Oh, America and its Westerns! For as long as America has been making itself, it has been just as busy manufacturing its meanings, and Westerns have evolved as the dominant artistic medium in which America has gone about its noble and complicated work. In “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” Glenn Frankel brilliantly makes a case for “The Searchers” as the ne plus ultra of the form.
Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The Washington Post, stages the story of "The Searchers" in three acts:
Act I: The strange journey of Cynthia Ann Parker, abducted from her family's ranch in West Texas by Comanches on May 19, 1836, when she was 9 years old. Her uncle James Parker was obsessed with returning Cynthia to her family and searched off and on from 1837 to 1852 without success. Meanwhile Cynthia Ann was first a captive, then a ward and finally integrated into the tribe. She married a war chief, Peta Nocona, had three children and lived what seems like a productive life until she was "rescued" from that life by the Texas Rangers, who forcibly reunited her with her birth family. She and her daughter died in captivity.
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Act II: Seventy-five years pass. Alan Le May, novelist and screenwriter, happened upon the story of Cynthia Ann Parker's captivity and rescue and used that to write his novel "The Searchers," a masterpiece of Western fiction. Le May used primary material and interviews with the Parker family but wed those facts to his fiction.
Act III: The novel found its way to John Ford, who saw a chance to make a movie that pushed into a deeper, darker kind of America — a movie that elevated America's bloody history into an epic myth.
Frankel's three acts — historical fact, the fictionalization of fact, and the making of myths and legends — are meant to work together, and it is a wonderful attempt. Cynthia Ann Parker's story and that of her obsessive, unbalanced uncle James are the historical sand around which the pearl of "The Searchers" formed, first as Le May's novel and then as John Ford and John Wayne's joint masterpiece.
Frankel is right to extol "The Searchers" as a major work of art that is all the more fascinating because in it we can see where fact, fiction and fancy meet and mix. Frankel's book is at its best when he writes about Ford and the making of the movie: the negotiations among screenwriter Frank Stanley Nugent, producer Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Ford; the ways in which Ford teases out layers of meaning from the material and his actors; and how he infuses the action with a degree of ambiguity and moral equivocation not often found in many movies, least of all Westerns. But as much time as Frankel spends on the source material — Comanche culture and Cynthia Ann Parker's odyssey — the book's ultimate message sometimes struggles under the burden of Frankel's praise for the movie.
It seems as though Frankel is more equipped to write about the film than the complicated history of the frontier. Early in the book Frankel writes that the brutality of the Comanche "reflected the harsh conditions Comanches faced. Food and other resources were scarce. These were meant to be shared with kinsmen, not with others, and violence reinforced this code. The modern image of Indians — nurtured by the Native American rights movement, revisionist historians, and the film 'Dances With Wolves' — has been one of profoundly spiritual and environmentally friendly genocide victims seeking harmony with the land and humankind. But the Comanches were nobody's victims and no one's friends. They were magnificent, brutal, and relentless."
This sounds good in a kind of knowing way, but it isn't true. A little while later Frankel relates a conundrum the Comanche character posed to outsiders: "Comanches were exceedingly tender with each other. There was playfulness, humor, and a willingness to sacrifice all for a fellow tribesman. They loved their own children and indulged them endlessly, and never used corporal punishment. ... How could a people be so solicitous of each other yet so cruel and brutal to others?" Frankel is at a loss. Might the answer be that a politics of violence evolved as the best defense against external aggressors (Spanish, Mexican, Anglo-American, Texan) over a 300-year span during which outsiders were trying to take their stuff and kill them? For the Comanches, violence was a strategy, even if it was an ultimately doomed one.
Frankel is right to bemoan the ways in which a certain kind of shallow multicultural, revisionist history can't deal with atrocities Indians committed against white people or even against other Indians. Frankel seems to combat the soft, doe-eyed nostalgic look at Indian history with the steely gaze reminiscent of the Duke himself. Consider these word choices: Frankel describes James Parker bagging an Indian. Indian men are referred to as bucks and braves. Comanches kill cattle with lances in one passage as a "final gesture of vandalism and contempt." How does Frankel know these warriors felt contempt? In one passage, Frankel quotes a contemporary source of Cynthia Ann Parker describing the role of women — "'The Squaws did all the manual labor,'" and in the same paragraph, Frankel himself uses the word squaw. There is, I suppose, a chance that Frankel doesn't know that squaw is a derogatory term that is deeply offensive to Indian people — but he should.
The image and idea of the gentle, nurturing, environmental Indian living in peace till the coming of the white man should be questioned, but not this way. Frankel shows that Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, is one of a type, The Man Who Knows Indians. Frankel's book seems to want to be the same type.
Ultimately, my objection to "The Searchers" is the same as my objection to Frankel's book about it: John Wayne gets moral ambiguity, and Indians get none. Moral ambiguity is better than moral certainty, but either way, it is had at the Indian's expense. In the movie and in the book, Native Americans remain rapists and sadists. An Indian who kills a white person is violent; but a white man who kills an Indian might be having an ethical crisis or might be in danger of losing his humanity.
Frankel writes: Wayne's character "shoots the eyes out of a Comanche Indian corpse, scalps another dead Indian, disrupts a funeral service, fires at warriors collecting their dead and wounded from the battlefield, and slaughters a buffalo herd to deprive Comanche families of food for the winter. Still, because he is played by John Wayne, we identify with Ethan's quest even if we recoil from his purpose."
Well, you might, but I don't. I, as an American Indian, identify with Cynthia Ann's quest — ignored by her captors and chroniclers: the quest for the freedom to live her life with her children among her people as she found them. Sadly, just as the historical (not to mention emotional) truths of Cynthia's life are lost to the record, they are also somewhat lost in this book: As Frankel moves from fact, to fiction, to legend, the true dimensions of Indian life get lost once again.
David Treuer is the author of three novels and a book of essays on Native American literature. His most recent book is "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey through the Land of His People."
By Glenn Frankel, Bloomsbury, 389 pages, $28