On ‘Game of Thrones’ and Its Problematic Nod to John Ford Westerns

With Game of Thrones' massive cultural power comes responsibility. Alas, the John Ford homage "The Spoils of War" episode fails to address "savage Indian" stereotypes.

One of the many things that Game of Thrones has become famous for is its elaborate battle episodes. Most seasons have featured at least one massively staged combat sequence. In season 2 it was the Battle of the Blackwater for King’s Landing. Season 4 dramatized the Night’s Watch defense of the Wall against the Wildlings. Season 5 gave us “Hardhome”, with Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and the Wildlings against the White Walkers. Season 6 served up “The Battle of the Bastards”, the face-off between Jon and Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Now season seven, episode 4, “The Spoils of War”, features an epic clash between Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is woefully outmatched by her dragons and her Dothraki horse warriors.

Given the rapacity of Game of Thrones fans, I can only imagine the pressure for the series creators to top themselves, especially after the praise heaped on “The Battle of the Bastards” for craftsmanship, intensity and at least partial authenticity. Something new must be invented each time, and the something new in “The Spoils of War” is a genre mashup with something old – the American Western film, and particularly the Westerns of John Ford.

The evocation of the Western is clear from the opening of the episode: a long shot of a wagon train stretching across the plains under a vast expanse of sky. The next shot is of a single wagon — the word “wagon” is even uttered — pulled by two horses, the snorts and whinnies of the animals prominent on the soundtrack. The scene concludes with another long shot, revealing the episode’s unmistakable homage not just to the Western, but specifically to the Western movie landscape of Monument Valley, a region of towering sandstone buttes on the Navajo Nation reservation at the Arizona/Utah border, against which backdrop Ford shot some of his most famous films, including Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956). Other famous films shot there include Rio Grande (1950), How the West was Won (1962), and parts of Easy Rider (1969) and Thelma and Louise (1991). Writes Keith Phipps, “it’s five square miles [13 square kilometers] have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.”

Of course, these images also evoke — at least unconsciously — the fictionalized conflict between “civilized” Anglo frontiersman and “savage”, scalp hunting Indians. Stagecoach and The Searchers, arguably Ford’s two most famous Westerns, both represent the Natives in this way, both in the Monument Valley setting. Of course, the racist trope of the savage Indian went far beyond the domain of one director. Many hundreds of films and episodes of television perpetuated this harmful stereotype from the beginning of cinema, often compounding the indignity by having white actors play the Natives in Redface (a practice still occurring in Westerns as recently as a few years ago with Johnny Depp playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger). In fact, Native Americans have rarely been portrayed as anything other than savages or “noble” natives who served the cause of the white man.

Given the set-up in the first scene, and this history of representation, I suspected that the episode was building to a cowboys vs. Indians style showdown. The episode contains other grace notes evoking the Western as well: Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) lording over a giant map and claiming her dominion over the continent; Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), literally the girl with no name for two seasons, a lone rider in the wilderness, gazing upon what was once her home, like John Wayne in The Searchers. When “The Spoils of War” returns to the opening plot line for the final battle sequence, the first shot is of what can only be called Monument Valley of Westeros, up close and unmistakable now, framed from the point of view of riders, just as it was in Ford’s films.

After a few moments, a rumbling of hooves in the distance is heard, and we see an extreme long shot of the Dothraki horseman coming over the horizon, another scene familiar from so many Westerns. Drums pound on the soundtrack, and then an unmistakable whooping and crying, followed by a wide shot of the riders framed against the rock monuments as they charge the Lannister army and cut through the columns of Calvary (this whooping and crying continues throughout the battle). The attack on the wagon train, featuring many shots of wooden wagon wheels aflame, confirms the obvious reference to Stagecoach and many other movies featuring wagon trains attacked by Indians.

The context here is further established by the characterization of the Dothraki throughout the series. The Dothrak are referred to as “hordes”, and represented as raiders who have no mercy on their enemies, whom they kill violently. They are also shown as living primitively and being experts with horses. These are all characteristics historically associated with the savage Indian figure of the American Western.

Game of Thrones is no stranger to criticisms of racial stereotyping and insensitivity. Among other issues, it features few characters of color; and those characters are in supporting roles (both in terms of screen time and in the way they literally support the white characters’ goals). Daenerys plays the role of the white savior, freeing the people of color in Essos from tyranny. Criticism of the representation of the dark-skinned Dothraki as typical savages began in Season 1.

Because the producers have had six seasons to consider these criticisms, it’s disappointing to encounter the allusions to racist Westerns so late in the series (now in its penultimate season). I have heard the counter arguments: the Dothraki are not necessarily villains in this scenario, and the Lannisters definitely are; the Dothraki “represent a mix of eastern and western influences that don’t point directly to any one culture in particular”, as my former student insists; the show’s creators aren’t trying to be racist, but simply paying tribute to a revered genre, while trying to give this particular episode a different flavor.

However, these arguments don’t consider the larger historical context and they falter in the face of the titanic cultural power of the Western images and the associations they carry. The intentions of the white filmmakers behind the episode (creator/writers David Benioff and D.B Weiss and director Matt Shakman) were likely not to depict characters and situations that evoke hurtful and stereotypical representations of Native Americans. But they did make the conscious decision to stage, shoot, edit and score the episode in a way that deliberately evokes those Western films shot in Monument Valley, and those films have been long established as racist against Native Americans. Because the show’s creators wield massive cultural power they have a responsibility — whether they want it or not — to carefully consider the impact of the meanings inherent in the influences they draw from and the stories and images they create from those influences.

Some have argued that as the son of persecuted Irish Immigrants, Ford sometimes represented WASPs in an equally unflattering light as the Indians and that he even represented the Indians as heroes in movies such as Fort Apache; critics also see some of his films as being more even handed in terms of representation than those of his contemporaries. His late films, such as Sergeant Rutledge (1960), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) undoubtedly engage in the progressive revisionism on the rise in the ’60s. But his most famous movies feature an abundance of indelible images and sounds of whooping, hollering bloodthirsty Indians. And these are the sounds and images the Game of Thrones filmmakers are referencing. It’s long past time the figure of the savage Indian was retired, in whatever form it appears.

Michael Green is a professor of film studies at Arizona State University. His work has appeared previously in PopMatters, as well as Salon, The Conversation, Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and The Journal of Film and Video, among others. His three-volume encyclopedia, Race in American Film: Voices and Visions that Shaped a Nation was published last month.