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The Texas History Behind John Ford's 'The Searchers'

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John Ford's 1956 film "The Searchers" is one of the finest of the great director's career. And with its overtones of racism, it's also one of his most complicated. In the movie, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) goes on a years-long quest to find his niece, Debbie, who has been abducted by Comanche Indians. As the search drags on, his hatred for the Comanche intensifies, and by the time he finds Debbie (Natalie Wood), fully integrated into the Comanche Nation, he doesn't know whether to save her or kill her.

The film was based on a novel by Alan LeMay, who in turn based his book on the true-life story of Cynthia Ann Parker. As a nine-year-old girl, Parker was abducted by Comanche Indians from her prairie home in 1836 Texas.  She spent years among the Comanche, eventually marrying chief Peta Nocona, with whom she had three children--Prairie Flower, Pecos, and Quanah Parker. Meanwhile, family members, including her uncle, James Parker, spent years looking for her. Cynthia Ann Parker was eventually found and removed from the Comanche after the Battle of Pease River in 1860.

University of Texas professor Glenn Frankel's book, "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend," is more than the standard "behind the scenes" look at a film. His exhaustively researched book spends half of its pages recounting the history that inspired LeMay and Ford's "The Searchers."  It's essential reading for both film fans and Texas history buffs.

Frankel will appear at the Texas Book Festival in San Antonio this Saturday, at 2:15 p.m. at the Southwest School of Art's Ursuline campus.  For the interview below, he spoke to Nathan Cone from the studios of KUT in Austin.

  • Scroll to the bottom of the page to read an excerpt from the book.

Nathan Cone: When did you first see “The Searchers,” and what drew you to the film?

Glenn Frankel: I think the first time must have been when I was 10 or 12 years old. And I saw it on television in that sort of black and white, cut up version. Even then it seemed to stand out as fairly different than the average Cowboy and Indian movie that made it to Rochester, New York [ed: where Frankel grew up]. The first time it really had an impact on me was when I saw it at Columbia University several years later in a film course. On the big screen, in full VistaVision and color, it was so beautiful, and so powerful. The emotions that are displayed in “The Searchers” really affected me then, and still do. I think I’ve seen it 15 or 20 times, and I still sort of have tears in my eyes at several points. So it just made a personal connection with me. I know I’m not alone--it made a personal connection with some much more famous people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, when they saw it as young people. It had a formative impact on who they became, and they’ve been quoting from it ever since. But that’s where it started [for me] with the movie, just that emotional power.

And when did you take it from that “emotional power” to really wanting to find out the history of the story behind it, about Cynthia Ann Parker, and Alan LeMay’s novel, and how that was inspired by her own true story of abduction at the hands of the Comanche Indians here in Texas?

Well I knew nothing about any of that. When you grow up in Texas, and go to school there, Cynthia Ann is in the curriculum in public school. Well, it’s not on the curriculum in Rochester, New York! I thought I was starting off to do a kind of “making of the movie” kind of book.  I knew there would be a contextual chapter about captivity narratives, but I figured that would be it, and then I would go back to [writing about] the movie. But it didn’t take very long, once I started looking into both Alan LeMay’s novel and the film, to hear Cynthia Ann Parker’s name. Online it was pretty easy to find out who she was and some of the details. Then I found myself coming to Texas, and meeting with members of the heirs of her family that were still around, both the Comanche side and the Texan side. So very quickly the thing expanded from being a 'movie book' to being a book about America, and about the way we tell stories and the way the stories that we tell gradually take on this kind of mythic status.

"Very quickly the [project] expanded from being a movie book to being a book about America, and about the way we tell stories and the way the stories that we tell gradually take on this kind of mythic status."

Perhaps we can never know the full truth of what happened, but how did Cynthia Ann Parker’s story begin, and how was it modified and embellished over the decades?

Well, the basic story is pretty simple. A nine-year-old girl is with her extended family, they’ve settled in central Eastern Texas on a fortified farm, and one day in May of 1836, a group of Kiowa and Comanches come along and attack. Five people are killed, including her father and her grandfather, and five young people are captured, including Cynthia Ann. She spends 24 years with the Comanches, she marries a Comanche, she has three Comanche children, and then one day in December 1860, another group of raiders come to the village she’s living in, only this time it’s the U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers. And the people around her, the dear ones, are killed again. She and her little daughter Prairie Flower, a baby, are captured. It seems like [the soldiers are] about to kill her--she looks like a Comanche woman--but then they notice she has blue eyes, and so they take her back to Camp Cooper [in present-day Throckmorton County]. They figure out along the way this must be Cynthia Ann Parker. She’s already sort of a known mythic figure in Texas history. They get in touch with her family, and she’s returned to them. The only problem is of course that she’s become a Comanche. She doesn’t want to be back with the Texans. She doesn’t want to be embraced in Christendom. She wants to be back with the Comanche family, with her sons, with her husband, with her village. And so it becomes a very tragic tale for the second time. She’s a traumatized victim of the Comanche-Texan wars.

