A modest hit in theaters in 1956, "The Searchers" has grown in stature to become, for many, the greatest Western ever filmed and one of the most influential movies. Yet it's always been more, thematically and culturally, than just a John Wayne movie about finding a white girl abducted by Comanche Indians.
Author Glenn Frankel's "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend" is a must-read for movie fans and anyone interested in mythmaking and the American West.
In 1836, Comanche Indians kidnapped 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker during a deadly raid on a white settlement in Texas. An uncle searched for her off and on for years. By the time Texas Rangers and others accidentally "rescued" her in 1860 during an attack on a Comanche camp, Cynthia Ann was a wife and mother. Her forced re-entry into white society - she was treated as if she were a pathetic oddity - was yet another tragic event in her life.
Using previously unpublished accounts and other archival material, Frankel notes that the facts surrounding her experience were twisted and molded, if not outright invented, to fit each storyteller's purpose. In Cynthia Ann's day, she was a heroine to some for surviving her captivity, to others merely a white savage. A century later, she was cast as a proto-feminist, the original tough Texas woman.
"The truth was less triumphalist and more poignant," Frankel writes. "Cynthia Ann was not the hardy survivor but rather the ultimate victim of the Texan-Comanche wars, abducted and traumatized by both sides."
American culture wasn't through with Cynthia Ann. Inspired to some degree by her saga, writer Alan LeMay focused his novel "The Searchers" not on the captive and her captors but on an uncle and adopted brother who try to find her. When LeMay sold the film rights, another mythmaker - director John Ford - went to work changing the story to fit his own vision as well as the needs of a director looking for a hit.
"The Searchers" was the ninth of the 14 major films in which Ford directed John Wayne. The actor owed his career to Ford - he plucked Wayne from B movie purgatory to star in "Stagecoach" (1939) when others wanted Gary Cooper - and Ford never let Wayne forget it. Wayne took as much abuse as anyone from the bullying Ford. While making "The Searchers," Ford screamed at Hollywood's greatest cowboy, "When will you learn to ride a horse?"
Control freak that he was, Ford was surprisingly open to improvising. As Frankel relates, the famous closing shot of "The Searchers" - framed in a ranch house doorway - was just one instance in which Ford went with his gut instead of his script.
Frankel's excellent research and analysis and his fine writing raise the bar for the "making of" film book. His narrative details the life of a modern legend - in this case, a historical event that sparked a novel that led to a film, each step revealing a different aspect of how we tell our stories and why.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).