John Ford’s The Searchers is an American classic, and it depends on John Wayne’s stature. Prior to its release in 1956, Wayne only played uncomplicated heroes. His character in The Searchers is a single-minded racist, and both Ford/Wayne know it. The film complicates the Western genre, deepening its moral complexity in ways that still can be felt today. Les Cowboys is a modern update of The Searchers; instead of a Native American tribe, our troubled hero pursues Muslims who may have terrorist ties. But the lead actor is no John Wayne and director Thomas Bidegain is no John Ford. Once it departs from its source material, Les Cowboys is finally a satisfying, thoughtful melodrama.
Bidegain opens in 1994, with a place that is both familiar and a little alien: somewhere in France, hundreds have gathered to recreate American cowboy culture. They sing country/western tunes, put on big hats, and raise American flags everywhere (there are a few confederate ones, too). Alain (François Damiens) is a popular figure in this community. After he sings “Tennessee Waltz,” to the delight of an eager crowd, he cannot find his daughter Kelly. She disappeared.
Alain tries not to be worried – the cops reassure her teen runaways come back – and then he learns about her secret life. Kelly fell in with someone named Ahmed, and has been learning Arabic in her spare time. Alain and his son Georges (Finnegan Oldfield) follow Kelly throughout Europe, realizing she joined a faction of radicals, and the pursuit lasts though the 9/11 attacks and beyond.
Bidegain’s film covers a dozen years in one hundred minutes, so he glosses over the narrative scope of an epic. Some scenes are abrupt, while he dwells on others in ways that do not serve the story. Les Cowboys therefore unfolds like a series of vignettes, and the only through line is the West’s relationship with the Muslim world. The Alain character is the stand-in for John Wayne – he and Damiens have similar statures – except Alain’s racism and powder-keg temper never approach Wayne’s subtle depth. Then again, maybe that’s the point all along: Alain has no context or resources for how to deal with the disappearance, so his only recourse is to blow up at those he loves.
Eventually Alain cannot continue the search, so Georges follows in his father’s footsteps. If the early scenes have a superficial connection with the cowboy identity, then the second half of Les Cowboys is closer to a real western. Georges follows Kelly all the way to Pakistan, where he meets an amoral opportunist (John C. Reilly) who may have a lead. The expansive Pakistani landscapes recall the Big Sky Country of classic westerns, and the Reilly character talks about how a normal life are beyond him and Georges. Now that the American Frontier is tame, Bidegain argues, the Middle East is the only place left for the rugged individualist. These stretches are more convincing than a mere update of The Searchers: the western genre is in part about the difficult transition toward empathy and tolerance, and that can be found in understanding another civilization whose values – and skin color – are different from ours.
In cinematic terms, Les Cowboys starts out as a grim joke. Alain’s search has no majesty; instead of sun-kissed vistas, he wanders through tenements and dreary office buildings. Once Georges leaves Europe, however, the landscapes match the tenor of his quest. Parts of the film are quietly breathtaking, and many images echo the infamous doorway from The Searchers that serves as a metaphor for, well, everything. This is a film where characters deal with westerns – in a superficial way, at first, and then in a way that gets at the heart of the genre’s purpose. It does not work as allegory, but it still arrives at thematically resonant material along the way.