DALLAS — It was but one skirmish in a protracted war between Texas settlers and Comanche warriors, one abduction among countless others. But when vengeful raiders whisked 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker away from Parker’s Fort in May 1836, about two miles from where the Central Texas city of Groesbeck now stands, a drama marked by retribution, torment and reconciliation kicked into gear.
It took Hollywood 120 years to get in on the action. The resulting movie, “The Searchers,” is widely seen as the best of the 14 collaborations of John Wayne and the taskmaster director John Ford. Met mostly with indifference upon release, it’s now heralded as one of the great Texas epics (though it wasn’t shot here) and a towering Western: AFI named it the top Western of all time (and 12th best American film overall).
Glenn Frankel’s new book “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend” (Bloomsbury, $28) tracks the saga from abduction to rescue, from fact to legend to novel to movie, each step enshrouded in a particularly Western cloud of myth and sexual anxiety. Rigorously reported — Frankel is director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and won the 1989 Pulitzer as The Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief — the book provides an invaluable look at how Texas history has been interpreted and decoded from one generation to the next.
“I always thought of The Searchers as being the ultimate captivity narrative, and I was vaguely aware of how important the captivity narrative was as a literary genre,” Frankel says by phone from Austin. “I had a notion I would link it to that, but then I was able to link it to the original story.”
Indeed, the movie takes up but a third of Frankel’s book. Most of the story concerns Cynthia Ann and her half-Comanche son, Quanah Parker, who became a legend of his own: first as the last Comanche chief, then as a politically savvy go-between navigating the thorny relationship between whites and American Indians.