“The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend”
By Glenn Frankel; Bloomsbury USA, 405 pages
Reading Glenn Frankel’s “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend” is like reading three stories in one book. There is the inside look at the making of the film “The Searchers,” considered to be one of director John Ford’s best efforts, as well as, perhaps, one of John Wayne’s best performances. Then there is the book upon which the film is based – author Alan LeMay’s now classic western “The Searchers.” Finally, there are the actual events that inspired Alan LeMay to write his fictional account.
In gripping detail, Frankel weaves these separate stories into a fascinating historical and cultural tapestry. The first half of the book focuses on the hardships and atrocities both pioneers and Native Americans experienced in Texas territory during the late 1800s. The U.S. Civil War may have ended, but the war between whites and Indians continued on for some time. The true event upon which Alan LeMay chose to base his novel — the kidnapping of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanches after they massacred family and friends in her small village — wrenches the heart for such a young victim. (She was not rescued until 25 years later, having borne several children, including the well-known half-Comanche, half-white chief Quanah Parker.) But the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers, buffalo hunters and Texas Rangers, among others, goes far to explain why revenge was not one-sided. It is through Frankel’s masterful writing that the reader manages to feel sympathy for all sides.
After the historical background has been carefully examined, against which both the novel and the film “The Searchers” are set, attention is turned to the 1950s. From here on out, the reader learns about Alan LeMay’s life and what writing the novel meant for his career as an author; and how director John Ford adapted a novel, adapted from a true event, into a film classic.
The story told in “The Searchers” is not a happy one: two young white women are taken captive by a Comanche Indian named Scar after he and his band slay the rest of their family. This takes place early in the film. From there on out, John Wayne’s character — the girls’ uncle — and their adopted brother search for their whereabouts for over five years. Tragedies continue, including the horrific rape and killing of the oldest girl by her captors. Many years later, the weary uncle and brother finally locate the youngest girl, now 14 years old.
One of the major themes of the movie — as well as LeMay’s novel and, even, pioneer life — is the assumption that a white girl taken captive by Indians would inevitably become “unpure.” As John Wayne’s character indicates in the film, as well as Glenn Frankel pointedly states in this week’s book, the prevailing thought for most family members and friends of loved ones taken captive was that it would be better to die — either by the hand of their captors or their rescuers — than to be brought back to their own people.
In the case of Debbie, John Wayne’s niece in the film, her uncle appears ready to end her life as soon as she is found, but the film doesn’t turn that dark. She is ultimately found and embraced by those who have searched for her, giving the viewer the sense that all will be well. This is in contrast to many real captive situations, including the case of Cynthia Ann Parker, whose return to her white family meant only great misery and loneliness.
For a captivating look into the history behind the film “The Searchers,” consider adding Glenn Frankel’s nonfiction account to your reading list (Alan LeMay’s novel, as well as the John Ford film, are also available at the library). Interconnecting a riveting historical narrative of the relationships between pioneers and Native Americans in late 19th century America with a contemporary review of a novel’s and a film’s combined factual and mythic retelling of historical events results in a very compelling read.