And in the meantime, people were looking for her.

Her uncle, James, who had been on the settlement, who escaped the 1836 attack, comes searching for her and the other four young people who’d been captured. And he manages over time to get the other four back, but he never [found] Cynthia Ann. He writes a narrative of his own account. And James is telling the story both to justify what he’s done and who he is. So immediately, right from the start with Cynthia Ann, you have people coming along, taking the basic story, embellishing it a bit, changing parts of it to fit their needs and their sensibility. In the same way, after this raid [where] the Texas Rangers and the Cavalry free her, people like “Sul” Ross, who was the Texas Ranger captain helping to lead that raid, described what happened, and his version of it changed over time. So everybody uses this basic simple tale and tells it the way they need to tell it, and gradually, it’s very hard to sort the fact from fiction. There are very few facts that really are reliable that we can count on. So my book becomes as much about the making of the myth, and how that happens over time, and how each generation comes along and re-tells this thing to fit their own needs and their own sensibility. And what starts as a simple story, becomes the basic Texas foundational myth.

What is it about the captivity story that so captures the public’s imagination? It’s a narrative that can be told over and over again, in different settings. What is it that people in the 1800s were latching onto with this captivity story and captivity myth?

The same thing that people who were coming to America had been doing with it since really the 17th century. The first American bestseller was by Mary Rowlandson in 1682, writing about her captivity by Narragansett Indians in New England. There’s something about being in this land and having the ‘other’ savages, these people, these natural, scary, people, come and take you, take your family, take your wife, take your children, and haul them off into the wilderness. It’s scary, and it’s a little bit sexy. It raises all of these difficult issues. At the same time, besides all of this sort of personal and psychological tension involved, it becomes a sort of justification for the conquest of the West. Because if these Natives are going to come forward and steal our women and children, then we have the right to conquer them, we have the right to tame them. So it’s part of the imperial narrative too. It serves both purposes.

Credit ©Warner Home Video
©Warner Home Video
Henry Brandon as "Scar" in "The Searchers."

An important part of all this is the question of sex with the Indians. What happens to these women when they’re taken off? They’re forced to have sex with Indians. Either willingly, unwillingly, it doesn’t matter. It becomes known as a “fate worse than death,” the idea that you would be forced into this position. So there are these psychological, psychosexual tensions involved, there are these imperial notions, and Americans continue to tell these stories. Around the time Cynthia Ann was kidnapped in 1836, if you look at the bestseller list, three of the four top bestsellers in America are James Fenimore Cooper novels, all of which have captivity themes. And then the fourth one was a non-fiction book about Mary Jamison, a woman who was captured by Seneca Indians in upstate New York in the 18th century. So this is something that continues on into Texas. And really throughout our history, [the captivity narrative] has been an important genre.

In many of our contemporary narratives that involve Native Americans, they’re portrayed now as very noble people, like in “Dances With Wolves,” or Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” Back in the 1950s, when the novel and film of "The Searchers" came out, it wasn’t uncommon for Native American tribes to be depicted as exceedingly violent toward the white man, and it had been that way for quite some time. But it seems that based on history, there really was quite a lot of--at least with the Comanche tribe--scariness. Talk about the reality of the Comanche versus the fictional depictions in book and film.

Well Comanches were nomadic warriors on the limestone plains of north Texas. It was  a tough place to make a living. Their birthrate was low, their resources were scarce. They became wonderful horsemen, maybe the best horsemen of all Native American groupings. They had huge horse herds, which were labor intensive, so they needed outsiders. They could be enormously kind and generous to each other, but they could be very cruel to outsiders because of this warrior culture. But you have to put it in context, both of what they were up against and that they became involved in a 40-year protracted war with Texans, really the longest war fought on American soil. And this was a real clash of civilizations. These two cultures shared nothing in common. It was also an intimate war. Some wars, it’s two armies fighting against each other, and if civilians get killed, that’s collateral damage. Well, in the Texan-Comanche wars, the families--in essence--were the targets. Each side wanted to wipe out the other side, to wipe out its culture, to wipe out its family. It becomes a very intimate war in that sense. There are no drones, you’re killing the person you’re fighting, looking them in the face as you kill him or her, or abduct their family. It’s a horrifying event in many ways, and it brings out incredible cruelty on both sides, I would argue.

Let’s move forward into how the narratives of these stories were recounted. How did Alan LeMay (the author of "The Searchers") get into writing Westerns, and decide to adapt this story into a novel?

