Van Post-discussion comments about The Searchers

Our discussion book this month was selected by Van Perdue. Van provides the following post-discussion comments about his selection:

A year or so ago my brother-in-law recommended to me a book called The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel, which I dutifully began to read. I was completely unprepared for the degree to which I would become absorbed in the book, which was inspired by the 1957 movie, “The Searchers” directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne.

What grabbed me was the approach Frankel took: he spent almost the entire first half of his book recounting the historical events upon which Allen LeMay’s novel, from which the movie took its name, was based. Frankel went on to provide a brief professional biography of LeMay, (who cut his teeth on writing Western novels, chased gold trying to write screenplays and returned to Western novels after experiencing life as a movie playwright), a history of the writing of the novel, and thence to the making of the movie. He explored the backgrounds of Ford and Wayne before turning to a description of the actual making of the film and its reception by critics and the public.

It all started in 1836 with the kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche raiders in east Texas. Frankel meticulously researched and documented the chain of events that bore only the remotest resemblance to what was presented in the novel and even less resemblance to events recounted in the movie. Debbie Edwards, Cynthia Ann’s movie counterpart, appeared to be around the same age as history records for Cynthia Ann, and they were both white settlers, but there the resemblance ends. Well, almost.

Debbie’s rescuer was her uncle Ethan Edwards, who pursued her for years not to rescue her, but to kill her because she presumably had experienced sexual congress with Comanches, or as Frankel described it, a Fate Worse Than Death. To him she was no longer white but Comanche and therefore an object of his racial hatred. In the end, of course, John Wayne came to realize the error of his ways and took her in his arms to return her to another settler family, her own having been massacred by the Comanches. In real life, Cynthia Ann was one of five captives, all relatives including her cousin Rachel. It was Rachel’s father, James Parker, who pursued the rescue of the captives. Rachel was rescued some months later, not by her uncle, but in a series of coincidences that involved her purchase by Mexican traders, who bought her from her Comanche owner (for she had been treated as a slave) and in turn sold her to American settlers near Santa Fe. Her health failing, Rachel died shortly after being reunited with her family, and her father swore to continue his search for the remaining four captives. He continued his search until 1851, but Cynthia Ann’s rescue came at the hands of the Texas Rangers in 1861.

During the course of her captivity Cynthia Ann had become the wife of a Comanche tribal leader and bore him two sons. When rescued, she spoke fluent Comanche and a bastardized form of Mexican Spanish but had shed her English completely, unlike Debbie of the movie. Also unlike Debbie of the movie, Cynthia Ann did not live happily ever after; quite the opposite, in fact. She was the object, variously, of scorn and pity, who ultimately died knowing little about the fates of her two sons.

What it all boiled down to for me was that the book was inaccurately subtitled. The subtitle should have been The Making of Three American Legends. Legend one was the story line, legend two was John Ford, and legend three was John Wayne.

As Frankel himself pointed out in the book, the legend of Cynthia Ann Parker has been well known in Texas from the moment the facts (and myths) unfolded. The legend fomented by the novel and the movie was one in which the flawed but admirable white hero, personifying Exceptional America, rescued the poor victim from shame and degradation, redeeming his troubled, racist past in the process. It made heroes of the Texas Rangers, who ranged from little more than vigilantes to fairly respectable lawmen. It did not speak much of the losses of the First Nations, giving only a slight nod as it allowed the fictional Chief Scar to speak of losing his two sons to white men. It didn’t mention the loss of traditional territory, including sacred sites, or the intentional destruction of bison (with the brief allusion afforded by Ethan Edwards trying to kill off an entire herd with a single rifle). It didn’t mention the numerous treaties that the U.S. reneged upon when treaty provisions became inconvenient. It didn’t mention the innumerable instances of disrespect, scorn and other indignities heaped on the native Americans in daily interactions. But maybe that’s just me.

