Winston Churchill famously called Russia a riddle “wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Less remembered is what he said after those words, which was that the Russian national interest was the key to understanding it. We could attempt a similar construction about John Ford’s landmark movie The Searchers (1956), which is also enigmatic and contradictory, and the key to which is U.S. race history. Another way of putting this is that The Searchers is a Western nourished by both an aura of epic mythology and a sense of dread over the violent legacy of Manifest Destiny. It has the romantic elegance of the paintings of Frederick Remington and the existential darkness of a psychological nightmare. It has moments of intense realism and also cringeworthy racial stereotypes and tropes. The movie’s villainous antagonist, a Comanche chief called Scar, is less authentically savage than Ethan Edwards, played by the iconic actor John Wayne. And so on. These are the kinds of reflections that those of us who love The Searchers try to explain to the uninitiated. The best we can do is eternally return to statements that begin with “It’s a Western” and which must inevitably be followed by the conjunction “but.” The Searchers is a Western, but…
Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend is a kind of biography of the movie. Frankel tells the story of the movie’s historical inspirations, its screenwriter Alan Le May, its director John Ford, its movie star actor John Wayne and the movie’s reception among critics then and now. By far, the most compelling part of the book is the first half, which tells the story of the captivity of Cynthia Ann Parker among the Comanche in nineteenth-century Texas. In one of the ironies of history that proves the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, the captive white girl gave birth to a Comanche boy that grew up to become a fearsome and mythologized Comanche leader: Quanah Parker. As interesting as the true life search for Cynthia Ann Parker was, especially in comparison to what we see in The Searchers, it pales in comparison to the tale of Cynthia’s Comanche’s son and his remarkable success as a leader and friend of the white man. Any reader of Frankel’s book would agree that Alan Le May’s novel, and John Ford’s adaptation of it, only scratched the tip of the iceberg of the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. Thanks to Frankel’s vivid tales, I actually hope that someone will be bold enough to retell the story of Alan Le May’s novel, or the true story of Cynthia Ann and her son Quanah.
Frankel teaches us about the grim and vivid history of the Texas Comanche Wars, but also about what a dreadful human being John Ford really was. In the book, the enigmatic quality of Ford’s despicable nature is only matched by the sphinx-like mystery of Cynthia Ann Parker, who, upon returning to the world of whites, is both unwilling and unable to cast off her Comanche identity. We can guess and speculate but she remains a riddle. Ironically, John Wayne, the icon that liberals love to hate because of all of the symbolism embodied in his cowboy persona, appears to have been something of a sweetheart.
My only criticism of the book is that I don’t believe that Frankel gives full voice to the extraordinary popularity of The Searchers among film historians and cultural critics. There are some rich interpretations of the movie that go unmentioned in these pages and which readers would find quite fascinating. There is also a missed opportunity when Frankel does not mention Sherman Alexie’s brilliant short story “Dear John Wayne” (from the book of stories The Toughest Indian in the World), which is about The Searchers. Alexie, who is one of our preeminent writers, in addition to being an American Indian (it pays to separate out these two statements), once said that The Searchers was one of his favorite movies. His story is a brilliant riff on both The Searchers and the John Wayne persona. Interestingly, another wonderful writer, Louise Erdrich, has penned a poem by the same title, “Dear John Wayne,” that would also have merited some exploration. Fans of The Searchers, or proud “Searcher Geeks” are interested in all of this. Minor quibbling, though. Mr. Frankel did right by us.
What is The Searchers and what does it ultimately mean? Frankel does not give us a simple answer. In the pages of his book we trace some compelling life stories and obsessions and we are continuously reminded that to be American is to be villain, hero and victim, all at the same time. Perhaps this is the nature of our national riddle/enigma/mystery. The other part is that we aren’t able to reconcile all those personas into a coherent whole.
If you love The Searchers you need to read this book but that’s besides the point because you probably already read it.
For more information on Glenn Frankel, here’s his website.
© Christopher Conway, 2013. All Rights Reserved.