Ron Briley: Review of Glenn Frankel's "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend" (Bloomsbury, 2013)

tags: Ron Briley, Hollywood, book reviews, The Searchers, John Wayne, John Ford

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."

In the spring of 1956 Warner Brothers released The Searchers, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. The film received mixed reviews and turned a modest profit while garnering no Academy Award nominations. Over the last fifty years, however, the reputation of The Searchers has grown among filmmakers and film critics. In fact, in the 2012 poll of the respected British film journal Sight and Sound, The Searchers was selected as the seventh-greatest film of all time. Glenn Frankel, an editor for the Washington Post who has written books on Israel and South Africa, argues that the gap between the initial audience response to the film and contemporary critical opinion is due to the fact that The Searchers was originally marketed as just another John Wayne Western feature. Instead, Frankel asserts that with The Searchers, Ford confronts complex issues of race, violence, barbarism, and civilization which are at the core of American history and continue to make the film relevant today.

Nevertheless, Ford’s conclusions on violence and race in the making of America are somewhat ambiguous, as is Frankel’s fascinating narrative. The first half of the book chronicles the captivity narrative of Cynthia Ann Parker and the story of her son, Comanche chief Quanah Parker. The shorter middle section of the volume focuses upon writer Alan LeMay, who drew upon captivity narratives to produce his 1953 novel, The Searchers. But rather than focus upon the struggles of a captive woman, LeMay’s story concentrates upon the obsessive search by an uncle for his niece captured by the Comanche. This story seems to be modeled upon the expeditions of John Parker in search of his niece Cynthia Ann and set in Texas, although the time period is after the Civil War rather than Texas of the 1830s and 1840s. The final section of Frankel’s book considers Ford’s film adaptation of the novel, in which Wayne portrays Ethan Edwards seeking retribution for a Comanche raid which resulted in the murder of his brother’s family and the capture of his young niece, Debbie. The primary conflict of the film is between Ethan and young Martin Pauley (Jeffrey Hunter) who seeks to prevent Ethan from killing his niece after she comes of age to marry and suffer “a fate worse than death” by becoming the bride to a Comanche warrior.

Thus, much of Frankel’s narrative concentrates upon the brutal conflict between the Comanche and white settlers on the Texas frontier. Frankel describes the Comanche as fierce warriors who were brutal to their white captives, engaging in torture, mutilation, and gang rape. On the other hand, he notes that the Comanche could be quite caring for members of their own community, and atrocities on the frontier were not limited to Native people. Murder of women and children alongside mutilation was also practiced by whites in such events as the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. Despite this more complex reality, Frankel observes that whites saw the struggle between settlers and the Comanche as civilization doing battle against the forces of barbarism. Thus, the captivity narrative centered upon white Christian women, symbolizing civilization, resisting the corrupting influence of barbarous and godless savages. This story, however, became more complicated when, as in the case of Cynthia Ann Parker, the captive was eventually incorporated into the Native community and formed a family apart from her white origins.

In describing the life of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah, Frankel retraces some of the ground covered by S. C. Gwynee in the best-selling Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (2010). When she was nine year of age in 1836, Cynthia Ann was captured by the Comanche, and she witnessed the rape, murder, and mutilation of family members. Although her uncle, John Parker engaged in numerous expeditions to find the captive, he was unsuccessful in his quest. In 1860, however, Cynthia Ann was “rescued,” along with her young daughter, Prairie Flower, by Texas Rangers and the U.S. Cavalry. By this time, Cynthia Ann was the wife of Peta Nacona, one of the warriors who carried out the raid on her white family, and mother of two young warriors. The ensuing story of Cynthia Ann is tragic, as she was not allowed to return to her Comanche family, and Frankel is a fine writer who does an excellent job of conveying to the reader the sorrow of Cynthia Ann’s life after she was forced to re-enter white society. Although many members of the Parker family attempted to welcome her back to “civilization,” her uncle John never bothered to visit her.

She never saw her Comanche husband or sons again; however, her surviving son Quanah did search for his mother. Quanah was the leader of the Quahadis Comanche band who continued to battle the Texans and U. S. government until, accepting the inevitability of white population growth and technology; he agreed to settle on the Fort Sill Reservation in Oklahoma. Frankel asserts that once he decided to become a man of peace, Quanah downplayed his warrior past and used his white ancestry to make connections with his captors. Frankel writes that Quanah was a gifted storyteller who developed the narrative of “a man who was half-white and half-Comanche, and who longed to bring these two worlds together, explaining each to the other and linking the two, just as they were linked in his own bloodstream. The Man of Peace. The White Comanche. The Noble Savage” (124). Quanah was able to use this identity to become the leader of the Comanche and establish good relations with the whites, including members of the Parker family and ranchers, with whom he developed lucrative financial land and grazing deals.

While Quanah Parker was able to build a bridge of assimilation with many whites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Frankel notes that the popularity of a novel and film such as The Searchers indicates that even in the middle of the twentieth century, questions of race and the brutality of the frontier conquest continued to resonate. Frankel reads LeMay as reacting to sympathetic portrayals of Native people by telling the story from the perspective of the Texans. However, Frankel finds it much more difficult to nail down the racial perspective of Ford, observing that in his Westerns the director included both crude stereotypes of barbarous Natives along with more positive, although still stereotypical, depictions of the Noble Savage. The author acknowledges the racism of the film, but he argues that the conclusion of The Searchers provides a more optimistic take on race relations. While much of the film focuses upon efforts to protect white women from the barbarous Comanche, Frankel maintains that in the final analysis, The Searchers is the triumph of a “feminized version of civilization -- loving, inclusive, conciliatory” (312). Martin Pauley is the male instrument for the goals of the women in the film, as he prevents Ethan from doing harm to Debbie, and she is returned to her family. Debbie’s Comanche captor Scar is killed by Ethan, who finally embraces Debbie, but his violent racism is no longer acceptable in society -- and in the final shot of the film he walks away from the community and into the rugged frontier.

While not all readers will agree with Frankel’s interpretation of the film, it is more difficult to argue with the strong case he makes for the nuanced acting performance by John Wayne and the astute direction of John Ford. Frankel is an excellent storyteller who has devoted years of research to his topic -- examining archive collections on the American West, Texas, and film production in addition to relevant secondary sources. He has also logged many miles in his research from Monument Valley -- Ford’s favorite location for his Western pictures -- to the plains of Texas and Palo Duro Canyon roamed by Quanah Parker, even visiting the small Texas Panhandle town of Quanah named after the Comanche leader. Frankel finds the themes of the Texas frontier and The Searchers dealing with race, violence, savagery, and civilization to be still relevant; although like Ford his conclusions on these topics remain somewhat ambiguous -- leaving it to the reader/viewer to reach one’s own understanding. In this detailed examination of the film, however, Frankel fails to consider the historical context of the emerging civil rights movement which was increasing American awareness of race in the shaping of the nation. For slavery, which was another intersection among perceptions of violence, civilization, barbarism, and race, was similar to frontier violence as a core experience in creating the American nation.

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