The Making of an American Legend

On June 18, 2015, in Books, Culture, History, Literature, Movies, Texas, by Derrick G. Jeter

The Searchers Book Cover“That’ll be the day!” is one of the most iconic lines John Wayne ever uttered on screen. It comes from John Ford’s classic western, The Searchers—the 1955 film based on Alan LeMay’s novel of the same title. Shot in Monument Valley, one of the most unlikely representations of Texas one could find, the film is stunning in its scope and represents Wayne’s greatest performance. Though at the time not universally accepted as one of Ford’s and Wayne’s best films, it has endured in the American memory as a masterpiece of cinema.

Moviegoers—then, as well as now—however didn’t and don’t realize that The Searchers was loosely based on historical events. In 1836 Texas, a 9 year old girl, by the name of Cynthia Ann Parker, was abducted from her family home by Comanches, after they had murdered many of her kin. She was raised as a Comanche and, according to legend, married her captor, Peta Nocona. She had three children by him, one of whom became the famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker. After her capture, Cynthia Ann’s uncle, James, set out on an eight year quest to find and steal, or buy, her back. He never did find her.

It wasn’t until twenty-four years later, on a small tributary in the Texas panhandle, that Cynthia Ann was spotted by soldiers and recognized (because of her blue eyes) as the lost captive girl—now a woman, and mother of three. Taken, along with her suckling daughter, Prairie Flower, Cynthia Ann was reunited with her Parker family. She spent the remainder of her life in “civilization,” despondent and depressed. She died in 1871.

It was this story—particularly uncle James Parker’s ill-fated attempts to rescue his niece—that became the seedbed of LeMay’s novel and Ford’s movie. And all three—Cynthia Ann’s story, the writing of the novel, and the making of the movie—are expertly captured in Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.

Frankel’s treatment of Cynthia Ann’s history isn’t as far reaching, harrowing, or colorful as S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, about which I wrote an earlier review, but Frankel’s history is just as accurate and sensitive to the tragedy that befell a 9 year old girl and a 23 year old woman. Anyone interested in Comanche history in general or Cynthia Ann Parker in particular will find in the first half of Frankel’s book a reliable primer; it’s worth the price of admission.

For me, however—simply because I had spent so much time in Gwynne’s book—The Searchers really became engaging during the second half, when Frankel deals with LeMay and Ford. Frankel paints a portrait for both men and delves into the creative process each used to create his art. But Frankel devotes his greatest time to Ford and the production of the film.

Ford was a difficult man to work with and for. But he was a genius. It was because of his ability to make actors look good on screen and to produce, along with his crew, works of cinematic art, most who worked with him overlooked or absorbed his abuse. Even iconic tough men and bonafide stars like John Wayne were willing to take tongue lashings, or worse, from the man they called Pappy.

A taste of Ford’s abuse is mirrored in how Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, speaks to the half-bread Martin Pawley, or in how Martin kicks his Comanche “bride” down a hill and Ethan laughs about it.

All of this, as well as the cinematic genius of Ford, comes out in vivid detail in Frankel’s wonderful book. It’s a must read for lovers of western history, movie westerners, John Ford, John Wayne, and, of course, the movie The Searchers.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.

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