Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reading & Watching The Searchers

I have a confession. I’m a John Wayne fan. I’m a sucker for movies like McLintock!, The Quiet Man, Blood Alley, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I even have Angel and the Badman on my iPod (yup watched it on that tiny screen on a bus trip once). I’ve even sat through part of The Conqueror, although Wayne as Genghis Kahn is pushing it, even for me. Suffice it to say, I have a soft spot for movies starring “The Duke”. Despite that lifelong fandom, from a young age one movie in particular has always stood out for me as being something more—bigger, richer, dirtier, edgier—a film that at twelve, I knew had depths that I wasn’t quite capable of grasping, yet if asked I would state without hesitation, that it was my favorite Western, and more importantly, my favorite John Wayne film; The Searchers.

I always knew I loved The Searchers, but it seemed like each year I saw it something else would jump out at me as to why it deserved my appreciation. At twelve, it was the revenge story of Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley hunting down the Indians who massacred their family, at fourteen it was the presence of Natalie Wood as Comanche captive Debbie Edwards (I was in a “Natalie Wood” stage, where I would watch anything and everything with her in it—whole other story), at twenty it was the love story between Martin Pawley and Laurie Jorgensen—how I railed against poor Charlie McCorry—and an appreciation of scope and beauty of John Ford’s film, so gritty, harsh, and beautiful. Now, past thirty, I appreciate the complexity of Wayne’s performance, the overlying themes of racism, women ruined by the taint of Indians, deep hatred, revenge, lost love, and the exclusion from companionship of those incapable of releasing the strongholds of those elements on their souls. I suspect that at age forty I will have even more discoveries to make about this brilliant film, one I consider to be the greatest Western ever made.

After those statements it is clear that it was with great excitement that I picked up Glenn Frankel’s new book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. This thoroughly fascinating book looks, not just at the film, but at the true history behind the story The Searchers is loosely related to, that of Cynthia Ann Parker, a nine year old girl abducted by Comanche’s in 1836 amidst the massacre of her family, and the subsequent years following her uncle’s search for her and the other captives, Cynthia Ann’s eventually recovery, and the life of her son, Quanah Parker, a man with historical standing of his own (as chronicled in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon). It also delves into Wayne’s rise in fame and his interesting relationship with director John Ford, the film’s reception, and follows-up with the descendants of each player within this expansive history. Frankel manages not to only delve into the making of an American film classic, but to also provide a rich, thoroughly researched history of Texas’s origins, white/Comanche relations, the rise of Comanche chief Quanah Parker, and a look at the history of American westward expansion. This completely readable and brutally honest account of America, spanning from the 1800’s to today, is absolutely compelling. As a fiction reader who typically only reads movie related non-fiction, I was blown away with how enthralled I was with the history behind this stunning film. Frankel writes with the precision of a thorough researcher, the panache of a journalist, the depth and caring of a biographer, and the soul of a film lover. He makes readers yearn to find a showing of The Searchers in a movie theater, and delve into their DVD collections in search of John Ford films such as How Green Was My Valley, or The Quiet Man in order to better view the incredible vision of this great director. His glimpse into the story of the Parker family even pushed me towards Empire of the Summer Moon, a book that typically would not even garner a glance from me. It takes master storyteller to convey so much in a book that is more history and criticism than exciting thrill ride.

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend will make you want to revisit history. It will drive readers toward a renewed or even brand new interest in the evolution of the American West and it will reintroduce the character of John Wayne—someone so much more than the Rooster Cogburn that is so indelibly etched into today’s movie watchers—showing them the lonely, tortured depths he was able to obtain as Ethan Edwards. These two, book and film, are perfect companions, a lovely blend of history and movie magic, created by virtuosos and should be read by every American history and film buff out there.

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