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In Search Of ‘The Searchers’

by Leonard Maltin
May 21, 2013 12:00 AM
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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.


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  • Jim Reinecke | May 24, 2013 11:02 AMReply

    Thanks for steering me in the direction of this fascinating book, Leonard. As an unabashed Ford idolator who considers THE SEARCHERS to be his masterpiece, I would have been rather upset if Mr. Frankel had been slipshod in his research or treatment of this material. Happily, no such reservations were necessary. I have yet to reach the book's second half but have been devouring the first portion, which, of course, details the real life Cynthia Ann Parker kidnapping. I applaud Mr. Frankel's skills as both a wordsmith and a storyteller, and his coverage of the facts surrounding this incident (those which haven't been obscured through the years) is that of a seasoned journalist. I also am quite impressed with the fairness that he brings to the story; he doesn't turn a blind eye to white racism and attempted ethnic cleansing but he thankfully doesn't mount the hobbyhorse of contemporary political correctness and present the Comanches as simply victims. Their savage and barbaric methods of dealing with their enemies can be described as "atrocities" as surely as those of the Nazis a century later and Mr. Frankel spares us nothing in the graphic descriptions of Comanche torture and execution. (Warning to those who are squeamish: DO NOT read the first 100 or so pages of this book after a meal. These accounts are not for weak stomachs or faint hearts!) He can take a bow for a job not merely well done but masterfully done.

  • Steve Rubin | May 21, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    Thanks for the tip, Leonard. This sounds like a fascinating book. I had no idea that LeMay based the film on an historical incident. As a side note, I sometimes wonder about a 1953 pre-Searchers western - The Charge at Feather River, which also deals with a search for captive white women. Ironically, Vera Miles, who would play Lori Jorgensen in The Searchers, played one of the captive women in Feather. I think it's a little gem that, as you know, was originally released in 3D and has, arguably the most obnoxious 3D shot of all time, where Frank Lovejoy spits chewing tobacco at a rattlesnake, and we see it from the snake's POV. UGH.

  • Jim Reinecke | May 24, 2013 12:31 PM

    Leonard references this shot, Steve, in his review of THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER in his Movie Guide(s), telling us "Lovejoy even spits at the camera!".

  • Tony Caruana | May 21, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    Thanks for the heads up on this book, Leonard. I've just downloaded it on to my Kindle.
    I've just read the first chapter and I'm hooked-you're right, he's a very good writer.

  • Nat Segaloff | May 21, 2013 3:52 PMReply

    I'm eager to read this in light of Stuart Byron's famous 1979 New York Magazine article citing "The Searchers" as the single most influential movie for the (then-) New Hollywood.

  • Terry Bigham | May 21, 2013 3:35 PMReply

    Buddy Holly's smash hit "That'll Be The Day" was inspired by the catchphrase of Wayne's character Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers".

  • mike fontanelli | May 21, 2013 2:16 PMReply

    That's the same Henry Brandon that baby-boomers will remember as the villain "Barnaby" in Laurel & Hardy's "Babes in Toyland" (aka "March of the Wooden Soldiers"). I wonder what his significance in the real-life story of Cynthia Ann Parker was?

  • mike fontanelli | May 21, 2013 5:22 PM

    On second read, it's apparent that Maltin was referring to Quanah Parker's significance, not Henry Brandon's. As Emily Litella used to say: "Never mind!"

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