The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel. New York: Bloomsbury, USA. 416pp. Hardcover. $28.00.
The scene is a rough wooden fort on an East Texas homestead. A nine-year-old girl wearing a calico dress stands in the doorway, shielding her eyes as she squints into the horizon. In the distance, she can barely see the sun glinting off of Comanche rifles. She runs inside. The year is 1836.
Cut to a red, dusty landscape under a hot blue sky pierced by spires of rock and hulking buttes the size of cathedrals. A man sits in a chair, shielding his eyes from the sun with a broad-brimmed hat. He squints at a line of horses in the distance. A war cry floats through the air. The year is 1956.
Meet Cynthia Ann Parker and John Ford, the stars of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel’s new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. Cynthia Ann and four others were kidnapped during a brutal Comanche raid at the height of the American-Indian wars. Although others in her party were eventually found — notably Rachel Plummer, who wrote a famous captivity narrative about her experience — Cynthia Ann would not be recovered for 24 years. During her time as a “white Comanche,” she was married to a chief and bore him three children. Finally, at the age of 33, she was forcibly recaptured along with her infant daughter Prairie Flower and returned to distant relatives, who tried unsuccessfully to reacclimate her to life among the white Americans. She died in misery shortly after her daughter succumbed to an epidemic, and they were buried together.
Ford’s story is more familiar to the readers of this magazine. A difficult man, a surly drunk, and an unforgiving, often abusive father figure to his stable of actors, he was also a brilliant formalist who helped to elevate the American western from corny cowboy flick to essential viewing for a generation of great American directors, from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg. The Searchers, with its seemingly endless Monument Valley landscapes, has been a site of controversy among movie critics since its release (Pauline Kael famously wrote, “You can read a lot into it, but it’s not very enjoyable”); however, since Stuart Byron made the claim in 1979 that “all recent American cinema derives from John Ford’s The Searchers,” no one has disputed its influence.
The little girl and the famous director are bound by a strange connection, attenuated by time and distance. The story of the abduction of Cynthia Ann by Comanche warriors and her return to white civilization would survive across a bridge of 130 years, becoming the seed of what was perhaps Ford’s most influential film. In order to survive that long, a story, like a species, must evolve, changing with the times. Frankel’s book illustrates just how much.
The Searchers: The Making of a Legend is not a typical “making-of” book, nor is it a biography of Cynthia Ann, or of John Ford, or a film analysis, although it contains elements of all of these. Frankel’s book is the biography of a story, and thus a story about stories: their origins, their meanings, their transformations over time. With journalistic zeal, Frankel investigates the initial event, having waded through hundreds of unsorted historical documents in the archives at the University of Texas Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in an attempt to get beyond the conflicting reports to the kernel of truth — although, as part of the life of the legend of Cynthia Ann, those conflicting reports ultimately found their way into the book as well. Frankel narrates the contortions the tale underwent in the years that followed, until it inspired the fictionalized retelling by novelist Alan LeMay that became Ford’s 1956 western, The Searchers.
It is an ambitious, even daring book, with much to offer the reader. First of all, it adds to the lore of Cynthia Ann (something of a cottage industry in Texas) an excellently written and meticulously researched version of the story, laying to rest some rumors, providing clarity on some facts, and, as Frankel himself told me in an interview for a previous article I wrote, “put[ting] a lot of things in that ‘we don’t know about that stuff and we never really will’ category.” Secondly, it casts light on one of Ford’s most difficult and inspiring films, burrowing to the center of his own interpretation of the story. Frankel’s unifying thesis — that stories can say more about the society that tells them than about the subjects themselves — is not new to anyone who came of age during or after the rise of New Historicism in the academy. However, tracking the same story over multiple tellings adds weight to the claim, and Frankel’s careful documentation of micro-histories such as the troubled relationship between Ford and John Wayne, the star of The Searchers, provides vivid context for the shifting of Cynthia Ann’s original tale.
Unfortunately, it does other things as well, and not as successfully. A project that is meant to be amphibious, capable of surviving in the realms of both American history and film studies, it winds up with a split personality instead; the seam between history and fiction shows a little too much for comfort. The first half of the book relates not only the tragic story of Cynthia Ann, but also the incredible career of her son by Comanche chief Peta Nocona, Quanah Parker. Because Quanah’s story is so well documented and so unusual — a Comanche chief himself, he eventually became an intermediary between the Comanche and the whites, as well as a strong advocate for Indian assimilation into American society — his section of the book is significantly longer than Cynthia Ann’s.