The John Ford legend to me may be a bit overblown, and Frankel’s book didn’t much discuss the movies for which I feel Ford could justly feel pride. In my view his film version of The Grapes of Wrath remains worthy of praise to this day, but I’m not sure his work is on a par with many directors working today. In addition to The Searchers, he won Academy Awards for The Informer, a 1935 film about the underside of the Irish Republican Army; The Grapes of Wrath (1940); How Green Was My Valley, a 1941 adaptation of a novel about a Welsh mining family that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director; two documentaries about WWII – The Battle of Midway and December 7th in 1942 and 1943 respectively; and a 1952 Best Director award for The Quiet Man, an adaptation of a short story that had been published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1933, telling the story of an Irish-born American who travels to Ireland to reclaim the family farm. Aside from The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath, the only one of these movies I can remember seeing was the documentary of The Battle of Midway. The Searchers frankly left me a bit cold, even though I tried to time-travel back to the mid-50s and recapture the sort of hyper-patriotism that followed the winning of WWII and entering the Cold War. The Grapes of Wrath, on the other hand, left me moved, perhaps because my parents experienced The Great Depression from south Arkansas and regaled me with stories about how difficult life had been. Three of my father’s siblings ended up in California, but not until after WWII and none living the life of the Joads. I tend to discount the two documentaries as Ford was an Admiral who had access to vast resources of the Department of War in the making of the movies, giving him a sort of unfair advantage. Additionally, he had the vast upsurge of patriotic pride weighing in for him in the selection process.

John Wayne is another story altogether, and I admit to a bit of bias against him because of his role in the Hollywood blacklist era. He took part in creating the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in February 1944, and was elected president of that organization in 1949. That organization actively engaged in “outing” colleagues who had either been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, had been sympathetic to their ideals or even refused to name them to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hearings. HUAC was formed in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having communist or fascist ties. As seems to be the case with almost all House investigating committees, it became notorious because of its excesses that undermined what may have been well intentioned objectives. For example, the committee prepared a document that encouraged the internment of Japanese-Americans, it excoriated anyone who dared defy its authority; it wrecked careers; it was responsible for several suicides among Hollywood professionals whose careers were wrecked.

Prior to becoming Ford’s protege, John Wayne had been a class B movie cowboy whose career was headed nowhere. He appeared in the kind of movie I used to be able to see free by presenting my Boys’ Club membership card at the Ritz Theatre, where it was said you could get as much bubble gum as any boy could ever want just by scraping it off the bottoms of the movie seats. That is to say he probably had a pretty big fan base among 8- and 9-year-old boys but nowhere else. He avoided actual combat service during the war but later portrayed war heroes like Sgt. Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, a hard-fighting CPO in the Navy Seabees, and aviators in Flying Tigers and Flying Leathernecks. It is claimed that his guilt over not serving fueled his guilt and made him into the ultra conservative he became, but that’s not for me to say. My own father didn’t get drafted until 1944 because he had three children and worked in a chemical plant that at the time manufactured explosives for the war effort. (On the other hand, my father until his dying day was a fan of FDR and warned me as I entered my teen years during the McCarthy hearings that Joe McCarthy was an enemy of democracy.) For all that, it must be said that Wayne in his declining years had a huge fan base.

So those were the three legends. But that isn’t the only lens through which to view this book. Its subject matter, in particular the historical events underlying the novel and the movie present an array of considerations.

To what extent are Americans’ view of history shaped by movies and historical fiction?

How much does white America really know about native American history and culture?

How much do present-day Americans really know about the lives of early settlers?

What explains the violence used by white settlers and native Americans upon each other?

To what degree does that violence beget – or explain – the violence we see in our world today?

What role did official government policy play versus individual initiative?

What were intertribal relations like prior to white settlement and how were they affected by white settlement? How about relations between various southwest tribes and Mexicans?

What effect did the Mexican War have on white-Indian relations?

What must it have felt like as an Indian to realize that your way of life was disappearing? How would that differ from older generations seeing their way of life giving way to that of younger generations, regardless of ethnicity?

Glenn Frankel is currently working on a book to be published in 2017 that explores the Hollywood blacklist and the making of the classic western High Noon. I am very much looking forward to it, as The Searchers led me in so many directions of exploration.


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2016 Selections, The Searchers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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