By Chris Vognar
The Dallas Morning News
---- — 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.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The words are often attributed to Ford; they were actually spoken by one of his characters, a newspaperman in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” The sentiment applies to Western tales of all stripes, including “The Searchers.”
In the movie, Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and his adopted nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) search for Ethan’s young niece, who has been captured by a Comanche chief. Months turn to years as Ethan grows more unhinged.
Ethan is the central figure of the film and of Alan LeMay’s novel, in which he’s called Amos (the name was changed for the movie to avoid comparisons to Amos ‘n’ Andy). But Cynthia Ann embodied the real-life tragedy. Taken by Comanches after seeing her father, her uncle and her grandfather slaughtered, she was assimilated and married into Comanche society, then taken again when she was brought back to white society 24 years later.
As S.C. Gwynne writes in his fine 2010 book “Empire of the Summer Moon,” “The event that destroyed her life was not the raid at Parker’s Fort in 1836 but her miraculous and much-celebrated ‘rescue’ at Mule Creek in 1860. The latter killed her husband, separated her forever from her beloved sons, and deposited her in a culture where she was more a true captive than she had ever been with the Comanches.”
That’s a great (and true) story, but it doesn’t jibe with the captivity myth — the narrative genre in which pure white innocents are captured and defiled by ruthless savages (think James Fenimore Cooper’s hugely popular novel “Last of the Mohicans” and countless others). Scribes of Cynthia Ann Parker’s time, including future Dallas mayor John Henry Brown, elevated her rescue from a ragtag operation into an epic struggle led by future Texas governor Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross. (Political careers need legends, too.)
Other writers chose to deify Cynthia Ann: A 1928 Dallas newspaper article called her the “most romantic of Texas heroines.” Like the man said, print the legend.
In 1954, LeMay’s novel turned Cynthia Ann’s uncle James, a ne’er-do-well who did in fact search for his niece, into the story’s main character. When turning the novel into a movie two years later, Ford did something bolder. He cast Wayne as Ethan and turned him into a monomaniacal tyrant, an unrepentant racist who wants all American Indians dead.
He’s the dark side of the Western psyche sprung to life. When he finally catches up with his niece, played by a young Natalie Wood, we don’t know whether he’ll rescue her or kill her for having committed the ultimate sin: sleeping with The Other.
“Ford takes these underlying psychological forces and raises them right to the surface of the movie,” Frankel says. “It’s what the movie is about. It’s why the uncle increasingly gets the notion that he’s going to kill his niece rather than rescue her. It’s because she’s grown into a woman and she’s had sex with Indians.”
The racist fear of such relations wasn’t used to demonize American Indians alone. Other popular films, most notably D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” played off the theme to justify the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
“It’s at the heart of why it was seen as OK for white men to conquer and lynch and murder and do whatever it takes to make sure our women are protected,” Frankel says.
Ford’s stroke of genius was tapping the ultimate all-American icon as a vessel for such manic neurosis and leaving us to decide whether he’s a hero or a villain. Ethan Edwards has all the standard Wayne swagger, even a trademark one-line phrase (“That’ll be the day,” which inspired Buddy Holly to pen a hit song of the same name). He just happens to have a maniac lurking not far below the surface.
“Ford understands that he’s creating myths and depicting myths,” Frankel says. “But he was about giving you the myth and then undercutting it. That’s why ‘The Searchers,’ to my mind, is a great film.”
Frankel understands the myths as well. By playing them off the facts, he’s given us a great book.