‘The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend’ by Glenn Frankel
By review by jeanine basinger and Jeanine Basinger,
The captured maiden — who must, of course, be rescued — has long been a staple of international storytelling. The Greeks had Helen, the Romans their Sabine women, and British knights their ladies faire. For Americans, James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” embodies our own national captivity narrative, a story in which a savage carries off a civilized woman, transporting her to another culture and, according to movie versions, a better sex life. (Think Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik,” Tarzan in “Tarzan of the Apes” and Daniel Day-Lewis in the filmed “Mohicans.”)
Myth and reality, however, are two very different things, a point that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Washington Post reporter Glenn Frankel makes abundantly clear in his impeccably researched book “The Searchers.” Frankel uses John Ford’s 1956 film, “The Searchers,” as a basis for comparison between the real-life abduction of a young pioneer girl and the mythic story moviemakers turned it into decades later. His book is a fascinating journey from fiction to fact, from glorified legend to brutal event.
On March 19, 1836, a band of Comanche raiders attacked a family stockade in East Texas. They killed five people, plundered the living quarters for food and supplies, and rode off with five captives, one of whom was a 9-year-old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker. On Dec.19, 1860, after a bloody battle at the Pease River in Texas, Cynthia was recaptured and returned to her family. What happened between 1836 and 1860 is largely unknown, but what facts there are, Frankel not only finds but illuminates. He positions Cynthia’s life as a story of two abductions, each of which ruptured the fabric of her daily existence and forced her into a painful cultural adjustment that showed no concern for her feelings. She started out as a white settler in Texas, but by the time she was returned to that world, she “had become a Comanche.”
Frankel enlivens the 24-year void in Cynthia’s life. She became the wife of a Comanche warrior and bore him three children. Although her infant daughter was with her when she was recaptured, she never saw her two sons again. She died unhappy and in obscurity, never reconciled to her loss or to her return to “civilization.” Cynthia’s name has stayed alive largely because of two obsessive men in her life: her uncle, James Parker, who never gave up his revenge-motivated search for her, and one of her lost Comanche sons, Quanah Parker, who was driven to learn about his mother and to trace his lineage to his white relatives. Quanah, who became a famous leader of his people, was a man “half-white and half-Comanche . . . who longed to bring these two worlds together, explaining each to the other and linking the two, just as they were linked in his own bloodstream.”
The story of Cynthia Ann Parker has all the drama any western movie could provide, a fact recognized by Alan LeMay, author of a 1954 bestseller that loosely retold her story. Dedicated to his Kansas ancestors, “The Searchers,” LeMay’s 13th novel, is set in a northwest corner of Texas in 1869. It was a critical success and inevitably came to the attention of the legendary western movie director John Ford, who bought the film rights. Ford was a master of turning facts into legends. (Film critic Tag Gallagher called “The Searchers” “a myth based on other myths based themselves, on still other myths.”) Ford darkened the character of the leading man, changed his name from Amos to Ethan, and forever redefined him through the casting of John Wayne, himself a legendary American character.
Frankel writes well about Ford’s “Searchers,” showing a strong grasp of cinematic nuance and subtext. He is particularly eloquent on how Ford could convey specific meaning without having characters speak. (“The character known as John Wayne was a subtle and varied creature.”) The combination of Wayne and Ford’s cinematic style ultimately lifted “The Searchers” to the topmost ranking in western movies. Film scholars revere it for its powerful ambiguity, its visual beauty and its legendary hero. Frankel calls it “the greatest Hollywood film that few people have seen” — a shock to a film historian like me, since it seems to be running somewhere in my life on a daily basis.
Frankel’s choice of “The Searchers” is significant. It’s not the only movie about a white woman captured by Native Americans. There are many others, among them “Trooper Hook” (1957) with Barbara Stanwyck as the mother of a chief’s son; “Comanche Station” (1960), in which Randolph Scott rescues Nancy Gates from captivity; “The Stalking Moon” (1968), where Gregory Peck helps a white woman escape with her biracial son; “Dances With Wolves (1990), with Kevin Costner finding Mary McDonnell among the Sioux; and three filmed versions of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1920, 1936 and 1992). However, Ford’s movie has a subtext that both upholds and undermines America’s myth of Western settlement while illuminating issues of race, identity and violence.
By connecting “The Searchers” to the facts of its distant origins, Frankel demonstrates how history and storytelling can become a unified force in national mythmaking.
Jeanine Basinger is chairman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University and the author of “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.”
THE SEARCHERS The Making of an American Legend By Glenn Frankel Bloomsbury. 405 pp. $28