How did one girl's story become one of the most enduring legends of the American West?
That's the question at the heart of Glenn Frankel's new book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Bloomsbury USA). Frankel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and director of the University of Texas School of Journalism, investigates the true story that inspired John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers: the kidnapping of 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker by Comanche raiders on the Texas frontier in 1836. The book starts by providing a detailed history of the kidnapping and surrounding events, then takes the reader on a guided tour of the story's many retellings over the next century, including the many embellishments and exaggerations, guesswork and lies. At the end of the trail lies Ford's grim Western, starring John Wayne as a man obsessed with finding his kidnapped niece, a film that influenced a generation of American filmmakers.
Before it was a legend, Cynthia Ann's story was a tragedy. Abducted at the age of 9, she was raised as a Comanche, eventually marrying a Comanche warrior and bearing him three children. Twenty-four years later, having fully assimilated to her captors' culture and all but forgotten her origins, she was found and forcibly "rescued" along with her infant daughter, only to live out the remainder of her adult life in misery among whites whose ways were foreign to her. The details of her death are disputed, but it is probable that she died shortly after her young daughter succumbed to an epidemic, another casualty of America's westward expansion.
Frankel bases his account of the story on the Parker family's papers, located at UT's Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. However, the historical record is full of gaps and contradictions. From the beginning, Cynthia Ann's story seemed to lend itself to exaggeration, a process that started with those who were there when she was captured. "They were saying, 'There were hundreds of Indians there!' Well, maybe there were, but it doesn't seem likely. It could have been 10 Indians, nobody knows," explains Frankel a couple of weeks shy of the book's Feb. 19 publication date.
"So the ball gets rolling right then, and continues on. Each population and subgroup tells the story in a way that makes sense to them, and that explains their own actions, who they are. And gradually it becomes not just a simple story about a little girl in Texas – it becomes a sort of American legend about the settlement of the frontier."
Frankel first began looking into Cynthia Ann's story when he heard it mentioned in a documentary about The Searchers, one of his favorite films. Frankel fell in love with The Searchers in the fall of 1969, watching it in a film class at Columbia taught by Andrew Sarris, who was at the time a Village Voice film critic. "It was thrilling. It was just so beautiful, for one thing," he says.
The Searchers is, indeed, beautiful. The action unfolds against a Technicolor backdrop of hulking red mesas and brilliant blue skies in Monument Valley, where Ford made his most famous Westerns. Shot using VistaVision, a film format that produced widescreen shots with unusually sharp detail, the majestic landscapes almost seem bigger than the screen itself. Contrasted with domestic interiors that are symmetrical, neat, and filled with carefully choreographed activity, the irregular, jagged buttes appear haunted and desolate. In the famous final shot, Wayne's character stands at the threshold between these two worlds, framed in a doorway, but relegated firmly to the natural wasteland as the door closes, leaving him outside. This "visual poetry," as Frankel calls it, is part of what makes the film so appealing to film scholars and moviemakers.
Even more than the film's beauty, however, Frankel was attracted to its themes. "It's kind of, in the end, about love and hate," he explains. John Wayne plays Ethan, the kidnapped girl's uncle, who sets out to find her with the only other surviving member of the family, his adopted nephew. A rugged loner who can out-ride and out-track all the other men in the film, Ethan is also a virulent racist and Indian-hater. As his obsessive quest to find his niece stretches from months to years, the central question shifts from whether he will find her to what he will do if he does find her – restore her to her family or kill her, since by that time, he decides, she will be old enough to have been either raped or cajoled into sexual contact with the racial other. Wayne's character is alternately sympathetic and repellent, and Ford, with careful, restrained direction, avoids tipping his hand about which way the story will end.
Frankel attributes the movie's greatness to this ambiguity, the result of Ford's highly visual form of storytelling. Comparing the original screenplay to the finished version, Frankel sees evidence of Ford's restraint as a filmmaker. "Every time they're different, he's eliminating exposition and dialogue and explanation, and simply leaves you with the visual storytelling. And therefore it's more ambiguous, because you have to decide why they do this stuff. ... You have to decide. And that's the art of the film."
Frankel acknowledges that this openness means audiences will disagree about Ethan's character and intentions. "You might decide differently than I decide," Frankel says. "That's what raises it, in my way of thinking, from a very good movie to a great movie."
Some of the most important American directors from the first generation to attend film school would agree. Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Steven Spielberg are among those who testify to its formative influence, leading film critic Stuart Byron to proclaim in 1979 that "all recent American cinema derives from John Ford's The Searchers." In light of the vast influence those directors have had on subsequent filmmakers, there may still be some truth to Byron's decades-old observation.
If all American cinema derives from Ford's The Searchers, which derives itself from the 1836 kidnapping, poor Cynthia Ann has a lot to answer for. Given how many changes the story has undergone, it's worth asking whether there's anything left of the lost, scared little girl on the Western frontier in Ford's quintessentially macho film. After all, the movie, based on Alan Le May's novel of the same name, barely concerns the character of the kidnapped girl at all, focusing instead on the men who went to look for her, the "searchers."
Frankel still sees strong connections between the original story and the fictional film. "The one thing that pulled it all together in a lot of ways is gender, the way women are looked at. Because that's out there from the very beginning, in the way that polite society deals with [Cynthia Ann] while she's a 'white Comanche' they can't find, and then when she does return and she's so different from what they expected. And the way the Comanches deal with her, too. In The Searchers, this whole question of rape and honor killing all rises right up to the surface. It's no longer a psychological thing that they're not talking about – it's the heart of the movie. This uncle is out to get her back, but he's not planning to restore her to her family. He's going to kill her. And there's only one reason why."
Frankel points to the female characters who influence Ethan's final act of mercy, suggesting that even though they are rarely onscreen, the story is as much about their moral strength as it is about Ethan's physical strength. "I think of course the movie's about men, running around Monument Valley trying to find this little girl. But behind it all, and triumphing in the end, are the representatives of the women who want her to live."
Does Frankel's account lay Cynthia Ann Parker's ghost to rest? Or is he, like past generations, merely appropriating her tale for his own purposes?
"I would never pretend that this is the end of the story, or the tellings of it," Frankel says, shaking his head. "It's just one more, by somebody from 2013."
In the end, he admits, he's just another searcher.
Glenn Frankel will appear at BookPeople for a reading and booksigning on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 7pm.
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