently
tough attitude. The best way to illustrate this is a scene from Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian (1902): The
actual showdown is presented in three brief sentences, internally focalized by the title hero. He seems hardly
aware of what has happened. He does not seem to aim but he nevertheless sees his opponent pitch forward.
Because smoke rises from his gun, he guesses that he was the one who shot Trampas. However, the spectators
are in awe and tell him: “You were that cool! That quick!” In their eyes, he had everything under control, and he
is shrewd enough not to spoil the illusion.
In case that the cowboy tells about his killing as in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, he emphasizes that he
can live with cold-blooded murder. For, his shooting is enacted under the banner of the Name-of-the-Father.