I was very happy that I was able to write about Alan LeMay. He’s kind of an overlooked figure. There isn’t even a photo of him on the Internet anywhere. I went and found 23 boxes of his files at the UCLA archives, [and] I met his son Dan, who was very helpful. Alan began as a novelist out to make money, and he saw Westerns as a pretty lucrative way to cash in. He wrote a lot of short stories, and then he [went] to Hollywood, because he figured there’s even more money to be made there, and he became a sort of itinerant screenwriter. He’s making a ‘B’ Western in the Texas panhandle when he hears this story about Cynthia Ann Parker and her Comanche son, Quanah. He journeys to East Texas and meets members of the Parker family--but he’s really interested in the uncle [James Parker], more than he is the captive. He’s interested in the impact of the family that’s left behind, if you will. That’s where his focus is, and so he creates these two wonderful searchers. One is an uncle--in the book he’s called Amos Edwards, modeled a bit on James Parker. [Amos is] an Indian hater, an Indian fighter, and yet someone who knows Indian lore and who the Comanches are. And then there's another fictional character, an adopted younger brother he calls Mart Pauley, and these two guys search in the novel for seven years, and it really focuses on this quest--and the quest is another great literary genre or theme. It goes back to “The Odyssey.” And so they’re on a quest to find this little girl, and it takes them through the dying days of Comanche power. It’s a wonderful novel. Kind of grim, but beautifully written.

Credit ©Warner Home Video
©Warner Home Video
Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne in "The Searchers."

In the picture, "Amos" has become Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, and in the   movie, he really hates the Comanche. There’s a lot of critical writing since “The Searchers” came out that explicitly talks about Ethan's racial hatred of the Comanche. What are the differences between James Parker, the uncle of Cynthia Ann Parker, Amos Edwards in the novel, and the way it eventually became Ethan Edwards, which is really the role of John Wayne’s career?

Yes, I agree with you, it really is an amazing role. Anyone that thinks that John Wayne wasn’t an actor, I would ask you to watch “The Searchers” and then see if you still have the same opinion. Well, it begins with James Parker, who is sort of a devout religious person, but at the same time, turns out to be kind of a heavy drinker. He’s a bit of an outlaw. He says he knows Indian lore, but he’s very unsuccessful [in his quest], and the narrative he leaves behind is very self-pitying. We move on to the novel and the film, and what the film does is take this man and raises him to the surface. He becomes the most powerful figure in the movie, because he's played by John Wayne, but he’s a very dark figure. What happens over the course of the movie that’s so fascinating is that he starts out trying to rescue his nine-year-old niece, but as time goes on, she grows from being a little girl, to being a young woman over the seven years, and she becomes a Comanche wife. And so she has had sex with the Indians, willingly or not. And so his quest over time changes. As time goes on, and she’s been ‘polluted’ in this way, he decides he’s going to kill her. And that becomes the narrative tension that drives the movie forward. What’s going to happen when Uncle Ethan finally catches up with this little girl? John Wayne does a beautiful job of capturing all the conflict that’s going on within Ethan Edwards as to what to do. On one level, he’s sure he has to do this terrible deed. He becomes this dark knight, who rather than rescue the damsel, decides he’s going to kill the damsel. At the same time, he’s still John Wayne! He’s very charismatic--we want him to succeed--but at the same time, we recoil from his mission. It’s that tension that really drives the movie forward.

John Ford, who directed the film, was notoriously tight-lipped about the deeper themes in this films. There’s a famous interview with Peter Bogdanovich that I’ve seen a few times where he’s basically saying “no comment” to every question Bogdanovich asks of him about the themes in his films. How do you think he approached “The Searchers,” why did his Westerns get darker over time, and did he ever drop any hints that you found about the deeper meaning of any of his films, especially “The Searchers?”

Oh, he recoiled from talking about deeper meaning. When I think of who I would love to have interviewed, I’d loved to have interviewed John Wayne, he was such a generous guy and a lot of fun to talk to. Ford, I’m not so sure, because as you say he could be pretty withering, even to Peter Bogdanovich, who he liked a lot. He did tell Bogdanovich that “The Searchers” was a “psychological epic.” He didn’t define what he meant by that, of course, he left it hanging there. Ford, by the time he makes “The Searchers,” is in his early sixties. This is the work of an older, mature man. He’s had physical health problems, he’s a lifelong alcoholic, and he’s wrestling with that. His vision gets darker and more complex. So “The Searchers” I would argue is his ultimate Western. He’s very good at giving us all the iconic themes of the Western. He helped invent them, after all! The lone man, the iconic hero on horseback, who using gun violence tames the West, whether it’s killing the bad guys, or killing the barbarian Native Americans. All that’s there, and it’s a piece of its time. There are racist connotations to all of that.

