Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
THE SEARCHERS (1956) directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is one of my favorite westerns of all time, and it’s the reason I picked up The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend by Glenn Frankel, an exhaustive and meticulously researched volume on the entire story behind the movie THE SEARCHERS. And I mean the entire story.
The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend covers the historical events on which the movie THE SEARCHERS was based, from the slaughter of the Parker family by the Comanche Indians in East Texas in 1836, to the abduction of nine year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, to the grueling search for her and other abducted family members by her uncle James Parker, to the story of her half-Comanche son Quanah Parker who would later become Chief of the Comanches.
It then moves to the story of how western author Alan Lemay wrote the western novel The Searchers in 1953, and eventually recounts the events behind the making of the movie, THE SEARCHERS, chronicling John Ford’s domination on the set and his cantankerous relationship with his actors and crew, including John Wayne. Wayne, like others who worked with Ford multiple times, appreciated the director’s genius and looked past his social shortcomings in order to be involved in the high quality movies Ford continually made.
It’s a fascinating story, and author Frankel seems to cover every last inch of it. It’s an exhaustive piece of research. Unfortunately for the reader, it’s also a bit exhausting.
While I enjoyed learning about every aspect of this story, I nonetheless struggled to get through this 343 page volume. The prose reads like a textbook and hardly stimulates the imagination. While I was impressed with the amount of research and detail here, sometimes it was a bit much. I felt as if John Ford had discovered a new lunch recipe for his crew, Frankel would have spent an entire chapter devoted to how he found the recipe, who wrote it, its origins, and the cultural implications of the recipe, and where that recipe is today. In short, a lot of the writing here is overkill. This is not to imply that Frankel spent time on trivial matters, but to emphasize the point that his research here is all-encompassing, to the point where sometimes you wish you could skip over about 10 pages to get to the next topic.
The book begins with the historical account of the massacre of the Parker family. This is a particularly brutal part of the book, as the Comanche massacres are described in gory detail. Frankel takes the bold stand not to sugarcoat the conflict between the Comanches and the settlers, and he makes the point when describing the Comanche attacks that these folks don’t fit into the politically correct view of Native Americans we espouse today:
Still, by the mid-eighteenth century the Comanche had become the most relentless and feared war machine in the Southwest. They butchered their prisoners- torturing, amputating, eviscerating, mutilating, decapitating, and scalping- for entertainment, for prestige as warriors, and for the belief that to destroy the body of an enemy was to doom his soul to eternal limbo.
The intense brutality reflected the harsh conditions Comanches faced. Food and other resources were scarce.
The modern image of Indians- nurtured by the Native American rights movement, revisionist historians, and the film DANCE WITH WOLVES– has been one of profoundly spiritual and environmentally friendly genocide victims seeking harmony with the land and humankind. But the Comanches were nobody’s victims and no one’s friends. They were magnificent, brutal, and relentless.
The book goes on to describe the sad tragic fate of Cynthia Ann Parker, how she was ripped from her home and taken by the Comanches. It describes her initial hardships with the Comanches, and tells how eventually she became a welcomed member of their community, accepted their culture, and had children. The Cynthia Ann Parker story concludes just as tragically, as she’s eventually “rescued” and returned to white civilization against her will, ripped away from her children. She lived the rest of her days yearning for her children, and she died never learning their fate or ever being reunited with them.
The next part of the book follows Cynthia’s son Quanah who would grow to adulthood and become a famous Comanche chief. Quanah lived in a time when Indian raids had ended, and Native Americans were forced to live on reservations. Quanah did quite well for himself, cooperating with the United States government and taking full advantage of the system. He would spend his life trying to honor the life of his deceased mother, Cynthia Ann Parker.
The story of Cynthia Ann Parker became legend and was recounted over the years with Cynthia known to Americans as a tragic figure.
When author Alan Lemay chose to write his novel The Searchers, he decided to focus on the man doing the searching rather than the victim, Cynthia Ann, and thus he focused on the uncle, James Parker. In reality, James Parker searched for a short time before eventually giving up, unlike the character in Lemay’s novel, who ultimately finds Cynthia Ann.
The book concludes with John Ford choosing The Searchers for the subject of his next movie, and by far, this movie account is the most readable part of the book. But by this time, my interest had waned because the first two thirds were a labor to get through. Again, the content was thought-provoking, but the textbook prose dull.
I enjoyed the account of the making of the movie the most, although it was not fun learning about Ford’s domineering personality, and the way he often tormented his cast and crew.
It was also interesting to read how THE SEARCHERS failed to catch on when it was first released, not earning the critical acclaim that most people involved with the film expected. It wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, nor did it earn an immediate reputation as being anything more than just a John Wayne western.
The critical acclaim came much later, as only recently has the film been recognized as one of the best westerns ever made. Frankel also argues that the film was slow to be recognized because of the presence of John Wayne, whose right wing tendencies often turned off intellectuals who would have otherwise seen the film for what it was.
Audiences also missed the dark themes of THE SEARCHERS back in 1956. Accepting THE SEARCHERS as just another John Wayne movie, audiences in 1956 seemed to miss the gravity and racism which Wayne gave the character of Ethan Edwards, which went relatively unnoticed for decades.
Frankel includes some fascinating tidbits. For example, how Buddy Holly and his drummer Jerry Allison wrote the song “That’ll Be The Day” after seeing THE SEARCHERS at the movies, because “that’ll be the day” is the catch phrase John Wayne uses multiple times in the movie. The song would later be the first demo recording by the Beatles.
The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend is an exhaustive and comprehensive look at the making of the movie THE SEARCHERS, and at the legend on which it was based. It’s everything you wanted to know about the back story to THE SEARCHERS and more.
However, in spite of the fact that it’s full of facts and anecdotes, it’s not a fun read. It’s challenging to get through this encyclopedic volume which really could have benefitted from some humor or creative prose to stimulate the reader’s imagination. I enjoyed the content but not the style.
It also doesn’t help that the real life Cynthia Ann Parker story is so tragic and depressing. This disheartening content adds to the difficulty of getting through the first half of the book. And while the second half is definitely more enjoyable for film buffs, this story is dark as well, as John Ford, in spite of being a genius filmmaker, is described here as a man that you really wouldn’t want to spend time around.
I liked The Searchers – The Making Of An American Legend in spite of these drawbacks, but I can’t deny that in terms of reading pleasure, it was about as enjoyable as working on a movie set run by John Ford.