This makes for terrific reading, but the thread of the original story gets a bit lost. It is true that until the end of his life, Quanah remained passionately invested in his mother’s story, and this helped him in his efforts to bridge the gap between Indians and whites by painting a sympathetic portrait of himself as a “reformed” Indian, transformed by his love of his mother’s people. Frankel quotes him as saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I used to be a bad man. Now I am a citizen of the United States.” This was a highly canny statement, instrumental to Quanah’s aim of ending the persecution of his father’s people; he followed it by saying, “I pay taxes the same as you people do. We are the same people now. We used to give you some trouble, but we are the same people now” (170).
However relevant this angle of the story is to Frankel’s story about stories, it forms only a tiny portion of Quanah’s extensive history, a ripping yarn but not one that adds much to our understanding of The Searchers. And therein lies the central problem of the book. There are two contradictory impulses at work: one to get to the bottom of a true story that has been distorted by retellings, and one that clearly prioritizes the most distorted version of all, the Ford film. Because Cynthia Ann never told her story in her own words, and because untarnished facts about her are hard to come by, her story occupies a paltry 70 pages, while bit players like novelist Alan LeMay get more than their share of attention; and the book itself takes its name not from the woman at the center of the story, but from the book and film retellings, which are, in the end, more inspired by the tale than based on it.
In fact, the leap from Quanah’s death in 1911 to LeMay’s novel in 1952 is a large one. Frankel relates that LeMay “collected information on sixty-four Indian abductions, including Cynthia Ann’s” and “freely cherry-picked and mashed together features from several true stories to create his fictional one” (199). LeMay also shifted the story’s time frame from 1836 to 1868 to take advantage of the years immediately following the Civil War. Ironically, the aspect of LeMay’s book that relates it most closely to Cynthia Ann’s story is the very thing that erases her role in the story most completely: as the title suggests, LeMay chose to focus exclusively on the experience of the men searching for the kidnapped girl, leaving only a few scenes of the girl herself, and none from her perspective. Tellingly, the novel was initially serialized under the name “The Avenging Texans”; Frankel does not give us an idea of why LeMay softened it to The Searchers.
The result, of course, is one of the most compelling and disturbing portraits of American masculinity in the history of film. In the film’s opening sequence, John Wayne as Ethan Edwards cuts across interior shots of his brother’s house like a giant, towering over his brother, slicing frames in half with his height, and seeming almost to scrape his head on the low-beamed ceiling. His slow anger and brutish sexuality (he is subtly but obviously in love with his sister-in-law, Martha) invade the domestic sphere and seem to bring bad luck with them; almost immediately after his appearance, news of cattle rustlers draws him away from the house, and an Indian raid destroys the family while he is gone. Ethan’s quest for his surviving niece, Debbie (Lana Wood/Natalie Wood), slowly transforms over the course of the film from a rescue mission to an honor killing, as it becomes clear that she is old enough to have been tainted by sexual intercourse with the despised racial other. The thrill of watching the movie lies in Ethan’s vacillation between seething, explosive hatred and obvious grief, both played by Wayne with sublime stoicism. His adopted nephew and partner in the search, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), externalizes the struggle, vowing to stop Ethan from murdering Debbie even if it means killing him. But Wayne’s decision to spare Debbie’s life is made without Martin’s intervention, in a climactic moment that moves so quickly and so silently you might almost miss it. With Wayne’s face turned away from the camera and hardly another line from him after his words, “Let’s go home, Debbie,” the viewer is left with no explanation of his decision beyond the moment when he lifts her abruptly up into the air and examines her face, echoing a moment of connection between the younger Debbie and her Uncle Ethan earlier in the film.
Some critics, among them Frankel, claim that Ethan takes mercy on Debbie because he recognizes in her face the features of her mother, his long-lost love Martha. This reading is frankly justified by a line from the original script in which Ethan “points a gun at her head, looks at her in the eyes, and says, ‘You look a lot like your mother'” (interview with Frankel). One of Frankel’s most convincing arguments for Ford’s artistry is that Ford excised lines like this from the screenplay during filming; Frankel’s scrupulous comparisons between the original script and the final film point up example after example of this restraint, which gives the film the ambiguous quality that makes it, in Frankel’s eyes, a masterpiece.