But at the same time he’s giving you the hero, he’s also undermining the meaning of it, because this is a hero who does some terrible things. He shoots the eyes out of one Indian corpse, he scalps an Indian corpse, he shouts down a funeral service for the victims of an Indian raid so he can get on with his vengeance and move on, and he’s going to kill his young niece, because she’s had sex with Indians. And so Ford is giving you the racism, and yet at the same time he’s undermining it. That’s the power of “The Searchers,” and it’s a mature work of a man who really is comfortable with ambiguity. You’re right, we don’t have many notes from Ford, and he certainly didn’t articulate much of this, but when you read the final shooting script of the film, and then you see what Ford actually shot, what actually is in the movie, you see him making a lot of interesting choices to eliminate dialogue, to eliminate exposition. The characters aren’t explaining themselves verbally as to why they do the things they do. Instead he’s telling it visually... and you have to make up your own mind as to why the uncle does what he does during the movie, and how it ends, and what it means. You have to decide, and that’s the kind of ambiguity that I would argue raises “The Searchers” from a pretty good Cowboys and Indians movie to something much more approaching cinematic art.

As I watched the John Ford films, and the way Indians are depicted in his films over time, I began to wonder what Ford’s feelings were about Native Americans, and our relationship and legacy with them. Then I read in your book about how he was presented with a sacred deerskin by the Navajo on the set of “The Searchers,” and he considered that to be a higher honor than even winning his four Oscars. That was really telling, I think.

Yeah, I agree, and he really meant it. I talked to Harry Carey, Jr., who was a supporting actor in the movie, and I asked, “Did this mean a lot to Ford?” and he said “Oh yeah, this was real.” Ford was really smitten by this. He treated the Navajo in Monument Valley, where he shot these films, very paternalistically. He made sure they got paid, and they got fed. They were happy to have him come out there, because it meant work of course, but it was very much a paternalistic relationship, of almost the Great White Father handing gifts to his native subjects. Ford was a man of his time. It’s pointless to say that there wasn’t some racism involved, that there wasn’t paternalism. That’s just the way that people were [back then]. But he had this beautiful way of being able to sort of give you that, and at the same time, he knew there was more to it. He killed a lot of Native Americans in his Westerns. They’re not treated so well in “The Searchers.” The Comanches are largely killers and rapists [in the film], for that matter. But eventually he makes his final Monument Valley western, “Cheyenne Autumn,” which is a mea culpa, if you will. It’s much more told form the Native American point of view, and it’s fascinating to see. I would not put “The Searchers” in that category. “The Searchers” is much rougher on Native Americans. And Ford both appreciated who they were, he had a great respect and admiration for the Navajo who worked with him...at the same time, he used Indians as the sort of evil ‘other’ at times, in order to fit the stories that he was telling.

Credit National Archives
Quanah Parker, 1892.

Finally, I think that it’s pretty amazing that this horrible event happened in 1836, and as you write in the book, just before “The Searchers” was written as a novel and released as a film, after all these years of history had gone by, there was a meeting between the Parker families and the Comanche descendants of Cynthia Ann’s son, Quanah Parker. Now over the years, they’ve come to where they have family reunions, and they even attend each other’s family events as you write in the book. That’s really pretty amazing.

It’s a great American story. Early on I got to go to one of the Comanche family reunions in 2008, and they were so generous and welcoming, and they held pow-wows, they did various things at a place called the Star House, which was Quanah Parker’s home, and is still standing in Cache, Oklahoma. Right away you could see form their point of view how much they venerated their ancestors, both Quanah and Cynthia Ann. And then they go to the Texas reunion a couple of weeks later, and you’re right, there were emissaries back and forth. They trade a silver bowl every year... they share these ancestors, and they share this story, and they tell it slightly differently, but nonetheless they know that this is what grounds them and their family in American history. I’ve gone back three times to reunions since then. It really becomes a contemporary event with meaning to this day, because how was America built after all? Out of this terrible war, out of these terrible struggles, and yet today we are one nation. We have a president who comes from two different backgrounds in the same way the Parkers have one foot in the Comanche world and one foot in the Texan or the white world. That kind of blend is what America is all about, and I find it to be very resonant about who we are, and how we got here.

Glenn Frankel was a longtime Washington Post reporter, and won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Israeli-Palestinan conflict. He's the director of the School of Journalism at UT-Austin, and the author of "The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend."

Below: A scene from "The Searchers" that exemplifies Ethan Edwards' hatred of the Comanche.

Read An Excerpt:

Reprinted from "The Searchers" by Glenn Frankel. Copyright © 2013 by Glenn Frankel. Used by permission of Bloomsbury USA.