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.