However, this reading simply reinforces how far we have come from the original tale. Where is Cynthia Ann in all of this? It’s already been a long journey from the sullen, heavy-set, and chronically depressed 33-year-old “white Comanche” to the buxom, wide-eyed 16-year-old Natalie Wood. Frankel’s argument seems to scrub even the last traces of identity from this heavily fictionalized incarnation by replacing the captive girl’s face with another woman’s features, and human empathy with an eroticized memory. This jibes with the film’s eroticization of grown-up Debbie throughout (Stephen Metcalf noted in a vapid critique of the film that she is “quite the stone fox in her snug Comanche outfit” and provides “the only hint of good sex in the movie”). And Frankel (and presumably other scholars of the movie) neglected to mention what came across to me as an even more incestuous connection between Debbie and her adopted brother, Martin, who is an eighth Cherokee and therefore bears the faint but distinct mark of the film’s psychosexual themes of eroticized miscegenation.
What are the stakes of the Cynthia Ann tale as Frankel tells it, a teleological narrative that culminates in the making of a film that’s not really about her? Frankel freely acknowledges this drift: “We are, of course, a long way from the original tale of Cynthia Ann Parker. She is no longer the legend’s principal focus nor its abiding concern. Ford has literally moved the camera from focusing on the external search and turned it instead on ourselves, our deepest fears, and our prejudices” (313). However, in allowing Ethan to rescue Debbie rather than die trying to kill her, Ford ultimately weights the scales toward the overcoming of those prejudices. Film critic Molly Haskell argues, and Frankel agrees, that this dissolving of hatred into love reflects the victory of a “feminized vision of civilization — loving, inclusive, conciliatory — over Ethan and Scar’s macho war without end” (Frankel, 312). But if this is the case, it does so at the expense of little Cynthia Ann, whose true story was much, much grimmer, and who arguably suffered as much from attempts to “civilize” her at the end of her life as she did from her abduction at the beginning of it.
As Frankel relates, Araminta McClellan, a descendent of the Parker family who in her lifetime collected much of the archival information we have today about Cynthia Ann’s story, wrote her own account of it in the 1930s called Twice a Captive, which she tried to sell to Hollywood without success. The question is not why an account told from Cynthia Ann’s perspective was not made into a famous film; that is obvious. A story told from the perspective of a white woman married to an Indian chief simply could not have been told in Hollywood, even as late as 1956. A story of two men on a quest to rescue a woman from savages could. It was not until the 1970s that a series of fictionalizations began to focus on Cynthia Ann’s perspective, notably Douglas C. Jones’s Season of Yellow Leaf (1983), Lucia St. Clair’s Ride the Wind (1985), and comic book artist Jack Jackson’s 1977 graphic novel White Comanche. The real question is why Frankel does not go into these alternate retellings of the tale, even in the epilogue, which returns instead to Quanah.
This is not an indictment of Frankel’s excellent book, or even of The Searchers, which remains a mysterious and hauntingly beautiful film. Cynthia Ann’s story was always going to disappear. However, the way that it has been adapted to fit our cultural needs over the years — and this includes the film and Frankel’s book — has the strange effect of repeating her tragic disappearance over and over again. The movie snatches young Debbie out of the frame early on, replacing her with the face of Scar, the Indian chief played by white actor Henry Brandon. Once she is rescued, she never touches the ground again with her own two feet; Ethan releases her from his arms only when she is safely on the Jorgensen porch, ready to step across the threshold into the domestic sphere, separated at last from the sexual wildness of Ethan and Indians alike by the closing door as it swings shut.
The real Cynthia Ann remained lost until the end of her life. Although the film’s searchers don’t kill Cynthia Ann’s proxy, they don’t exactly find her either. Ultimately, neither does Frankel, who readily admits that his version of the story is just one among many, more accurate in its details, but finally inconclusive. Frankel’s book tells a good story-of-a-story, but it chooses a specific path, and in doing so, finds a beautiful film rather than a strong woman at the end of the trail.