They arrive wearing blue jeans and Stetson hats, bolo ties tugged up round their necks. They dance to Country and Western songs, boots stomping the time. American and Texan flags wave in the wind. If not for their accents, one would think they were a gathering of Americans, not Frenchmen. But here fans of the Old West congregate to celebrate a past not their own, a culture accumulated from the collective hallucinations of a thousand movies, television shows, and dime novels. During one of the last ballads, a father and daughter dance in a circle, turning and turning to the music. But in the evening, the father will discover the daughter missing. Later he will receive a letter in her handwriting: the daughter is no longer his daughter, but the wife of her Muslim boyfriend. She has abandoned her given name and family for new ones and a life in far off lands. The father cannot accept this. And so begins the Search.
Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys is one of the more unexpected remakes I’ve ever seen. Transplanting John Ford’s immortal film The Searchers (1956) from Monument Valley to modern-day Europe and Pakistan, Bidegain uses the former film’s narrative as a skeleton for his own. Alain Balland (François Damiens) and his son “Kid” (Finnegan Oldfield) undertake a 15 year quest to find Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) after she is “kidnapped” by an ethnic Other. Bidegain updates several other elements from Ford’s fable: a visit to a clandestine group of smugglers is framed like an Indian ambush with scouts lining nearby rooftops; the subtextual mythology of Westward Expansion is replaced with the grim realities of the emergence of twenty-first century Islamic extremism and jihadist terrorism; the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas are traded for the deserts of the Middle East.
Yet what truly intrigues me about Les Cowboys isn’t what it adapts but what it omits. Gone is the smoldering hatred and racism of Ford’s anti-hero protagonist Ethan Edwards. Alain half-heartedly calls a group of Muslims “ragheads” in one scene, but he is clearly more driven by personal anger than a call to racial vengeance. Ford meticulously positioned his characters in a system of highly developed communities—isolated Western settlers, nomadic Native Americans, proud American cavalry—but Bidegain’s characters float in a detached, existential void. If Ford defined Ethan by the communities that rejected him, Bidegain defined Alain by the communities he himself rejected.
While I missed seeing Les Cowboys during its initial run on the 2015 festival circuit, I have been told by friends and colleagues I trust that the film was received coolly. I find myself agreeing with their reserved appraisals. Les Cowboys is a competent work, but it’s not overly compelling. Unlike Ford’s masterpiece, I didn’t feel aesthetically stimulated or emotionally rewarded after watching it. Ultimately the film seems at a loss for what it wants to say.