Glenn Frankel’s The
Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Bloomsbury) has received more
attention from the mainstream press than the average film book, and for good
reason: it is an exceptional piece of writing and research. What’s more, it
isn’t just a look behind the scenes of a famous movie; the author explores the notorious
real-life incident that inspired Western author Alan LeMay to write his novel: the
abduction of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche Indians in 1836. Hers
was not a unique story, but it took on added significance because of her family
background, and one relative’s refusal to give up on finding her.
Frankel is an experienced journalist and author who served a long tenure at the Washington Post and worked as a foreign correspondent. He is currently the director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He set himself the daunting task of trying to determine the real story of Cynthia Ann and her son Quanah Parker, who became a prominent chief and something of a mythmaker himself. His investigation took him to Texas archives, where first-hand accounts and diaries revealed (and in some cases distorted) the truth, and to family historians who made sincere efforts to document their background.
As so often occurs, the real story of Cynthia Ann and her famous son is much more surprising—often shocking—than the legends that grew up around them. The diligent author clears a path for us through a mountain of detail and crafts a highly readable tale: a saga of misguided souls, outsized egos, rampant racism and prejudice.
Frankel then explores the inconsistent career of author Alan LeMay who, ironically enough, wrote his most famous novel after turning his back on Hollywood, where he had toiled as a staff writer for Cecil B. DeMille in the 1940s.
Finally, with no background in film history, Frankel does a fine job of documenting John Ford’s career and his quixotic personality, parsing the many ingredients that combined to make The Searchers one of the great American westerns. Even here there is a curious contradiction, as the film was roundly dismissed and even misunderstood when it came out in 1956. (How anyone could misread it is hard to understand, but the reviews speak for themselves… and Americans were still swayed by stereotypes, in real life and on the screen.) Even stranger is the fact that Ford cast Henry Brandon, who played Scar in The Searchers, as Quanah Parker in his 1961 misfire Two Rode Together—but made no mention of his significance in the real-life story of the notorious captive Cynthia Ann Parker.
Frankel makes a few small errors in his survey of old Hollywood but they don’t take away from his towering achievement in chronicling a great film and its amazing backstory. The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend is a great book by any measure.